Esteemed restaurateur Rich Melman speaks to Samantha Lande about growing Lettuce Entertain You restaurant group
Restaurants don’t get tired, restaurateurs get tired. You need energy and drive,” says Rich Melman, chairman of one of the largest privately held restaurant groups, Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises based in Chicago, Illinois.
Melman opened his first restaurant in 1971 with co-founder and best friend, Jerry Orzoff who passed away in 1981. R.J. Grunts (pictured, below), as it was called, still brings flocks of patrons to the Lincoln Park neighborhood of Chicago for a burger or their famous salad bar.
From there the restaurant group grew and today boasts 104 restaurants (excluding airport locations) including 58 unique concepts.
Although Melman is modest, he has been lauded for his stellar work as a restaurateur, receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award from the James Beard Foundation in 2015, among other recognitions. He is truly admired by many in the industry.
Melman has recently passed the torch to his son R.J. Melman who has taken the helm as president while Rich remains chairman. Kevin Brown, who has been CEO since 2003 will remain in his position. “Old guys have wisdom, young guys have the energy,” laughs Melman, making the father/son team the perfect duo.
Melman sees a very different landscape from when he first started. “1971 was not very sophisticated, it was easy to be successful,” he says. “In 47 years chefs have gotten so much more sophisticated and worldly, it’s just better in every way.”
The biggest change he’s seen is in communication. To have a restaurant recognized used to take months or even years, now it’s almost instantaneous. Restaurants are subject to review – both by patrons and sometimes professionals – the minute they open.
Between online publications that get the scoop prior to opening, Yelp and Instagram it’s game on from the first day of opening. “Day one you better be ready,” he says. “They’ll be Yelping or communicating with their friends and you’ll have little time to correct things.”
Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises is well known for the training that it provides staff, which has allowed them to be prepared for this type of situation. All of their corporate and restaurant staff go through rigorous menu training and have the opportunity to do a few dry runs with staff from other restaurants prior to opening. This has always been a big part of Melman’s philosophy and the reason why he’s been able to grow to 7,000 employees and still retain consistent service across all of his restaurants.
“I always said I had a vision of how I like things done. If you want others to follow it you have to write it down,” he says. “Hire great people, know what they are like, continue to develop them and keep them happy.”
And although he does have a happy workforce, he realizes that there is a big labor challenge ahead. “Labor is getting really hard. There isn’t an abundance and it’s getting costlier.”
Importance of design
Food and service will always be of utmost importance for Melman, but design now plays a much bigger part than it did back in the day. He sees it as another way to communicate with the guests, and they want to make their places look and feel special. Many of the group’s more recent concepts in Chicago – like the West Loop’s Mediterranean-style hot spot Aba (pictured, below) and tiki bar Three Dots and a Dash – have made design a big part of their concept, and he doesn’t see that changing any time soon.
Part of that design takes place behind the scenes as kitchen equipment has changed drastically over the years – for the better. Lettuce Entertain You has a few people that do kitchen design and the goal is to make the kitchens as efficient as possible. They think through the menu before doing anything else at a restaurant, which makes it easier to decide which equipment to use.
“There is now so much equipment where you press a button and something cooks – Rational combi ovens are an example.”
Melman is always coming up with new ideas both for restaurants and in other avenues of foodservice. “I pay a lot of attention to what people say and what our strengths are,” he says. “I’m always listening, always looking for holes in the marketplace.”
Recently they partnered with grocery delivery service Peapod to create meal kits based on meals from two of their long-standing restaurants – Wildfire and Big Bowl. These kits have done well for them. They also sell some of their products, such as salad dressings, in grocery stores. “Extending the brand is very natural for us,” says Melman. “It’s fun to try different things.”
The group has also started to get into airport outlets with five concepts at Chicago’s O’Hare, including Summer House Santa Monica and Hub 51, and concepts in Denver and Reagan National airport in Washington, DC as well.
Words of wisdom
Despite taking a step back, Melman still has a keen eye on the future and what it may entail. He says he sees too many restaurants being started by people with no experience. “The number one thing you need is experience – a combination of experience and money behind you – a lot of drive and confidence. It grinds you out if you don’t have it.”
As for the future of his restaurant group, he has few worries. “The team knows my philosophies. I talk about going slow and thinking slow to get big. It’s not important how big we get but more important how well we can do a job,” he says.
In a notoriously challenging industry, he expects challenges to keep coming at the group. “You don’t want to get leveraged, you want to continue to do good things and maintain this as a great place for people to work,” he says. “You can’t sit back and relax.”
Pictures: Christina Slaton