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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

(page 5 of 8)

4. DON’T TALK WITH YOUR MOUTH FULL

Melman knows when to talk—and when to listen. He’ll listen to anyone. Some of his best early ideas came from a guy who worked at the post office. This was back in 1962, well before restaurants were on the horizon. Instead, Melman got bitten by the entrepreneurial bug. He and a buddy pooled their savings, $3,000, and put an ad in the Chicago Tribune: “Inventors Wanted. Will Finance.”

He received more than 200 replies. One was from a man whose name Melman doesn’t even remember, a middle-management mail supervisor who had a bunch of quirky inventions: Christmas candles whose flames burned the color of the wax, red or green; a portable grocery cart that folded into a purse. They met downtown for lunch, where the man lectured Melman about the appalling food he was eating—spaghetti and meat sauce, mashed potatoes with gravy. The man had brought his own dessert—a jar with apples in brown sugar. He preached a more healthful diet. He took Melman to juice bars.

The inventor and Melman eventually lost touch, but Melman never forgot what he had heard. His first restaurant gave a serious nod to healthy eating. The chef was instructed to bake the potato skins, not fry them in oil; the 40-plus-item salad bar, a first in Chicago, was packed with fresh vegetables. The place was called R. J. Grunts, combining the first initials of Melman and his new partner, Jerry Orzoff, a Chicago real-estate agent with deep pockets, and the happy noises that Orzoff claimed his girlfriend made while eating.

Within months there were lines around the block.

Melman also knows when it’s time to stop listening. His post-office pal was ahead of his time in another way: He was a rabid antismoker. He believed that cigarettes caused cancer. So a month after Grunts opened, a crusading Melman declared it a smoke-free zone. After a few months of howling, the ban was scrubbed. 

A quarter mile north on Lincoln Park West is Mon Ami Gabi, which would likely not exist today were it not for Melman’s acute sensory perception. The restaurant is in the southeast corner of the Belden-Stratford Hotel. In 1980, Melman opened Ambria in the northeast corner of the building, and he was soon plotting another restaurant across the lobby. Ambria was the luxury French restaurant run by the wizardly Gabino Sotelino, previously the chef at Le Perroquet. Melman frequently dropped by before the dinner rush and was struck by the delighted cries from Sotelino’s staff as they wolfed down their food. What an onion tart! The frites—magnifique! “They were getting the best employee meals in the city,” Melman marveled. Those employee meals would later anchor the menu at Un Grand Café, the previous incarnation of Mon Ami Gabi.

He will listen to anyone with good ideas, especially when it comes to the goofy names for his restaurants. He initially intended to call his company Apple Sauce Enterprises; his wife, Martha, talked him out of it, and she and a girlfriend came up with Lettuce Entertain You. On the long list of candidates for his Chinese bun bistro were Buns on the Run and Hot Asian Buns. His assistant, Ann Johnson, weighed in with Wow Bao.

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