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Obituary of William 'Bill' Kenneth Saigh: Restaurateur, university professor

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 23, 2009 - Call it one of the most successful midlife crises in history: After a successful career as a college professor, William Saigh, at age 56, became a successful restaurateur. Or perhaps it wasn't a crisis at all, but simply a great idea that was a tad ahead of its time, conceived by a supreme marketer.

Mr. Saigh and his wife's healthy eating habits spawned the Lettuce Leaf restaurants, a dining experience where everyone could eat healthier. Only the Saighs thought the novel concept had a chance for success.

In a 1987 interview with Nation's Business, the house publication of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Mr. Saigh described how his idea was met by funders.

"When I said I wanted to open a restaurant, they laughed; when I told them it would serve primarily salads, they rolled on the floor. I went to 17 banks and was turned down by all of them. Finally one young loan officer said to me: 'Professor, don't you know the Small Business Administration makes loans? Why don't you try them?'"

He did. He got the loan and the Lettuce Leaf bloomed.

The professor turned restaurateur died April 8, at Sunrise Assisted Living of Des Peres, 10 years after he closed his last restaurant. He was 89. Services were held April 14.

Mr. Saigh had always encouraged his marketing students to go into business for themselves, so opening a restaurant constituted practicing what he preached.

In 1976, Mr. Saigh and his wife Christine, whom he met at Saint Louis University and married in 1974, opened their first Lettuce Leaf restaurant in downtown Clayton. The new eating trend quickly caught on and they subsequently opened three more restaurants in St. Louis and one in Kansas City. It took just 45 days for the restaurants to reach the break-even point. They sold the Lettuce Leaf restaurants to their bookkeeper in 1991 and several years later, opened the Gourmet Canning Factory in the University City Loop. They went out of the restaurant business for good in 1999.

Owning the restaurants was Mr. Saigh's first outing as an entrepreneur, but it wasn't the first time he'd worked in the food industry. That would have been the six years between his master's degree in business and his doctorate in marketing. He spent that time as the St. Louis Cardinals manager of concessions, with several hundred people working for him at old Sportsman's Park. Hot dogs and Cracker Jacks weren't nutritious fare like the Lettuce Leaf entrees, but the experience served him well years later.

Mr. Saigh's concessions experience wasn't the only fringe benefit of working for the Cardinals, which was owned from 1948-1953 by his eldest brother, Fred, a successful tax and corporate attorney. He recounted with relish his visit to Cardinals spring training in St. Petersburg, Fla., during that time. He put on the time-honored "birds on the bat" uniform and took batting practice, which quickly disabused him of any dreams of a career as a professional baseball player.

Mr. Saigh was born in Kewanee, Ill., the youngest of Michael and Freda Haddad Saigh's five children. The Saighs, Lebanese immigrants, owned a chain of grocery stores.

After his family moved to St. Louis, he graduated from Benjamin Blewett High School and began work on his undergraduate degree at the University of Missouri from 1939-1940. His education was briefly interrupted for service in the U.S. Army Infantry during World War II; he served in the Alaskan Aleutian Islands on the island of Attu. After the war, he returned to his studies, entering Purdue University in 1945. He transferred to Washington University and received his bachelor's degree in 1949 and his master's in 1950.

With his master's degree in hand, he took charge of the Cardinals concessions, leaving that position after six years to attend Saint Louis University, where he earned his Ph.D. in business administration in 1961. Upon receiving his doctorate, he began his two decades-long teaching career.

Mr. Saigh taught at several colleges, including Florida Atlantic University of Boca Raton, San Diego State College, the University of Missouri at St. Louis, and, finally, Saint Louis University, which he joined as an associate professor of marketing in 1969. He went on to serve as a full professor until his retirement in the 1980s. While at SLU, Mr. Saigh taught courses in marketing, promotional strategy and advertising management.

Stephen Miller, director of executive education and professor of marketing in the John Cook School of Business at SLU, remembers Mr. Saigh for his generosity and as a colleague and friend.

"Bill Saigh was a 'beacon of light' when I came to St. Louis and SLU as a young faculty member," Miller said. "He introduced me to the history and the vibrancy of the city and the university, and for that I will always be eternally grateful."

Mr. Saigh supported numerous organizations and causes and was often honored for his efforts. For many years, he belonged to the American Marketing Association and the Sales and Marketing Executive International and served on the board of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. He was a founding member of Sts. Cyril and Methody Orthodox Church in Granite City, Ill.

His many awards included being named Small Business Person of the Year for the state of Missouri in 1983; receiving the Life Skills Foundation's Employer of the Year Award in 1985 for employing developmentally disabled and hearing impaired people, and receiving the National Restaurant Association Award of Recognition for the Lettuce Leaf Restaurants in 1989.

Mr. Saigh was also a man of many interests, including music and animals of any kind.

During his interview with Nation's Business, he recalled that for his 65th birthday, his wife Christine had given him an exciting gift that she'd purchased at a charity auction: baton rights to be the guest conductor for the St. Louis Symphony's rendition of "Stars and Stripes Forever" during the Fourth of July celebration.

In the winter of 2005, reported the Missouri Wildlife Center, the Saighs often visited and brought nuts to an injured squirrel that Christine had found on the side of a road near their home and delivered to the center. Their visits stopped only because the squirrel fully recovered and was released in the spring.

Mr. Saigh, who had been married previously, was married to Christine Pashoff Saigh for 33 years until her death in 2007. He was also preceded in death by his parents and his brothers Fred Saigh and Victor Saigh, and his sisters Rose Saigh and Victoria Schuttee.

Mr. Saigh is survived by his daughter, Victoria Saigh Brillhart (Mr. Allen Thompson Brillhart III) of Olivette; his son, Michael Martin Saigh of Las Cruces, N.M.; his grandson, Andrew Saigh, and a granddaughter, Emily Saigh Valli. He is also survived by his sister-in-law Deemana Spudich (John), and nieces Christine and Dimana Spudich of Granite City.

In memory of Mr. Saigh, the family would appreciate contributions to Sts. Cyril and Methody Church, 4770 Maryville Road, Granite City, Ill. 62040.

Interment was at Sunset Hill Cemetery in Glen Carbon.

Gloria Ross is the head of Okara Communications and the storywriter for AfterWords, an obituary-writing and production service. 

Gloria S. Ross is the head of Okara Communications and AfterWords, an obituary-writing and design service.

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