Innovative Restaurateurs: Guiding Lettuce Entertain You’s Explosive Growth

Innovative Restaurateurs: Guiding Lettuce Entertain You’s Explosive Growth

Skift Table |
Micheline Maynard |
Feb 25, 2019
Original Article: "Innovative Restaurateurs: Guiding Lettuce Entertain You’s Explosive Growth"

If you’ve dined in restaurants across Chicago anytime in the last 48 years, it’s likely that one of them was owned by Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises. Name a category, and the restaurant group run by the Melman family has some kind of presence in it.

There’s fast casual, with Wow Bao, featuring Asian buns and dumplings, and Big Bowl, offering noodles and curries. There’s also casual Spanish cuisine, with Café Ba-Ba-Reeba, which first introduced many Chicagoans to tapas. There’s even upscale dining, in the form of RPM Steak and Italian restaurants.

And Lettuce is no longer simply a fixture in the Windy City. Its outlets have spread to nine states, and Wow Bao is now in airports like Reagan National in Washington, D.C.

Lettuce president, R.J. Melman, part of the family’s second generation to run the company, said there’s no master growth plan in place to expand the empire. Instead, Melman explained, the privately held group is enjoying the rare luxury of doing pretty much what it wants.

“Want to do fine dining? Let’s do it,” Melman said. “Want to do quick casual? Let’s do it.”

That strategy has led to 60 different restaurant concepts, 120 restaurants and 7,500 employees, as well as a 2015 James Beard Lifetime Achievement Award for Melman’s father, Richard. The company currently operates in nine states, including a storefront in Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C.

A TRIP DOWN MEMORY LANE

Richard Melman launched the group’s first restaurant, R.J. Grunts, in 1971 with his partner, Jerry Orzoff. (The location was named for the two men, plus Orzoff’s girlfriend.)

R.J. Grunts, which featured one of the country’s first salad bars, came along as restaurants across the country were beginning to experiment with new styles of service and cuisine.

More distinct tweaks to new restaurants soon followed. As a result, Lettuce became a training ground for dozens of chefs, front of the house managers, and staff that have gone on to work at other restaurants in Chicago, and elsewhere, over the years.

R.J. Grunts was a playground for Melman, his brother Jerrod, and sister Molly, all of whom are now partners in the family business. “I have amazing memories,” he said. “I got to go to openings and play in the [walk-in] coolers.”

At Shaw’s Crab House, a fixture with business diners that opened in 1985, the young Melmans recalled being fascinated by the live lobsters swimming in fish tanks. “I brought home a bowl of oysters and crabs as a pet, and put them in fresh water. A day later, they had all died,” R.J. said, laughing.

In the 1980s, his father gave him his first job as a boy at Ed Debevic’s, a retro diner in Chicago’s River North neighborhood. “I wanted to buy a toy camper, and my dad said I had to have a job,” he said. Melman was paid 10 cents an hour working as a host and seating customers.

The job wasn’t intended to teach him how to run a restaurant, but Melman said he soaked up his parents’ expertise by watching them in action. “I’ve always seen that my parents cared about people,” he said.

Early on, his father had the opportunity to take R.J. Grunt’s national, with a chain similar to Hard Rock Cafe. “He didn’t want to do that. He didn’t love travel. He wanted to focus on Chicago,” Melman said.

A NEW VISION OF EXPANSION

At the moment, Lettuce is working on one of its largest projects to date in Chicago, a four-story space on the Chicago River. It’s part of a $50 million redevelopment of a building that once housed Quaker Oats.

Lettuce’s restaurant spaces in Chicago cost between $300 and $800 per square foot to operate, depending on location and type of cuisine, said Melman. (The company does not disclose its revenue figures.)

Chicago has never built up its riverfront in the same ways as cities such as San Antonio, Reno, and Boston. “It’s an area that’s known for turning green in March” when it is dyed for St. Patrick’s Day, “and not much else,” Melman said.

The new space, called RPM On The Water, will house three separate Lettuce operations, including an events space. The “R” in RPM stands for Bill Rancic, winner of the first Apprentice program, who has since become a property and restaurant developer.

