The founder and CEO of Texas Roadhouse caught COVID. 4 months later, he died by suicide. Family and colleagues detail his final days and legacy
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The December before Kent Taylor died, the Texas Roadhouse founder started handing out copies of The Book of Joy to family, friends, and employees. Taylor, an avid reader, was known for giving away his favorite tomes—often including a personal note inside.
The book, an accounting of a weeklong dialogue between the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, was a departure for the restaurant entrepreneur. He’d mostly leaned toward leadership and management classics—Built to Last, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People—that he had read for inspiration as he built his company into an enterprise valued at more than $5 billion.
But Taylor had been feeling more introspective of late. In November 2020 he had contracted COVID and since then had suffered from severe tinnitus, a condition in which the brain responds to hearing loss by generating sounds to compensate for the ones the ear is no longer processing. The tinnitus had progressively worsened to the point that it sounded like “a jet airplane taking off in your ear 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” says his son, Max Taylor. Kent had turned to the book—a meditation on how to find joy—when he’d been at what appeared to be the pinnacle of his suffering. “It was helpful for him, through his pain, to read about how you can be happy,” Max says.
Few people knew about Taylor’s struggle post-COVID. He’d kept his ordeal close, telling only his inner circle. He wasn’t one to dwell on setbacks, and he went about tackling his tinnitus with his signature doggedness—consulting with specialists around the world, visiting the best doctors, even funding research on the little-understood condition. He was a fighter, and those few who knew expected he’d find a way to beat it, just as he had every other challenge that had arisen in his life.
They were wrong. On March 18, 2021, Taylor killed himself at his farm outside Louisville, Ky. He was 65 years old.
“Nine months in, I still try not to go down that rabbit hole of trying to figure it out. How did I not know?” says Shelly McGowen, his executive assistant of 16 years. “Because he didn’t want me to know. He didn’t want any of us to know.”
It should have been a celebratory time. While the pandemic devastated the restaurant sector, Roadhouse had come through the worst of it even stronger than before—thanks in large part to Taylor’s leadership. He was preparing to take a step back, planning to spend more time with Max and his two daughters and grandchildren. A book he had written detailing how he’d built one of the most innovative concepts in the industry was due to hit shelves in just a few months.
Instead, the company suddenly found itself wrestling with how to go on after the loss of an iconoclastic founder who was so intertwined with its very identity. “It couldn’t cripple me, it couldn’t cripple this company,” says Jerry Morgan, who’d been named president in 2020 and stepped into the CEO role after Taylor’s death. “We would have not served him right to let it do that.” There would be a memorial service and the establishment of an annual founder’s day, a statue, and a museum. But still somehow the work needed to get done: 630 restaurants around the globe that needed to open every day at 4 p.m. “I turn that over in my head—how much of it is healthy that we pay tribute, and how much of it is we have to move on?” says former COO Steve Ortiz, a close friend and Roadhouse franchisee.
It’s true: Taylor would have been embarrassed by all the fuss. A closet introvert who adopted a larger-than-life persona to perform the role of CEO had never wanted to be put on a pedestal when he was alive either. He’d dress up in “Willie braids,” yarn sewn into a bandanna, à la his poker buddy Willie Nelson, and hand them out like his calling card—the type of antics that masked his extraordinary discipline. Corporate titles and hierarchy irritated him, and he’d battled to keep the trappings of both out of his company as it got bigger. There was no executive parking at the Louisville headquarters, no pulling rank. Taylor waited an hour for a table at Roadhouse on a busy Saturday just like everyone else.
Taylor had always kept a low profile, and, like most people, I knew little about him when I saw his obituary in March. It read like a microcosm of the pain COVID has inflicted, sparing no one. But what I discovered in Taylor and his company is much more than a story of loss. There are lessons to be learned from the founder and the success he discovered in stubbornly insisting on following his own path. In Roadhouse, there’s a case study in the power of perseverance and moving forward through grief. What I found is a sad story, yes, but also one of hope, and even, as Taylor’s literary inspiration suggests, of joy.
