Restaurateur Don Norton remembered as gregarious

01/09/2010 12:00 AM

01/09/2010 12:05 AM

Don Norton believed in the power of public relations.

In his case, that meant literally — greeting customers at the door of La Chinita, seating them, then stopping by and sitting down to chat if there happened to be an extra chair at the table.

Mr. Norton, who founded La Chinita at 1451 N. Broadway, died Tuesday. He was 73.

Mr. Norton and his wife, Marta, opened the Mexican restaurant in 1976 and owned it until 2000, when they retired and sold it to one of their longtime employees.

For the first few years the restaurant was open, Mr. Norton continued working at a Wichita lumberyard as well, said Rhonda Ewertt, one of his daughters. Then he moved to the restaurant full time.

"He was real business oriented. He did all the books and that kind of stuff. But the main thing was PR," she said.

Mr. Norton talked to everyone who came in and "knew" them all, even if he didn't know their names. He was that way everywhere he went: "We could go into a store, and he'd be best friends with the cashier or whoever," she said.

Delia Hernandez, who bought the restaurant from the Nortons, said, "The customers loved him. He was charismatic. He just treated everybody as an individual. He was sincere with them. When you talked to him, he could tell you stories about each customer he came into contact with."

Marta Norton had worked at the restaurant that preceded La Chinita and persuaded her husband to open La Chinita when it closed. The name came from her childhood nickname — chinita, meaning little girl with curly hair, Ewertt said.

When Hernandez started working at La Chinita, "it didn't dawn on me that he wasn't Hispanic. Then I was like, doh. He acted Hispanic. He loved hot foods. He loved Mexican music." Marta Norton is Hispanic, Hernandez said, and husband and wife "were beautiful dancers."

The funeral service for Mr. Norton will be at 1 p.m. today at St. Mark Catholic Church, 19230 W. 29th St. North in Colwich.

Mr. Norton is survived by his wife, two sons, two daughters, a brother, a sister, nine grandchildren and his mother-in-law.

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