Rich Melman and 'Lettuce Entertain You'

Rich Melman and 'Lettuce Entertain You'

ABC 7 Chicago |
Jun 3, 2011

Chances are, if you’ve lived in Chicago for any period of time, Rich Melman has fed you. Or rather, his company – Lettuce Entertain You – has. The restaurant group now has more than 80 properties around the country and is about to celebrate its 40th anniversary this week.

Exactly one month ago, Rich Melman received a James Beard award – kind of a culinary Oscar – named “Restaurateur of the Year.”

However, the Chicago native wasn’t in New York to receive it, he was in the midst of planning a nationwide tour, visiting all of the restaurants that bear the Lettuce Entertain You imprint, as a way of thanking his thousands of employees. The Logan Square native and founder of Chicago’s best-known restaurant company recently reflected on how things all got started.

It’s the salad bar that launched an empire: 40 years ago this week, Richard Melman and Jerry Orzoff opened RJ Grunts in Lincoln Park.

It wasn’t exactly a success at first.

“I thought he was rude and he thought I was a punk or something like that,” said Melman. “I didn’t know anything about banking, there was a lot I didn’t know. But I did know restaurants, and I had worked in restaurants from the time I was about 14 years old.”

That’s because both Melman and Orzoff’s mothers were waitresses, and while Grunts started off painfully slow, the birth of Lettuce Entertain You was under way.

“If this didn’t work, I don’t know what I’d be doing. I don’t think Lettuce Entertain You would’ve been here if this thing failed,” he said. “I remember we said that we want to make a place that our mothers would have loved to work at, and so the culture started early on, where we said – let’s do things for the people that work for us that the average restaurant is not doing – especially the servers.”

In the 70s, there was a succession of kitschy names, including The Great Gritzby’s and Lawrence of Oregano.

Melman described the names as “corny”, and when asked if corny was cool then: “I guess I thought it was. I thought we were being very funny, and it only myself, my whole team thought they were great.”

In 1979, Melman teamed-up with Gabino Sotelino, a big name in an era before there were “celebrity chefs.” The chef made Melman go to France with him.

“The bread was baked down the block, and the cheese came from some farmer up in the mountains, and the butter was unbelievable, and the wine was great… and I said, ‘Oh my God, my first meal in France and it’s like unbelievable, and it’s a cheese sandwich,’ and he said, ‘Now I’m gonna start educating you as to what fine food can be,” Melman said.

That led to Ambria in the 80s, as well as Shaw’s Crab House and Scoozi. In the 90s, Melman hit another home run with Maggiano’s, named for Marvin Magid, who had led the company’s Italian Division. The concept was later sold to Brinker International for millions of dollars.

Wildfire has proven resilient, with several suburban locations, and over the last decade, Chinese arrived in the form of Ben Pao, Big Bowl and the more recent Wow Bao. Through it all, Melman has somehow been able to guess what people wanted before they even knew they wanted it.

His three children all work for the company now, having launched Hub 51 in River North, and the Paris Club, next door.

Asked what he would do if someone said they did not like the burger at Hub, Melman said: “The first thing I would do, obviously, is come in and try the burger. I might look at all the sandwiches and all the burgers and analyze them: how is the bun, do I like the bun, is the lettuce fresh, what are the condiments they’re using, what method are they using to cook the burger?”

At 69, he still plays an integral role – advisor, sounding board, and yes, taster. And he tells his staff not to worry about the other guy down the street.

“I don’t look at other people, I just know if I’m trying my best or I’m slacking off and that’s what I tell our guys: be the best that you can be. Don’t compare yourself to anybody else,” he said.

On the actual anniversary next Friday, June 10th, RJ Grunts will roll back the prices of all its burgers to their 1971 prices: just $1.50. That comes with cottage fries and a pickle, of course.

RJ Grunt’s 2056 North Lincoln Park West 773-929-5363

For more info on lettuce and their restaurants:
www.leye.com

Since LEYE founder Rich Melman’s favorite food on the menu at R.J. Grunts is the cheeseburger (cooked medium rare) with cottage fries, in honor of the restaurant’s 40th birthday, R.J. Grunts is rolling back the prices of all their burgers to what they were back in 1971.

For just $1.50 you can try the Gruntburger (fried onions and bleu cheese), Yowza Burger (peppercorn burger, spicy ketchup, pepperjack, smoked bacon, lettuce & tomato), Mushroom Swiss Burger (grilled mushrooms and Swiss cheese), and even the Turkey Burger (tomato, lettuce, Swiss cheese and thousand island dressing), to name just a few. Each burger comes with R.J. Grunts signature Cottage Fries and a pickle (if you want regular fries or sweet potato fries, that’s a bit more and it’s only one per customer, dine-in only).

Media Contact

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

You May Also Like...

How To
How To Win (2X, 3X, 4X even 5X Points) All Summer Long
Aug 6, 2018

Everyone we know loves summer and everyone we know also loves to win. So what if we told you that…

read more >

Recent Posts

In The Restaurants
Pappy Van Winkle is Back and Bub City’s Got It
Dec 12, 2018

Even if you’re not a whiskey aficionado, trust us when we say there’s something special about…

read more >
In The Restaurants
How Lettuce Does Dinner and a (Holiday) Movie
Dec 11, 2018

It’s cold outside and we know that all you want to do is cozy up on the couch with some comfort…

read more >
How To
The Perfect Party Appetizers
Dec 11, 2018

A well-crafted appetizer is the perfect way to make sure your guests won't go hungry so you can…

read more >
In The Restaurants
#LettuceLookBack: 18 of our Favorite Moments of 2018
Dec 10, 2018

It’s been 47 years since we opened the doors of our first restaurant, but 2018 was a year of…

read more >
How To
Recipe: Osteria Via Stato’s Cranberry Cello
Dec 10, 2018

Sipping on Osteria Via Stato's Cranberry Cello is always a great idea, and we're here to help you…

read more >
In The Restaurants
Holiday Happenings Throughout December 2018
Dec 10, 2018

Kids are out on winter break,  the smell of baking spices filling the air and holiday tunes…

read more >
In The Restaurants
Christmas Eve 2018: Metro D.C. Area
Dec 10, 2018

Happy Holidays everyone! We are here to help you celebrate Christmas Eve with delicious meals around…

read more >
In The Restaurants
Christmas Eve 2018: Los Angeles
Dec 10, 2018

It's time for Christmas Eve in sunny California! Spend your holiday with us at one of our Stella…

read more >
In The Restaurants
Christmas Eve 2018: Twin Cities
Dec 10, 2018

Twin Cities, Christmas Eve is just around the corner and we want to help you celebrate. Big Bowl and…

read more >
In The Restaurants
Christmas Eve 2018: Chicagoland
Dec 10, 2018

If you are looking to dine out this Christmas Eve, we have restaurants that are open on Monday,…

read more >
In The Restaurants
Christmas Eve 2018: Las Vegas
Dec 10, 2018

Celebrating Christmas Eve in Vegas? Here are a few of our restaurants open on Monday, December 24.…

read more >
In The Restaurants
New Year’s Eve 2018: Los Angeles
Dec 9, 2018

Celebrate New Year's Eve at one of our Stella Barra Pizzeria locations! Perfect for the entire…

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

Lettuce on Instagram

Checkout our feed @lettuceentertainyou!