Failure is part of the Roadhouse mythology. Taylor, who’d spent years as a restaurant manager, got turned down by more than 100 investors before three local cardiologists decided to back him to start his own. The first Texas Roadhouse opened in Clarksville, Ind., in 1993. Within six years, the young steak house chain had to close three of its first five restaurants owing to bad site selection. Taylor kept mementos from each of those duds in his office—two mounted fish and a cow skull—and for the rest of his life, he personally visited and approved every location. For Taylor, the humility to learn from mistakes was key. Even at its most successful, he never wanted the company to behave as though it had arrived.
Taylor got his earliest employees to take a chance on him and Roadhouse with its partnership model. Store managers are required to pay $25,000 upfront and sign a five-year contract, but they then get 10% of the restaurant’s bottom line on top of their salary. The structure was created partly out of necessity—Taylor needed the money—but it also attracts entrepreneurs. “It permeates through all parts of the organization where people have that mentality that ‘I own this, we own this,’ ” says Ortiz, who met Taylor when they both worked for Bennigan’s in Denver. The model even led to better food. The low staff turnover meant the restaurants could take on more complex menu items like bread baked from scratch or ribs that took three days to cook.
Texas Roadhouse would land where people drove trucks, listened to country music, and opted for Budweiser over Heineken, says Ortiz: “There was no doubt or gray area about who we were. Kent never let us get off focus.” When the company put catfish on the menu, a new hire suggested it would look cooler as one big piece rather than four smaller ones. Taylor’s immediate reaction: You can’t pick up a whole fish with your hands. He knew Roadhouse customers would want to get in there with their fingers.
Taylor could be fanatical. In a dull hotel room, he’d put a tapestry on the wall, change the light bulbs, and set up a speaker. At the restaurants, he’d personally move an animal head a quarter of an inch down the wall. In the early days of Roadhouse when Gina Tobin, now chief learning and culture officer, was running the company’s first Louisville location, Taylor would come by on Sundays for dinner with his family. On his way out, he’d slip her a piece of paper that rated every component of the experience with a smiley or sad face—steak, sides, servers, atmosphere, etc.
He wanted nothing to do with legal and HR. Those departments represented rules and telling people no—things he hated. “ ‘Corporate’ was like the dirty word of Texas Roadhouse,” says Celia Catlett, the company’s former general counsel. In its 17-year history as a public company, Roadhouse has held only a single analyst day. Taylor took off three months each year to go skiing, and once he left his succession plan on chairman Greg Moore’s voicemail, just in case his heli-skiing trip went awry. One of his mottoes was, “Honey badger don’t give a shit,” a reference to the viral video where the uninhibited creature takes on venomous snakes and plunges into hives of stinging bees; Taylor kept a taxidermic honey badger in his office just to make sure you got the point.
Even in 2019 when Taylor decided to write his own business book—a very CEO thing to do—he went about it in a very un-CEO way. He wrote by hand, texting photos of each page to his editors (often out of order, and in the middle of the night). He wanted it to sound like him. “I’d say, ‘Kent, I think you’re overusing ‘Kiss my grits,’ ” editor Adrian Gostick told me. “But he would say, ‘That’s how I talk.’ ” Taylor refused to include an index. If someone wanted to know if they were in the book, he’d tell them they’d have to read the “whole effing thing.”
In late February 2020, Taylor hit the slopes with some of his buddies for their annual ski trip. The timing couldn’t have been better for a vacation. Roadhouse was zipping along, on track to net its most successful year on record. Average weekly sales per restaurant were $105,000, up 4.5% over the previous year. And while the rest of the casual dining industry—think Applebee’s and Olive Garden—was struggling, traffic kept jumping at Roadhouse. It was by far the best performer in the sector.
