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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7. SERVE FAMILY STYLE

Melman has three kids. His two sons, R. J., 28, and Jerrod, 24, are in the business 24/7. Molly, 22, has worked for her dad but currently is a schoolteacher. Keeping it all in the family was not a lesson Melman learned at his daddy’s knee. His father was a restaurateur. He had a bunch of businesses and a well-known deli called Ricky’s in Skokie. Melman put in long hours at the deli. He worked behind the counter; he bussed tables. He had a hankering to join the business, so he asked his father if he could become a partner and buy a 2.5-percent share.

His dad thought about it awhile and then said no. He told his son he “wasn’t ready.” He wanted his son to settle down first and get married. “Getting married was the furthest thing from my mind,” says Melman. “I was working so hard I didn’t have time to date.”

His father’s denial sent him into an emotional tailspin. As Melman puts it, “A light went off.” Three weeks later he left the company and never went back. Melman’s father died in 1985 without any real resolution between father and son. “I never got as close to him as I would have liked,” says Melman. “He wasn’t very affectionate. I told myself if I ever had kids I’d never be like that.”

He met his wife at—where else?—Grunts. Orzoff had been nagging Melman to date. When Melman claimed he was too busy, Orzoff urged him to prospect from the home turf at Grunts, which drew an attractive crowd, and promised to help. Relenting, Melman nodded at a woman waiting in line and said, “OK, she’s really cute.” Orzoff made the introductions, and Martha Whittemore and Richard Melman were married several years later. They named their first son R. J.

R. J. is now the manager at Grunts. The day I had lunch with Melman there, the son stopped by our table to say hello. He seemed relaxed and comfortable. “That picture looks like it fell off the wall,” said Melman, pointing to a framed photo at a far booth. Above it was a foot of white space.

“Actually,” said R. J., “I think it’s always hung like that. But let me go find out.”

He returned to explain that the photo was hanging properly, but he would raise it. How is it to work with his father? Just fine, he said. “I was lucky enough to begin my career outside his scope, in Minneapolis, where I could develop my own style and confidence. Now that I’m back he can trust me to make the right decisions.”

Jerrod initially had thoughts of becoming a standup comic. Toward that end, he spent time as a dishwasher and busboy at Second City. “Apparently it cured him,” says his dad with a smile. “He decided being around all those comedy people wasn’t so glamorous after all.”

Jerrod is now doing apprentice work with a few of his dad’s restaurant pals in New York City. In February, he and R. J. will be opening a restaurant together, Hub 51, in River North.

Melman has never pressured his kids to become Lettuce heads. “The restaurant business is hard,” he says. “It’s a mistake to get into it unless you love it.” Now that two of them are, he’s thrilled.

“They’re part of a whole new generation of future leaders at Lettuce,” he says. “There are maybe 20 in all areas, from accounting to food. R. J. and Jerrod are certainly two of those leaders.”

He’s reluctant to characterize the specifics of Hub 51 beyond saying, “It’s American but a lot more than American. People are going to go crazy for the food. It’s for their generation of 20- and 30-year-olds. It’s their R. J. Grunts.”

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