Melman said that Lettuce’s partners have been crucial to its success. But the top criteria for joining forces isn’t cuisine or financial clout. Instead, it is “talented people who are good at developing others,” he said.

But Lettuce, like many restaurant groups, is suffering from a labor shortage. In 2009, when Lettuce opened a restaurant in Los Angeles, it advertised for applicants and got 1,000 people. Today, five or six people might respond to a job advertisement at a Lettuce-owned restaurant.

“[The low unemployment rate] is great for the U.S., in general, but it makes it hard to find people,” Melman said.

The company is now looking at opening new restaurants in Florida, Texas, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles as well, with plans of opening up to two restaurants per year over the next few years.

Melman says Lettuce keeps “idea files” on different concepts, sketching out what a place would look like, dishes for its menu, and how big it needs to be. Then the company looks for a space that can fit the idea, and decides whether the idea can generate enough revenue to be profitable in that setting.

A FRANCHISE MINDSET

Because Lettuce has grown so much, local Chicago food writer Michael Nagrant thinks the company is moving away from individual restaurant concepts to those that seem like “the franchise is already in mind at launch.”

Nagrant said that Lettuce is focused on the types of restaurants that can create buzz and multiple Instagram posts. “Lettuce’s innovation is in refinement of the club-staurant genre. They’re leaders in this game,” he added.

Personally, Melman says he’s craving a Thai restaurant for the group. But, he said, “The future for us is a lot like the past looked like. We’ll do new concepts, and grow existing concepts. There’s no shortage of ideas. It’s just a matter of time.”

Media Contact

Emily Clark pr@leye.com 773-878-7340

You May Also Like...

In The Restaurants
Here’s Where to Happy Hour in the D.C. Metro Area
May 24, 2019

It's 5 o'clock somewhere! Here are all the happy hour deals at our D.C. metro area restaurants, from…

read more >
In The Restaurants
Here’s Where to Happy Hour in Chicago
May 24, 2019

TGI- (insert day of the week here)! Here are all the happy hour deals available at Lettuce Entertain…

read more >
In The Restaurants
Here’s Where to Happy Hour in the Twin Cities
May 24, 2019

Happy Hour is even better when the drinks and food are half off! Treat yourself after work at one of…

read more >
In The Restaurants
Memorial Day 2019: Chicago
May 24, 2019

On Monday, May 27, our Chicago restaurants will honor Memorial Day with brunch, lunch and dinner…

read more >
In The Restaurants
Memorial Day 2019: Twin Cities
May 24, 2019

On Monday, May 27, our Twin Cities restaurants will honor Memorial Day with lunch and dinner…

read more >
In The Restaurants
Experience 7 Lettuce Restaurants All in One Sitting at Taste of Lettuce D.C.
May 19, 2019

For one night only, seven Lettuce Entertain You restaurants in the D.C. Metro area are coming…

read more >
In The Restaurants
Here’s Where to Brunch this Weekend
May 15, 2019

If you're anything like us, you plan your weekend around brunch. Here is your guide to all of our…

read more >
In The Restaurants
The Great Burger Debate
May 15, 2019

May is National Burger Month and we are beefing up our love for this American classic and showing…

read more >
In The Restaurants
Try These 20 Burgers for National Burger Month 2019
May 15, 2019

May is National Burger Month and to celebrate, your favorite Lettuce joints are offering up NEW…

read more >
In The Restaurants
The Best Time of the Year: Patio Season in Chicagoland
May 15, 2019

Warm weather is here, which means al fresco dining is too! We've rounded up the best patios at…

read more >
How To
5 Ways to Spring into Gift Giving
May 14, 2019

It's always a good time for gift giving and the Lettuce Entertain You Gift Card will always be in…

read more >
In The Restaurants
In Season: Spring Peas
May 9, 2019

Spring has sprung and with the change in the season, our chefs have beautiful green veggies on their…

read more >
In The Restaurants
21 Dishes for Celiac Awareness Month
May 8, 2019

May is Celiac Awareness Month, so we've rounded up our favorite gluten-free dishes that you have to…

read more >
In The Restaurants
Gluten-Free Friendly Restaurants in Chicago
May 7, 2019