In the haven of the Austrian Alps, where the local news was in German, Taylor had been blissfully unaware of the early reports of COVID. But his return to the office, on March 9, put an end to that. As the pandemic gathered force, average weekly sales plummeted to $29,000 per restaurant, the lowest in Roadhouse’s history. The company was burning through $5 million in cash a week—reminiscent of the early days when Taylor often had to skip cashing his own check to make payroll. Now he gave up his salary to cover bonuses for his restaurant workers, and threw in another $5 million for the company’s employee assistance fund; a chunk of 2020 bonuses came out of his own pocket. The few who knew about it were instructed to keep their mouths shut.
As the management team struggled to operate with little or changing intel, Taylor established a process for making decisions. All issues would be thoroughly debated but decided within 24 hours. It paid off when it came to PPE. Most executives were convinced that masked employees would panic customers. But Taylor was in touch with the team in Taiwan, where the company has four restaurants, and argued that diners would soon be alarmed by servers who went without them. The sourcing team ultimately loaded up on masks, avoiding the shortages that would come soon after.
Taylor had always insisted that the Roadhouse vibe—toe-tapping country music, the peanut shells on the floor—could not be wrapped up in a sad, soggy to-go box. The company refused to do delivery, and its pickup business, at 7% of total sales, was the lowest in the industry. But with COVID shutting down the party, it was time to reevaluate. How could they do takeout the Roadhouse way?
Taylor started calling up his “crazies”—his fond label for the operators he considered out-of-the-box thinkers. At any other company, they would have been branded troublemakers, much like Taylor had always been before he became his own boss.
One of the craziest was Neal Niklaus, who had been with the company for 26 years and now oversaw 123 restaurants. He’d joined Roadhouse after more than a decade working at a now-defunct U.S. Mexican-food chain called Chi-Chi’s. Niklaus had come up with the idea to try line dancing in one of his restaurants while on a Disney cruise when everyone hit the floor with Minnie, Mickey, and Donald to “Cotton Eye Joe.” When his store’s weekly sales jumped $5,000, Taylor called him up to find out how he’d done it. Soon every Roadie knew how to step-touch and grapevine.
Now, the crazier the idea the better, and Niklaus delivered. After an employee asked him if he could buy a can of green beans from the restaurant since the supermarket shelves were empty, Niklaus decided to sell off some of his languishing inventory. He did think one of the restaurants might have taken it too far when customers started buying raw steaks. Niklaus called up the boss with a mea culpa, but Taylor gave him only a sure, why not? Two of Niklaus’s managers set daily sales records when they partnered with a local produce company to create a makeshift farmers’ market. After Niklaus reported that some customers were tailgating outside the restaurants, Taylor told everyone to set up picnic tables and have a party in the parking lot.
Taylor was often at his best during a crisis, and that one-year period ended up transforming Roadhouse. The company jumped into e-commerce, launching an online butcher shop to compete with Omaha Steaks. With no sports to stream on its TVs, Roadhouse rolled out a country music video station. The real estate team bought storage pods, wrapped them in plastic printed with the Roadhouse logo, and used them as to-go hubs; pickup now makes up a fifth of the business—the biggest leap in volume among any of its competitors during COVID. When the company reported its earnings last quarter, overall sales came in at 20% over pre-pandemic levels.
Taylor never seemed like he was afraid of much in life, but he’d been terrified of getting COVID. In the early months of the pandemic, he decamped to his farm and would show up double masked and gloved when the leadership team started convening again in person. With so many Roadies relying on him, he couldn’t afford to get sick. Taylor had always been a bit of a germophobe anyway—if you had to clear your throat or cough, you didn’t do it in front of him.
So when Taylor came down with COVID in November 2020, no one could figure out quite how it happened. “I was kind of shocked,” McGowen told me. “I’m like, How in the world?” The case had been a relatively mild one, but soon after the tinnitus had taken hold.
