On December 3, 1958, Harry L. Hilleary opened the first Flaming Pit restaurant at 8135 Clayton Road, across from Stix Westroads. The steakhouse was an instant success, and that success was Hilleary's undoing.
Harry Hilleary grew up in Webster Groves. He
was an honor graduate at Webster Groves High School, where he played
football and was captain of the basketball team. In 1941, he entered
Cornell University where, after a hiatus of two years of duty as an
ensign aboard a destroyer in World War II, he graduated with
a degree in chemical engineering in 1947.
"In our early operations, we had to rely on
people with experience in the restaurant business for advice and
this sometimes proved a mistake." He eventually was convinced
that to be successful it was necessary to come up with a food
business he could understand and control.
Hilleary decided to design a restaurant that would offer a limited menu aimed at the family trade; he wanted to operate it with a minimum of labor; he wanted an operation that would not take a great deal of food "know how" to run.
In selecting a location for his restaurant,
Hilleary wanted a high density residential area with nearby commercial trade to support luncheon business.
Hilleary tried to revive his failing Fredrik’s Cafe by converting it to his second Flaming Pit location in March of 1960. But this experiment was short-lived, and the Flaming Pit at 516 North Grand, across from the Fox Theatre, closed in early 1961.
But Hilleary was not deterred. He transferred personnel and equipment from North Grand to the Village Square Shopping Center in Hazelwood. An April 4, 1961 St. Louis Post-Dispatch article announced:
The Village Square Flaming Pit was an immediate
success, and over the next three years, Hilleary opened three more
Flaming Pit restaurants in the St. Louis area – at 6435 Chippewa in
November of 1962, at 11755 Manchester in June of 1963, and at 9735
Highway 66 in June of 1964.
On June 14, 1964, Hilleary heralded the success
of his operation in a full-page ad in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Early in 1965, Hilleary formed the Flaming Pit Franchising Corporation to award franchises for Flaming Pit restaurants on a national basis. The first franchise was granted in Indianapolis.
In November of 1965, Hilleary assumed
management of the Lamplighter Motel in Springfield, Missouri, and
remodeled the dining room and lounge into a Flaming Pit restaurant.
In the summer of 1966, a Flaming Pit restaurant
opened in the Parkade Plaza Shopping Center on Highway 70 West in
In December of 1965, a sixth St. Louis area Flaming Pit opened in Ferguson, at 9105 West Florissant Road in the Parkridge Plaza Shopping Center. Flaming Pit restaurants were also opened in Ann Arbor and Pompano Beach. In 1966, Flaming Pit franchises were sold for Edwardsville, Cape Girardeau, Tucson, Detroit and all of California.
In February of 1967, Hilleary completed the sale of of 30 Flaming Pit franchises throughout a nine state Midwestern area. The 30 franchises sold for $7,500 each, with Hilleary to receive a two per cent royalty on the gross sales of each restaurant. Hilleary's goal was 500 Flaming Pit restaurants throughout the country and a supporting organization to provide food, supplies, furniture and equipment.
But Harry Hilleary had plans beyond Flaming Pit. He changed the name of his organization from Flaming Pit Franchise Corporation to Hilleary & Partners, as operations expanded.
In the spring of 1967,
expanding on his Flaming Pit concept, Hilleary opened a more upscale
steak house in St. Charles on Fifth Street, at Highway 70. He took
an oblong building, added a bow, a stern and stuffed animals, and
called it Noah's Ark. The new restaurant was an instant success, and
Hilleary sold 25 Noah's Ark franchises.
In 1969, Hilleary opened two new franchise
"pilots" in the St. Louis area – John Henry’s Railroad Café in the
Northwest Plaza Shopping Center and Time of the Tiger in the
Progress West Industrial Park in west
St. Louis County.
In November of 1969, Hilleary & Partners opened a Flaming Pit restaurant in New Hartford, New York – their forty-third in the nation. There would be no forty-fourth.
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In June of 1970, Harry Hilleary announced his
company was deeply in debt and was sharply reducing operations in a
"retrenching" effort to avoid bankruptcy. He faced multiple lawsuits
filed by persons to whom restaurant franchises had been sold,
advertising agencies claiming nonpayment for services, and former
* * * * *
Despite Hilleary's more global problems, the six St. Louis area Flaming Pit restaurants remained open into the early 1980s, with the Watson, Chippewa and Manchester locations open into the late 1980s.
Some of the franchised restaurants performed
even better. The storied Flaming Pit restaurant in Gaithersburg,
Maryland opened in the mid 1970s and thrived until 2007.
Harry Hilleary died peacefully on August 18,
2010. Appropriated, he had closed his last Flaming Pit restaurant in
Florida the year before.
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