MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. – Bob Brooks, the businessman who became known for his charity as much as his Hooters restaurants, died Sunday at his Myrtle Beach home. He was 69.

Brooks was found dead in his house around 9:30 or 10 a.m. in the Dunes Club community by his wife and a neighbor after Brooks did not show up for their usual Sunday breakfast, said Horry County, S.C., coroner Robert Edge. An autopsy will be performed today.

Brooks seemed fine when he went to lunch with friends Saturday afternoon and then went home for a nap, said Myrtle Beach Mayor John Rhodes, a longtime friend of Brooks.

“He and I have been business partners and best friends for 20 years,” Rhodes said. “All of a sudden today we find out that he’s passed, and it’s just a shock to everybody.”

Brooks, chairman of Hooters of America who founded Myrtle Beach-based Hooters Air, was a benefactor whose charity spread from his hometown Horry County to his alma mater, Clemson University, where he graduated with a degree in dairy science.

Horry County leaders mourned the loss Sunday, remembering Brooks as a savvy, yet down-home, businessman who never forgot the small community where he was raised on a 100-acre tobacco farm with no electricity and running water.

Leaders said he was a multimillionaire who always was willing to help Horry County, whether it was by giving $2 million so Coastal Carolina University could build its first football stadium or starting an airline, Hooters Air, in Myrtle Beach to open up new markets for locals and to draw tourists.

“Whenever I saw him, the first question and usually the last question from him was, “What can I do to help ya?”‘ said Brad Dean, president of the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce.

Brooks made his fortune on salad dressings and other products made by Naturally Fresh Foods, his Atlanta-based company that he founded in 1967 as Eastern Foods. The company now registers more than $100 million in sales each year.

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He also had what he would call “a few other things”: the White Water Country Club in Fayette County, Ga.; the Super Sports Co., which makes merchandise sold in Hooters restaurants; and the World Business Center, a land development company in Atlanta.

Brooks also was co-owner of a video production company, Hallbrook Productions, which produces commercials for his restaurants and other ventures.

He also owned a hotel in Lakeland, Fla., and three motor speedways: the USA International Speedway in Lakeland, the Peach State Speedway in Jefferson, Ga., and the Tri-County Speedway in Hudson, N.C.

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But he’s best known for Hooters restaurants, which he took over in the mid-1990s. He branched out the brand, putting it on airplanes, sports events and a Las Vegas hotel. The chain has 330 restaurants in 43 states and 10 countries.

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“He was a wonderfully gifted businessman,” Dean said. “He understood business, a lot more than just how to sell chicken wings.”

Brooks jumped on a jet when he needed to fly to his Atlanta office for Naturally Fresh Foods. But he was more likely to show up in a golf shirt than a suit, preferring to dine at a Waffle House than at a four-star restaurant. Nearly always on a cell phone, he exuded a business know-how mixed with a value for hard work learned as a child plowing cornfields and stoking the fire at Sweet Home Elementary School in Loris, S.C., before the other children arrived. Still, he rarely got out of bed before 11 a.m.

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“For what he had achieved in the global business world, you would never have known it. You could approach Mr. Brooks, sit down and talk to him. He was very down-to-earth,” said Mickey McCamish, president of marketing group Myrtle Beach Golf Holiday, which worked with Brooks on flight destinations for Hooters Air.

Though Brooks rescued the lagging Hooters restaurant chain when he took over the business, the airline business got the best of the Brooks.

Three years after launching Hooters Air – opening up direct flights from Myrtle Beach to destinations such as Las Vegas and the Bahamas – the airline couldn’t make the financials work, despite boarding about 63,000 passengers in Myrtle Beach last year. Hooters Air dropped scheduled commercial flights in April and now runs charter flights.

“What I admired most about Mr. Brooks was that he tried it. He tried it because this community needed it,” McCamish said. “He was willing to take that financial risk.”

Brooks didn’t hesitate to use the Boeing jets to shuttle relief supplies to the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and tote area leaders to Washington, D.C., to lobby legislators for money to build Interstate 73, the proposed road that would give Myrtle Beach its first direct interstate connection.

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As he got older, he didn’t want to slow down, and didn’t let a stroke in the mid-1980s or diabetes get in the way.

“I enjoy working,” Brooks said in a 2003 interview with The Sun News. “I enjoy being at home playing with (daughter) Boni or the grandkids, going out with my wife. I look at the small things as being the sweet things in life.”

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Brooks leaves behind a wife, Tami Brooks, and a daughter, Boni Belle.

It’s a loss, too, for Hooters of America, which will try to carry on Brooks’ legacy of success, said Mike McNeil, vice president of marketing for Hooters of America.

“There was a lot more things he would have done,” said Liz Gilland, chairwoman of Horry County Council. “He was a real dreamer. There’s no telling what would have been.”



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