The name sounds straight out of the Borscht belt. But Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, Inc., is a homegrown Chicago company, responsible for 90 restaurants throughout Illinois, California, Arizona, Maryland, Virginia, Minnesota and Nevada. The founding of burger joint RJ Grunts in 1971, known for its massive salad bar, by Richard Melman and partner Jerry Orzoff jumpstarted a casual and offbeat empire. Restaurants named with the same sense of humor, such as Jonathan Livingston Seafood and Lawrence of Oregano, quickly followed. In 1976, however, when the group took over Chicago’s iconic Pump Room, restaurant-goers started to take Lettuce Entertain You more seriously. Somehow Lettuce Entertain You found a way to create—and maintain—wildly popular high-end and low-end concepts—from Magic Pans around the country to the Windy City’s revered TRU and L20. Today, founder Rich Melman, 71, still runs the show along with his three children, RJ, 34; Jerrod, 30; and Molly, 28. The young trio has ushered the company into new territory—namely nightlife—with recent openings such as the hot tiki bar Three Dots and a Dash, and the forthcoming RPM Steakhouse with chef Doug Psaltis and partners Bill and Giuliana Rancic. Lettuce explain (don’t pardon the pun), with RJ and Jerrod, how the wide-stretching restaurant empire all began, and how they are ushering it into a new era.
RJ: Our grandfather, our dad’s dad, owned a deli, so he was the first Melman in the food business, as far as we know.
Jerrod: Our grandfather came to the US from Poland, and our dad grew up working in his deli. But I think my grandfather was much less curious about the restaurant business than my father was. I think he probably used the restaurant as a way to play cards with his friends in the back.
RJ: I’ve been working within the industry since I was 11 or 12 years old. Jerrod, too. We were doing summer jobs, or odd jobs, around the restaurants–bussing, hosting, that kind of stuff. And then I started working more full-time as it came to the end of school. And while in college, I would work over summer breaks and started working full-time as soon as I graduated college.
Jerrod: I worked as a server, host, bartender or cashier over my vacations and breaks. I wasn’t really thinking about it as a career until I got near the end of college, and realized it was really the only thing I had done and the only thing I’d liked. So as I approached the end of school I took a management position at one of my dad’s restaurants. Our sister Molly actually started on a different path. She did something called “Teach for America,” when she came out of school. So she taught kindergarten in New York for a year. It’s sort of like the Peace Corps for teaching, so you end up teaching in an underprivileged area. She did that thinking maybe she would want to get into teaching. And I think her experience was that she loved working with kids, but didn’t enjoy being a teacher.
I think the restaurant business appealed to all of us because our father lives his life showing us how passionate he was about the business. There was something subliminal about watching him do something at such a high level, and watching him really be passionate about it.
RJ: Our father was totally happy when we all decided to follow him into the business.
Jerrod: I think he gave us all the same speech, “You know, you won’t be given anything for free and if you do goof up, we will fire you.” So it was a great opportunity, but I think he wanted us to be aware of the responsibility as well.
RJ: We share his core values and we have a lot of the same qualities that, certainly, he has instilled upon us. The things that matter to him matter to us. And the culture of the company is very important.
Jerrod: I hope that we bring an appreciation of the past to the table. And I hope we bring a current perspective to things, too. We all have a tremendous amount of pride in seeing what our dad built and created. So we have that sort of respect for the past, along with ideas for the future and how the company can move forward in the next 40 years. I think we’ve certainly helped push this company in directions that it wasn’t going go without some young energy. Our foray into nightclubs has certainly been an exciting thing to watch and it is something my dad gets a big kick out of.
RJ: Our dad taught us to care about the people you work with and care about what we do. It’s such a great bonus that some of the people I work with are family. I have a lot friends who are very envious of our family and the way we get along.
Jerrod: We’re lucky that we have a lifetime together and a lifetime of history to draw on. Our President–his name is Kevin Brown—his daughter just sent me an email, “10 Signs You Grew Up In A Restaurant Family.” Like, “You started working when you were 10. You always had extra cash because you were a server.” There were 10 cute things that were kind of funny. I think growing up in a restaurant family is unlike growing up in other kinds of families.
RJ: Still, the relationship is more complicated than with others. It could be more emotional and other parts of your life could impact what goes on in business decisions.
Jerrod: RJ and I can fight today or tomorrow and he’s still my brother. So he’s always there and that’s a great thing. But sometimes that’s even annoying.