Tinnitus is a lonely condition. Hubert Lim, a professor specializing in tinnitus at the University of Minnesota Medical School, explained that it is almost like a phantom limb. Since no one else can hear the buzzing, it’s hard to assess. The type of debilitating tinnitus Taylor suffered from is the most severe kind, which afflicts about 1% of the population and can lead to serious challenges sleeping. Taylor’s dad, Powell, told me his son camouflaged the pain for months, not wanting anyone to feel sorry for him.
There’s currently no cure for tinnitus, but Max said his dad had spent every waking hour trying to find one. Taylor reached out to Lim after reading about his research and hearing him on a podcast, and ended up donating $500,000 to his research. Lim told me that there’s been an increase in reported cases of tinnitus during the pandemic, but it’s too early to know if COVID or vaccines are playing a role. There are too many other confounding factors that have emerged in the past two years: stress, isolation, quieter environments.
Taylor took his annual Christmas trip to Florida in December 2020 to spend the holiday with his parents and ended up staying for a few months when he found that altitude made it too painful to fly. There would be no skiing that year, no caffeine (it triggered his tinnitus), no listening to his beloved Rolling Stones.
Ortiz, the former COO, flew down to Florida in early March to take a weeklong boat trip with Taylor and some others. He was struck by how much his friend had aged. Taylor told him he hadn’t been sleeping more than three hours at a stretch. But he also seemed like a man planning for his future. He had just bought the boat and a house down in Naples, Fla. Every day on the trip, Taylor loosened up and seemed like he was doing better.
Right after Ortiz’s visit, Taylor traveled to Ireland to try an experimental treatment, which immediately seemed to improve the ringing in one of his ears. He left Ortiz a voicemail saying the trip had gone well, and he was optimistic. He even told Moore, now Roadhouse chairman, he was thinking about going skiing.
But in mid-March, back in Louisville, Taylor went to get his COVID vaccine and the tinnitus came roaring back. Two days later he left work, drove out to the farm, and shot himself. One of Taylor’s friends said he’d never liked guns, but he’d bought one after Roadhouse, a law enforcement booster, had received threats during the Louisville protests over the police killing of Breonna Taylor. Powell Taylor told me that his son left notes for all the important people in his life. “He thought he could plow through that the same as he did everything else,” Powell said, “and he just met his match.”
I traveled down to Louisville almost exactly nine months to the day after Taylor died. At the support center, people were still finding their own personal ways to mourn. Chief learning and culture officer Tobin, who’d worked at Roadhouse for a quarter-century, kept a guitar trinket in her pocket. It was inscribed with one of Taylor’s catchphrases—Rock on!—and she would rub it every now and then for inspiration.
Taylor’s closest confidants struggled with how to handle the more public memorials. At the company’s second Louisville store, employees set up a candle and photo in the entryway. Travis Doster, VP of communications and public affairs, stopped going there for a while. He thought the makeshift shrine would have driven Taylor crazy, but he didn’t want to tell the staff to take it down. At headquarters, a massive banner with Taylor’s photo now decorated the side of the building. “He would have hated that,” said McGowen, his longtime assistant.
He thought he could plow through the same way he did everything else—and he just met his match.Powell Taylor, Kent’s father
Any sort of lionizing had always made Taylor uncomfortable. He was really an introvert, brilliant but socially awkward. Ortiz told me he probably would have preferred someone else be the face of it all. Taylor had gotten around his discomfort with the spotlight by creating an alter ego of sorts: Bubba, a boisterous character he played when he had to get up onstage. The costumes and wigs he wore were a strategy for taking on a role he felt some uneasiness playing. Even the cowboy hat and jeans he put on when he was in CEO mode were part of the performance. “I’ve been out with him a thousand times. Never did he wear a cowboy hat. He didn’t even listen to country music,” said Ortiz.
The people Taylor connected with the most were the least likely to idolize him. Everyone I talked to in Taylor’s inner circle, those who had really known the man behind the costumes, had one thing in common—they had challenged him. “I got to be where I was very honest with him,” said McGowen. “He liked it when people pushed back on him—and not many people did.”
