How do you sum up 40 years of creating and building a successful restaurant empire? If you’re Rich Melman, you look back with a smile, but don’t take anything for granted. The founder of Lettuce Entertain You celebrates the company’s 40th anniversary today, as this was the date back in 1971 that he, along with then business partner, Jerry Orzoff (who passed away in 1981), opened the doors at R.J. Grunts, which still remains open in the same location in Lincoln Park.
Forty years after the start, when even Melman admits he really didn’t know what he was doing but had passion and belief in his concept, the company now owns or manages more than 80 restaurants around the country, including L20, Everest, Mon Ami Gabi, Nacional 27, Shaw’s Crab House, M Burger and Tru. Even his children, R.J., Jerrod and Molly, have gotten into the business, owning or working at Hub 51 and Paris Club.
Eater caught up with Melman to reflect on the last four decades, to talk about his longevity in the business, finally winning a James Beard Award and the advice he has passed on to his kids.
Congratulations on 40 years, did you ever think it would go this long?
[Laughs.] I’ve never had long-range thoughts or plans, but we joke about it within our company that sometimes the guys want a five-year plan. I say you can do that if you want if we can change it everyday. I never think about the next five years; I never thought about 40 years. I just thought that 40 years ago I had this idea and from an artistic standpoint that I could do it. Maybe there’s part of me that is a little insecure.
One time American Express did an ad with me, and they asked, “When you don’t have to prove yourself to anybody, anywhere, anytime—are you truly a success?” I said that I’d think I’m not a success then because we have to prove ourselves every time with every customer. That’s sort of how I feel – it’s like in relationships, you can’t say, “I’ve been a good mate for 20 years and I don’t have to try anymore.” That’s when relationships end. In many measures, I can say I’ve had success. I certainly have hit financial goals. I feel good about what I’ve accomplished. I have a lot of peace of mind. I feel I’ve treated people fairly and I try to the do the right thing whenever I can.
To what do you think you owe such longevity?
Part of it is awareness. I think sometimes when you get wrapped up in yourself and think you’re so terrific and don’t listen to criticism. I think I’m confident. I’m insecure in some ways; I think we can be better. I’m confident in myself and the most confident people are the most flexible people. If I make a mistake, I change it. And if I do a restaurant and it’s been good for 10 years and in the 11th year it’s not doing well, I change it. I’m a good listener, I pay attention to what’s happening, to what people want, and I work hard at it. We don’t take things for granted. I’ve never felt we rest on our laurels.
Are there any concepts you regret doing and any quirky restaurant names you wish hadn’t emerged, like Jonathan Livingston Seafood or Lawrence of Oregano?
[Laughs.] All those crazy names early on … I was embarrassed five years later and was like, “What was I thinking?” At the time it was funny and maybe showed my juvenile sense of humor. You grow and change. I regretted some of the names and if I could have do-overs there are certain things I would not do or things I’d do differently, but not a lot. I rarely, if ever, think about that. A lot of the mistakes I’ve made have helped me become who I am and it keeps you humble.
In 1976, you re-opened the already-classic Pump Room—your foray into finer dining. Now that restaurant and its once-heralded legacy are gone. Jean-Georges Vongertichten is set to come in and possibly make it into a Chicago version of ABC Kitchen and may or may not call it the Pump Room. What’s your take on that?
Look, I’m friendly with Ian Schrager and with Jean-Georges. I respect them both immensely. [Ian] wasn’t that interested in the Pump Room about a year ago. At that time he wasn’t thinking of calling it the Pump Room and I suspect he changed his mind and saw its value. Jean-Georges is wonderful. I respect him as a chef and businessman. I’d like to see what their take it. Let’s wait and see what they do. They’re good, they really are.
This year, you finally won a James Beard award for outstanding restaurateur. What was your reaction when you heard you won?