At Lettuce Entertain You, we aim to make finding gluten-free friendly restaurants a lot easier. Many…

read more >
In The Restaurants
Gluten-Free Friendly Restaurants in the Twin Cities
May 7, 2019

You can find gluten-free options at our restaurants in the Twin Cities, Big Bowl and Wildfire! Check…

read more >
In The Restaurants
Gluten-Free Friendly Restaurants in Metro D.C. Area
May 7, 2019

You can find gluten-free menus at our restaurants in the Metro D.C. Area! Here is your guide to the…

read more >
How To
How To: Build the Perfect Nachos
May 3, 2019

“If you build it, they will come.”  The most epic nacho platter, that is. We are breaking down…

read more >
In The Restaurants
Dine Al Fresco This Patio Season in the Twin Cities
May 1, 2019

In the Twin Cities, you've waited all winter and now it's finally time to take it easy and dine al…

read more >
In The Restaurants
Where to Enjoy Patio Season in Metro D.C. Area
May 1, 2019

It's that exciting time of year where you can finally eat outside! Enjoy dining al fresco at one of…

read more >
How To
VIDEO: 5 Ways to Use the LettuceEats App
Apr 26, 2019

We like to think of the LettuceEats app as your own personal restaurant concierge complete with…

read more >
In The Restaurants
Where to Eat Lunch – Chicagoland
Apr 15, 2019

For that one hour escape from your office, you want to make sure to make most of your lunch hour.…

read more >
In The Restaurants
A Few Of Our Favorite Vegan Dishes
Apr 15, 2019

With warm weather upon us, we're all about eating lighter and brighter - so why not try some of our…

read more >
In The Restaurants
Where to Eat Lunch – Twin Cities
Apr 14, 2019

We've made looking for weekday lunch options in the Twin Cities a breeze. Check out the lunch menus…

read more >
In The Restaurants
Where to Eat Lunch – Metro D.C. Area
Apr 14, 2019

Trying to figure out where to eat for lunch? Whether you've got time for a pre-fixe power lunch or…

read more >
In The Restaurants
Lettuce Life: How Phil Stubstad Paved a Career Path Out of His Passion to Brew
Apr 10, 2019

Lettuce Entertain You's founder Rich Melman built Lettuce to be a school for entrepreneurs.  It’s…

read more >
How To
Recipe: RPM Old Fashioned
Mar 26, 2019

Making the perfect old fashioned is a skill everyone should have in their toolbelt. Stop into RPM…

read more >
In The Restaurants
Lettuce Life: Meet Avril Zayas, Senior Designer
Mar 26, 2019

Welcome to Lettuce Life, a behind the scenes look at what makes Lettuce Entertain You special: our…

read more >
In The Restaurants
Get a Slice of Our Favorite Pies!
Mar 24, 2019

We love sweet and savory pies of all kinds, so open up your pie hole and explore all of the slices…

read more >
How To
8 Ways to Use Your Lettuce Gift Card
Mar 22, 2019

Racking your brain for the perfect gift? Here's an idea, how about a Lettuce Entertain You Gift…

read more >
In The Restaurants
Unconventional Wine Regions of the World
Mar 16, 2019

Everyone loves a great Napa Cab or Sauvignon Blanc from Sancerre, but lately, our LEYE Wine…

read more >
In The Restaurants
You Can Now Order a Whole Alaskan King Crab at Shaw’s Chicago
Mar 10, 2019

After a trip out to Akutan, Alaska last fall, the team from Shaw's Crab House in Chicago was in awe…

read more >
In The Restaurants
Meet the Women Behind Some of Your Favorite Desserts
Mar 8, 2019

In honor of International Women's Day on March 8 (and every day) we want to give a shout out and…

read more >
How To
Giuliana Rancic Dishes on How To Throw An Award-Winning Oscar Party
Feb 22, 2019