McGowen had been Taylor’s assistant since 2005 and effectively ran his life. “In your admin career, you always have that one,” she explained. “Well, he was my one.” The two would tediously go over the day planner he carried around in his back pocket, and she kept him stocked in his signature blue erasable pens and graph paper. But she had also been at the hospital when his grandchildren were born and helped plan his daughters’ weddings. Like a lot of the people I spoke to, she had been a fierce protector of Taylor and his family. “I still am,” she told me—a friendly warning.
He liked it when people pushed back on him—and not many people did.Shelly McGowen, Taylor’s executive assistant of 16 years
McGowen, Doster, and I talked in Taylor’s office surrounded by fake plants—his preferred variety. “I would go to Home Depot and buy them out,” McGowen said. On the bookshelves sat the same photos of his kids and grandchildren that he also displayed in his three homes.
When Taylor had given up his salary, McGowen asked him if he was going to be okay financially. “I don’t think I really grasped his wealth,” she says. “He was so normal to me.” When he bought his last car—he always drove Chevy Suburbans—it was the first time she’d been able to talk him into buying new rather than used. It was always so full of junk that she’d called it the rolling trash can.
Taylor had relocated to this office just a few months before the pandemic, making the move so that McGowen could have a window by her desk. It was still hard for her to go inside his house at the farm, but she hadn’t yet become attached to this space. “This doesn’t smell like him,” she said. When his kids were ready, they would take the last of his personal effects, and the office would go to some other use. Taylor would not have wanted his Roadies to turn it into a shrine.
Doster and McGowen were the last two people who saw Taylor on the day he died, and the first to find out about what had happened. McGowen thinks he planned it that way. “He knew we’d protect him at all costs,” she said. They made sure the family knew before the news got out. “Looking back,” Doster told me, “he trained us to know what to do and how to do it.”
On the day that he died, Taylor left an envelope in his desk that contained his wishes. The contents included a scrap of lined paper where he’d simply scrawled: Jerry Morgan, CEO, March 18, 2021. McGowen framed the note for Morgan, who keeps it on display in his office—a reminder of the weight of the job.
Up until then, Morgan had anticipated a very different kind of transition. He’d been one of Taylor’s crazies, running more than 120 restaurants in 14 states, when Taylor tapped him as president in December 2020. There was no timeline for Taylor’s retirement, no promises made—and Morgan was okay with that. “Kent could have never been completely out of it,” Morgan says. Doster had tried to help the pair prepare, assigning them reading from My Father’s Business, which chronicles the generational CEO handoff at Dollar General. But everyone knew Taylor would always have some hand in the company.
Morgan had been more primed for that scenario—and telling Taylor to stay out of his business—than the one he found himself in now. He’d like to be able to pick up the phone, something he felt acutely when he made the call to cancel the company’s annual conference in August because of COVID concerns. He found some solace in knowing what Taylor would have said: Don’t be the flat squirrel—the one that runs out into the road, is indecisive, and gets run over. It had never been Taylor’s style anyway to tell people what to do. He preferred to train people how to think. “Get inside my head,” he would say.
Morgan has been with the company for 25 years and made a name for himself as an operator. Every day as a restaurant manager he would spend two hours weighing all the steaks he would serve that night and tasting every menu item. “I was just nutty about it,” he says. He’s a details guy, like Taylor, but more of a people person and less into the gimmicks. He can’t stand “a line dance gone bad” when only three or four people are on the floor. “If you’re going to go half-assed,” he says, “then don’t do it.” Morgan, who if he’d been 40 pounds heavier and four inches taller might have continued his football career past high school, has a tendency to sound less like a CEO than a head coach—which he prefers to call himself anyway.
Now, Morgan’s top job is to help the company heal. In those early months, he would have to take deep breaths and go for walks. He sat down with his wife and told her he’d need her help. He’s come to accept that, every once in a while, he’ll break down in front of his team. “It’s heavy,” he says. “The magnitude of the situation is, he’s put me in charge. He’s put me in.”
