Obituary: Bob Payton

Robert Michael Payton, restaurateur and hotelier: born Miami, Florida 25 May 1944; married 1987 Wendy Becker; died Stevenage, Hertfordshire 13 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.'

(Photograph omitted)

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: HR and Payroll Manager

£35000 - £38000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This dynamic outsourced contact...

Recruitment Genius: Production & Quality Control Assistant

£19000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An excellent opportunity for a ...

Ashdown Group: Group HR Advisor - Kettering - £32,000

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Group HR Advisor with an established...

Guru Careers: HR Manager / HR Generalist

£40 - 50k (DOE) + Bonus: Guru Careers: We are seeking a HR Manager / HR Genera...

Day In a Page

Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

How to make your own Easter egg

Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

Cricket World Cup 2015

Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing