Obituary: Bob Payton
Friday 15 July 1994
IT IS particularly telling that the different news-agency reports of Bob Payton's death in a car-crash on Wednesday offer different places of birth: New York, Chicago, Miami. For my own part, after having seen him insist a young waiter return his tipple of choice, Diet Coke, to the kitchen and decant it from a glass into his favourite University of North Carolina mug, I had thought he was from Durham.
Where the media, print and catering world was concerned, it didn't really seem to matter. We were content to see our highest- profile fast-food baron as simply American. This also happened to suit Bob Payton, who not only fitted the loud, literal and litigious stereotype, he helped invent it.
He was an immense man who stood 6ft 4in and spoke in a warm, booming voice. If he saw something he liked, his instinct was to market it. Hence, in 1977 he brought deep-dish pizzas to London with the first of his Chicago Pizza Pie Factories, off St James's. This was followed by a series of equally bold and simple theme restaurants: Rib Shacks, Chicago Meatpackers, Henry J. Bean's and (a rare failure) a fish restaurant called Payton Place.
Chicago is the best guess at his birthplace. It certainly became his most effective marketing tool. He gave his company the back-slapping, ol' boy name My Kinda Town, and published no fewer than 12 editions of his personalised restaurant directory, the Chicagoan Guide to London.
But Bob Payton was no Chicagoan. As Peter Webber, his long- time colleague in My Kinda Town, says with affection and admiration: 'Bob always wanted to be all things to all people. In fact, he was a working-class Jewish kid from Miami.' His parents, of Russian extraction, were nicknamed Boogie and Pal.
As with his birthplace, few knew about his Jewishness. However, according to Webber, it was not a deliberate secret. One of Payton's favourite anecdotes would be to quote his mother saying, 'One son is a lawyer, the other lives in Europe.' Moreover, the the first pizza restaurant had a mezuzah on the office door, and was shut on Yom Kippur. Later convinced to open it during religous holidays, he insisted that the takings go to charity.
From Miami, he took a Bachelor's Degree at a Wasp bastion, the University of North Carolina, followed by a Masters Degree in marketing at Northwestern University in Chicago. It was the Chicago office of the advertising agency J. Walter Thompson that sent him to London to promote Kraft products, such as Thousand Island Dressing.
Cycling around London sold Payton on Britain: he marvelled that in four years he never locked his bike, and it was never stolen. When he returned to the US, and saw an armed security man guarding a record shop, he never wanted to leave Britain.
So, from 1977, Payton wove an imaginary America: one of cowboys and rough food. He became the rent-a-Yank in Bermuda shorts standing over the barbecue for any number of television and radio appearances. And, as unlikely as it was touching, he transformed himself into an English country squire, buying shirts from Jermyn Street and riding with the Cottesmore Hunt.
Risking critical derision (which he famously responded to with lawyer's letters), in 1988 he bought a Grade 1 listed 16th-century pile called Stapleford Park, near Melton Mowbray in Leicestershire. He then poured hundreds of thousands of pounds into its restoration, hiring Wedgwood, Turnbull & Asser, Crabtree & Evelyn to decorate its rooms. But where Payton respected the expert's taste, he also indulged his own. So guests would also find a papier-mache statue of himself and his dogs, the beloved schnauzer even painted into frescos.
He was bruised by the critical reviews of Stapleford, and frustrated by his inability to retain a chef of any calibre. However, he bounced back with a deal with Rocco Forte, in which he refurbished the Criterion Brasserie in Piccadilly. By late last year, it was all change. He had separated from his wife, become a mere shareholder in My Kinda Town (valued at pounds 33m when it went public five weeks ago), put Stapleford on the market and was planning a series of chicken restaurants. That is, when he was not filming a new television series in praise of American food, or cajoling a top British chef to open a chain of fish-and- chip shops in the States.
Engraved in the stonework of Stapleford is the inscription 'William Lord Sherard, Baron of Letrym, repayred this building, Anno Domini, 1633' to which Mr Payton added what now reads like an oddly poetic epitaph: 'And Bob Payton did his bit. Anno Domini 1988.'
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