By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
"This guy's real shrewd," says his former Popeye's partner, who did not wish to be named. "The guy is bad news. He's a troubled man. I mean, why would a man just do people like he does?"
That's a question Lou Saba is still asking since losing $150,000 on a Del Frisco's restaurant in Houston over the course of seven months in 1987. A former self-employed petrochemical-industry professional, Saba says he hooked up with Wamstad after seeing an ad in The Wall Street Journal seeking Del Frisco's franchisees.
Saba says he was impressed when he first met Wamstad, and he agreed to a deal giving Wamstad 51 percent of the restaurant to Saba's 49 percent. "I really relied on him," Saba says. "I had confidence that I was dealing with an honest individual."
Saba was filled with doubts after they went to purchase equipment. Saba says he wrote a check for $35,000, or roughly half the cost of the restaurant equipment, with the understanding that Wamstad would make up the other half. Instead, Wamstad financed the purchase.
Saba was also under the impression that for his 51 percent stake, he was getting Wamstad's restaurant expertise. That's why he was dumbfounded when, on the restaurant's opening day, he says, Wamstad took off, leaving Saba to fend for himself. After going through his life savings, Saba finally reached the point where he could no longer put money into the place, and he turned in the keys and walked away. "It's like he takes you up in an airplane, jumps out with a parachute, and then leaves you in there to fly the plane on your own," Saba says.
Whatever his tactics, few deny that Wamstad is a bold, smart operator. His franchised Del Frisco's restaurants spread to New Orleans, Orlando, Austin, and Houston. In Dallas, Del Frisco's opened on Lemmon Avenue in 1985, spread to Addison in 1990, and after those venues were shuttered in 1993, to Spring Valley Road. A Fort Worth version was under construction when Lone Star stepped in with its fat offer.
"His food is very good. He's a very good restaurateur," says Ruth's Chris Steak House founder Ruth Fertel. Those are big words from Fertel. Wamstad sued Ruth's Chris for slander in 1994 after the restaurant's newsletter suggested that the Knife and Fork Club of America, which produced a Top 10 list of steakhouses, was really a front for Del Frisco's. Del Frisco's regularly appeared among the top three on the list. Wamstad admitted in a civil suit deposition that he paid the producer of the list, Thomas J. Horan, more than $60,000 between 1989 and 1994. The suit was later settled so that the sale to Lone Star could be consummated.
Fertel says Wamstad began pestering her as far back as 1981, when he opened Del Frisco's in Louisville, Kentucky. "I got an anonymous call and [the caller] said, 'Do you know where your son is?' He said my son was teaching him [Wamstad] how to cook the steaks and what to order and all the recipes." She says she later learned that Wamstad put one of his employees up to the stunt. "He's a very good operator," Fertel says. "I don't know why he has to run me down."
Wamstad refused to tell the Dallas Observerhis side of his business dealings, but even those who have tangled with him marvel at his ability to slough off setbacks and come back bigger and more potent. Perhaps it's no coincidence that his greatest comeback followed a near-death experience.
"During an argument he had grabbed me by my throat, hit my head up against the wall. I was screaming and shaking and begging him to stop. He went and got the gun out of the bedroom drawer and he forced it into my hand and he said, 'Go ahead. If you've got the guts, go ahead and shoot me." -- Lena Wamstad, in trial testimony, recounting an evening at home with her ex-husband
Shortly after severing ties with the Lapps, the Wamstads moved to Louisiana, where they opened a Del Frisco's in Gretna, just outside of New Orleans, in January 1982. It was an instant success. Wamstad boasted that they earned back their investment, which included a $10,000 infusion from Lena's mother, in as little as 10 weeks.
But in addition to being a place of high-rolling revenues, Del Frisco's was a stage for Wamstad's high drama: fights with Lena in the front of the house and spats with his son Roy in the kitchen. One of Wamstad's most notorious tricks was known as "four corners." If customers complained about food or service and were unimpressed with Wamstad's efforts to rectify the situation, he would grip the corners of the tablecloth and pull everything off the table, smashing dishes.
But the most dramatic event began on Valentine's Day 1985, when Wamstad fired his son Roy.
Around the same time, a part-time bartender, Colleen Keating, quit abruptly. Rumore says she believes this is the event that unglued Wamstad, and he blamed Rumore and her sister-in-law Theresa Rumore, who helped manage the restaurant, for running the young bartender off.
The following Saturday, Rumore visited her son, and after the meeting she feared he was slipping into a deep depression. So Rumore approached Wamstad, begging him to rehire Roy. "He seemed suicidal, he was so depressed," remembers Rumore. "When I told Dale this, he said, 'That son of a bitch ought to kill himself.' God, what a dog."