I was surprised. I got a call that afternoon. I’m not trying to be flippant. I honestly forgot. They called me a few months earlier [to say] that I’d been nominated, but I didn’t even write it down. I thought it was nice to be nominated and I didn’t think I would win. Generally speaking, the reason I don’t go [to the awards] is that I’m on vacation. That’s around the end of my vacation time. I got a phone call about four in the afternoon from the Tribune asking where I was going to be that night. I said, “Why would you ask that?” They told me it was the James Beard awards and I said I didn’t think I’d hear from them. I was surprised and happy.
What’s your feeling about Rick Bayless calling you out on Twitter for not being there?
I’m sorry I disappointed him [laughs]. I don’t tweet and people called me. I think they wanted me to make a big deal out of it. Rick is entitled to his opinion. Maybe it would’ve been more appropriate to ask me why I wasn’t there. I’ve always had a nice relationship with Rick, and a [LEYE] partner in California asked if I’d seen the responses and that people were blasting Rick. It wasn’t intentional; I wasn’t trying to upstage anyone. People were reading into [why I wasn’t there]. I like that I won and I wasn’t trying to be flippant. It just wasn’t at the top of my mind. I learned a lesson to pay attention.
Do you think the Chicago dining scene would be what it is today had you not paved the way?
There probably would’ve been someone else. Competition is good. I think we went in a little different direction in 1971 and it awoke people. If someone is successful, other entrepreneurs say, “What is he doing?” You set a standard and you keep raising it. If it wasn’t me, it would’ve been someone else, but I’m glad it was me. I wasn’t copying anyone. I never traveled. I was doing what I thought should be done in food.
What do you think about the current food scene here?
I love what’s going on in Chicago. The Chicago food scene is vibrant. I’m protective and proud. I was talking to the owner of Gene and Georgetti yesterday. He asked, “How do you feel about the James Beard Awards?” I said I’m pleased about winning and that it came at our 40th anniversary and I’m pleased for Chicago. I love when Grant Achatz gets all of these awards. I’m glad it’s not in New York and LA. I’m glad that people think the best restaurant in the country is in Chicago.They’ll go there and [then] go eat at another place. I like that there’s attention brought to the scene. One of the things we’re doing is attracting more talent from out of town and all over the world.
You’ve done French, Italian, Spanish, Greek, burgers, BBQ, seafood, steaks, Asian … how do you come up with new concepts and is there a type of cuisine you still want to tackle?
Yes, but I’m not going to tell you what. I have idea files and I don’t think I’ll live long enough to do everything I want to do. I don’t think I’ll run out of ideas and I have some of the best ideas I’ve had waiting to percolate. We have some things coming out in the next 12 months. I’m excited about the young people … I joke that I’m the Colonel Sanders of the company. There’s really so much talent. I have some partners who are really good. I think the press looks to me and there’s much more than me. A great supporting cast is really what you need.
What personal and professional wisdom have you tried to pass along to your kids?
It’s not just one sentence that I say that encapsulates everything I feel. I always talk to them about their passion. I say to them that life is so much more fun when you find your passion. I say if you stop loving this business you won’t offend me. I think that I talk a lot about not getting too down when the bad things happen or get full or yourself when the good things happen. I talk about working hard. It’s an ongoing thing. I didn’t sit down when they were 21 and say, “These are the rules of success.” We taught them things as they came up. They got a bad review at Paris Club and they were really down. It hurt their feelings. I had the opportunity to tell them about in business you need to learn to take a punch or you won’t be in business long. Take that sour feeling and turn it into energy to make it better. As things come up, you have an opportunity to share your experiences. I’ve probably gone through every experience and emotion they’ve gone through and I learn from it and try to pass those things on.
When do you think you’ll slow down and officially pass the torch to your kids, assuming they want to pick it up?
I think I passed it on to a certain extent to my kids. There’s a half dozen key people that are going to carry the torch and they’re the same people doing it now. I never want to retire. I want to work a little less in the future. As long as my mind works, I want to do this. As far as the torch being passed, I may be away for three months, and the company runs just fine. I bring spark or creativity, but my goal … I’ve reached my personal goals, but my goal for this company is that it’s around for another 40 years and I’ll do whatever it takes, I’ll work in any role they want me to to help my goal of [LEYE] being around for another 40 years happen.