R.J. Melman, president of the Chicago-based multi-concept operator, talks about navigating the pandemic, creating new restaurants and the particular challenges of launching virtual brands.

R.J. Melman grew up working in his family’s restaurants, starting as a busser and moving up to a prep cook and restaurant manager. Since 2017, he has served as president of Chicago-based multi-concept group Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises (LEYE), after taking over day-to-day operations from his father and company founder, Rich Melman.

Lettuce Entertain You—which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year—currently has 110 restaurants, through 60 different concepts, in 12 states.

The pandemic has hit the company hard, forcing layoffs and a rethinking of all aspects of the business. Still, LEYE has opened a handful of new restaurants, as well as about 10 virtual concepts, during this stressful time, he said.

Melman joins the Buzzworthy Brands podcast to talk about how his company comes up with new concepts, the difficulties of creating virtual brands and what he has learned from restaurant failures over the years.

Here are five more things to know about R.J. Melman and Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises:

  1. He doesn’t take it as a criticism if customers don’t associate a restaurant as part of the LEYE brand. “We have so many loyal fans, we don’t necessarily spend a lot of time advertising [it],” he said. “Maybe that is going to change a little in the future, giving more presence to it … We love our esotericness and our ability to run a lot of different businesses.”
  2. Every new concept starts with the food, often with one signature dish. “Everything starts with food for us,” he said. “Sometimes that item you’re working on doesn’t even make the final menu.”
  3. Virtual concepts can be even harder to launch than a brick-and-mortar restaurant. The website, branding and menu have to be flawless, he said, to properly communicate the concept to the consumer. “They need a sense of place,” he said. “In some ways, it has to be more exacting.”
  4. There’s three things a restaurant can be: Wildly successful, middle of the road or a horrible failure. “Failure is kind of not a destination,” Melman said. “Having a short memory allows us to keep trying stuff, too.”
  5. Letting go of LEYE employees has, unquestionably, been the hardest part of the pandemic. “The most tragic part of the whole thing is just the amount of people that are not with the company anymore,” he said. “The word ‘furlough’ didn’t’ exist in Lettuce’s HR vocabulary until March 16.”