The 91st Academy Awards are happening Sunday, February 24! With a little planning and some useful…

read more >
In The Restaurants
Lettuce Life: Better Together with Chef Partners Raul Gutierrez & Osvaldo Ocegueda
Feb 18, 2019

You've got to start somewhere and with hard work, a lot of hustle and a hunger to learn, working…

read more >
How To
Cooking with Wine: Top 5 White Wine Picks From RPM’s Richard Hanauer
Feb 17, 2019

Cooking with wine may seem straightforward. Deglaze here, add in a splash there (take a sip,…

read more >
In The Restaurants
Kid-Friendly Dining Options and Activities
Feb 10, 2019

You've been to the zoo, the beach, the pool... the kids are starting to get stir crazy. We've got…

read more >
In The Restaurants
Best Spots for Group Dining
Feb 9, 2019

You finally got the whole crew to agree on the same day and time, now you just have to find the…

read more >
In The Restaurants
These Dishes & Drinks are Perfect to Share
Feb 8, 2019

The way to one's heart is through the stomach, so how about sharing one of our favorite dishes or…

read more >
In The Restaurants
Late Night & Live Music with Lettuce
Feb 3, 2019

Night owls rejoice - select Lettuce restaurants and nightclubs offer everything from late-night food…

read more >
How To
How to Tackle Brunch at Shaw’s Schaumburg
Jan 25, 2019

Hey everyone! Kailley of Kailley Lindman Photography here! I'm a food-writer-turned-photographer,…

read more >

Recent Posts

In The Restaurants
Here’s Where to Happy Hour in Las Vegas
May 24, 2019

It's 5 o'clock somewhere! Treat yourself to happy hour on The Strip at one of our Lettuce Entertain…

read more >
In The Restaurants
Here’s Where to Happy Hour in the D.C. Metro Area
May 24, 2019

It's 5 o'clock somewhere! Here are all the happy hour deals at our D.C. metro area restaurants, from…

read more >
In The Restaurants
Here’s Where to Happy Hour in Los Angeles
May 24, 2019

The workday is done, so grab your friends and co-workers and head to Stella Barra in Santa Monica or…

read more >
In The Restaurants
Here’s Where to Happy Hour in Chicago
May 24, 2019

TGI- (insert day of the week here)! Here are all the happy hour deals available at Lettuce Entertain…

read more >
In The Restaurants
Here’s Where to Happy Hour in the Twin Cities
May 24, 2019

Happy Hour is even better when the drinks and food are half off! Treat yourself after work at one of…

read more >
In The Restaurants
Memorial Day 2019: Chicago
May 24, 2019

On Monday, May 27, our Chicago restaurants will honor Memorial Day with brunch, lunch and dinner…

read more >
In The Restaurants
Memorial Day 2019: Metro D.C. Area
May 24, 2019

On Monday, May 27, our Metro D.C. area restaurants will observe Memorial Day with brunch, lunch and…

read more >
In The Restaurants
Memorial Day 2019: Las Vegas
May 24, 2019

Our Las Vegas restaurants will honor Memorial Day on Monday, May 27 with brunch, lunch and dinner…

read more >
In The Restaurants
Memorial Day 2019: Twin Cities
May 24, 2019

On Monday, May 27, our Twin Cities restaurants will honor Memorial Day with lunch and dinner…

read more >
In The Restaurants
Memorial Day 2019: Los Angeles
May 24, 2019

Our Los Angeles restaurants are honoring Memorial Day on Monday, May 27 with brunch, lunch and…

read more >
How To
VIDEO: How To Mix Up Joe’s Clevelander Cocktail
May 21, 2019

Whether you're looking to impress guests at your next cocktail party, or simply want to shake things…

read more >
In The Restaurants
5 Chef-Approved Ways to Enjoy Spring Produce
May 20, 2019

Spring's showers have given way to flowers and we couldn't be happier to welcome warm(er)…

read more >
Lettuce Consulting Group

Grow Your Business

Learn More
Career Opportunities

Join Our Team

Search Jobs
Latest Articles

Sign Up For Our Newsletter

Sign Up Now