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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2. REFRIGERATE THE DOUGH

Rookie cooks hungry for results roll out the pastry and slap it into a tart pan. This is a mistake. The dough needs time to rest and recover. Otherwise it will be a soggy mess and won’t support the filling.

Patience, in other words, can be vital. Ideas, like dough, should not be rushed. Sometimes Melman refrigerates his ideas for years. It was thus with the bao.

Years ago—20 years ago—he was mulling over business at his restaurant Gino’s East, where friends had waited 45 minutes for the thick-crust pizza to rise and arrive, and then the entire bill came out to eight dollars a person. “That’s when it occurred to me,” Melman says, “that to make money you needed to sell something before everyone got their food.”

The idea went into the file folder that is Melman’s brain (he also keeps actual file folders crammed with scraps of conversation and recipes and newspaper clips). In 2001, Lettuce sold its Big Bowl franchise to the restaurant company Brinker International, then bought back the concept four years later. Immediately the test kitchen began plotting new twists on the Thai noodle bowls and wok-tossed stir-fries that had made Big Bowl such a success. 

Why not fast casual Asian fare? thought Melman, recalling the interminable wait at Gino’s. Food that could be ready 30 seconds after the customer paid at the register. “Three weeks later we had the bao.”

The bao is a steamed Asian bun. There are plenty of steamed buns on the carts in dim sum restaurants in Chinatown. But how many people go to Chinatown for lunch? How many are comfortable with bean-curd filling? Melman had a better idea: Stuff the bao with Asian staples more appealing to Westerners? Fillings like Thai chicken and Mongolian beef and pork barbecue? Throw in a few salads; serve fresh juice. Give the place a clean, polished look. Slap on a cute name. Faster than you could say “Wow Bao” there was a bao stand on the ground floor of Water Tower Place, then a sit-down restaurant in the Loop. By November, you will be able to grab a box of baos on the way home next to the busy el stop at State and Lake.

Speaking of dough—it’s likely that Melman could have been a lot richer than he is now. He believes in making money, yes, but he was never a bottom-line guy. Maybe it was all those years he spent in therapy; back in the early days of Lettuce success he talked about nothing but therapy and self-exploration. He liked to try new things. He resisted the idea of franchise, even when businessmen begged him to turn early hits into brand names.

“Rich was never fueled by duplication— that’s one reason he didn’t want to open the same business in other cities,” says Kevin Brown, the president and chief executive officer of Lettuce. “He also didn’t like to travel a lot. He wanted to go home and sleep in his own bed.”

 

Photograph: Todd Baxter


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