The last person I sat down with in Louisville was Kent’s son, Max. The 26-year-old had been around Roadhouse his entire life. After college, he had done his own thing, working for a food and beverage startup in Denver. But when in 2018 his maternal grandfather died, the first big loss of his life, Max felt a calling to come back to Kentucky. He’d been waiting on his real estate license when the pandemic hit and started helping out at the company’s support center, negotiating rent deferrals, purchasing PPE, whatever needed to be done. The gig was supposed to be temporary, until his dad told him he needed him at Roadhouse—something he’d never asked of him before.
The father and son had been living out at the family farm just outside Louisville—Kent in the new house he’d built on the property, Max staying with some of his friends in the old farmhouse. During those first months, every day the two would meet outside at a table between the buildings to talk about the company and the state of the world. But often that backyard discussion would turn to the books that the two would share—Kent with his preference for business, Max with his bent toward philosophy. The last book that Max gave him was The Book of Joy. When he went up to Kent’s desk after everything had happened, Max found a stack of copies that Kent hadn’t gotten around to giving away yet.
Max told me that the book tapped into his dad’s changing outlook at the end of his life. He was more spiritually aware, and positivity was at the top of his mind even as he took on his tinnitus. He’d gone through his own book and gutted it of anything negative—jokes that could be misconstrued, details about his first marriage. There’s not a single mention of his own bout with COVID, or of tinnitus. At least not overtly. “Fear is inevitable, as is pain,” he wrote in his conclusion. “I’ve never met a successful person who did not overcome some personal hurdle or tragedy. But we can make a choice each and every day to either listen to the negative around us and react emotionally, or we can smile and try to be the most positive person in the room.”
Roadhouse had been Kent’s life, his baby, and Max was honest that all the time his dad had poured into the company had sometimes been hard on him and the family. His parents’ marriage, Kent’s second, had dissolved when Max was in college. Just before Kent died, he’d been preparing to step back and spend more time with his family. “That was really his goal,” Max said. “It’s a good lesson for all of us that you should take that time now because you never know how much time you have left.”
Max and I wrapped our conversation in the late afternoon, and I had a flight booked for the next day. I planned to spend the morning tooling around Louisville, trying to get a better feel for the city that had shaped Kent Taylor. But talking about grief and loss and what’s left behind made me desperately want to get back to my own family. I woke up at 4 a.m. to catch an early flight home, driving by headquarters and the banner with Taylor’s face looking down on me.
If you are having thoughts of suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741.
Easing grief in the workplace
Loss has touched many in the past two years. More than 860,000 people have died in the U.S. from COVID-19 alone, leaving an estimated 7.7 million or more mourners behind. As anyone who has experienced it will tell you, grief doesn’t stop when you’re at work.
Yet there’s no federally guaranteed bereavement leave for U.S. workers, and just 56% of U.S. employees get any paid time off for funerals, according to the BLS.
There are steps employers can take to be more supportive.
Provide paid bereavement leave—a lot of it.
A few days is hardly enough time to recover from the death of a loved one. “Grief is not a start-and-stop situation. It comes in waves,” says Jocelyn DeGroot, a professor who studies grief at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.
Loosen restrictions on which deaths qualify.
Bereavement time is often restricted to the death of immediate relatives. But what if you’re mourning a close friend or a beloved cousin?
Some companies have expanded leave during the pandemic. Goldman Sachs, for example, now grants employees 20 days off for the loss of an immediate family member and five for the loss of more distant kin.
Acknowledge your employees’ grief—and that it’s ongoing.
It’s important for employers to engage with loss and not pretend it’s business as usual. “We always think grief is all about time off—and of course it is about time off,” says David Kessler, founder of Grief.com and author of numerous books on the subject. “But it’s also about how you handle their time back in the office.”—Maria Aspan
A version of this article appears in the February/March issue of Fortune with the headline, “The life and death of Kent Taylor.”