The original Red Robin stood at the corner of Furhman and Eastlake Avenues E. in Seattle, at the southern end of the University Bridge. This building dates from 1940 and was first called Sam's Tavern. The owner, Sam, sang in a barber shop quartet and could frequently be heard singing the song 'When the Red, Red Robin (Comes Bob, Bob, Bobbin' Along)'. He liked the song so much that he eventually changed the name to Sam's Red Robin.
In 1969, local Seattle restaurant entrepreneur Gerry Kingen bought the restaurant and expanded it. The business dropped the 'Sam's' and simply became Red Robin. The first restaurant was 1,200 sq ft (110 m2). It was a favored hangout for University of Washington students. Kingen continued to operate the location as a tavern for a few years, but later added hamburgers to the menu, eventually giving fans 28 different burgers to choose from, and sales skyrocketed.
After 10 years of building the Red Robin concept Kingen decided to franchise it. The decision to franchise the Red Robin concept proved to be a significant one in the development of the chain. Through franchising, and through one franchisee in particular, the chain drew its strength. Kingen's association with the company he founded later ended, but the franchising system endured, creating disciples of the gourmet burger format that extended the physical presence and geographic reach of the enterprise for beyond the efforts of its creator.
In 1979, Kingen sold Michael and Steve Snyder the rights to open a Red Robin in Yakima, Washington and The Snyder Group Company became Red Robin's first franchisee. In 1980, Red Robin opened a restaurant in Portland, Oregon. In 1983, Red Robin adopted a mascot named Red. In 1985, Red Robin boasted 175 restaurants when the corporate headquarters was moved from downtown Seattle to suburban Denver after CEO Kingen sold a controlling interest in Red Robin Corp. to Skylark Corporation of Japan and where Michael Snyder had Red Robin offices. With marginal successes and poor financial performance under Skylark's management, Kingen, then a minority owner, in 1995 stepped back into Red Robin with Michael Snyder to nurse the company back to profitability. In 2000, the company opened its 150th restaurant. Michael Snyder eventually took over as Chairman, CEO and President of Red Robin Gourmet Burgers, a newly formed company. Snyder took the company public in 2002. The company has more than 450 restaurants with combined sales close to US$1,000,000,000.