The 7 Habits of a Highly Effective Restaurateur

Our writer dices the thoughts and works of Richard Melman, the impresario of the Lettuce Entertain You dining emprire, to discover the secrets of his success in and out of the kitchen

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6. FORK OVER CONTROL

Melman sits atop a big organization. He works hard. But he has an interesting view of management. He believes that giving people ownership of their work increases their motivation. “Everything I’ve ever done I’ve done with partners,” says Melman. “I love partnerships.”

Lettuce has 55 partners. Eleven of those are senior personnel, men and women at the top in charge of marketing, finance, operations. Many of the others manage one or more of his restaurants and have a personal stake in each restaurant’s success. Few sauntered into Lettuce with long résumés. Many had humble beginnings—waiting on tables or taking reservations. Marc Jacobs, 34, one of the bright young stars, oversees the ambitious rehab at Foodlife in Water Tower Place when he’s not running Scoozi! and Antico Posto. He started work at Lettuce as a banquet server and busser.

So did Dan McGowan. He’s one of the senior partners, president of Big Bowl. Before he hosted at Ed Debevic’s, he manned the spotlight at the now-defunct Lettuce comedy club, Byfield’s.

“It’s like a marriage,” says Melman. “It’s better if you get to know each other first.”

Melman rarely hires top personnel from outside the organization. He prefers that his people get familiar with the culture and work their way up. “We like to make sure our passions aren’t misconstrued,” he says.

“If you’re looking for a company that cares just about making its quarter numbers—that’s not us.”

It helps, of course, if you know what you want—and Melman prides himself on spotting talent. His first-ever recruitment trip was in 1977 with his chief financial officer to East Lansing and the restaurant management school of Michigan State. He’d just walked off the plane when a young man hurried up and asked, “Are you Rich?” They repaired to a local eatery called Mountain Jack’s and talked for hours. Melman was impressed but nervous about taxing his budget with too high a salary. In the cab to the hotel, he asked his CFO, “Can we afford $11,000?”

The man, Kevin Brown, got the job—and now he’s the president and chief executive officer.

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