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Back Room

Rich Melman

The Lettuce Entertain You founder on his tough dad and abusive customers

Illustration by Stavros Damos
Illustration: Stavros Damos

I was always in trouble when I was in school, always in a lot of fights. One time I was sent to the principal’s office, and there was another kid there who said, “Bet you can’t stand up on the principal’s desk.” So I jumped right up and walked around on it. That’s when the principal came in. I have a little note in my office that says: “If we want to understand the entrepreneur, we should look at the juvenile delinquent.”

My dad was a physically tough guy. Way bigger than me. Like six feet, 220. He was the kind of guy who would get out of the car and go fight a truck driver. He’d say, “Don’t take shit from anybody. If they say something you don’t like, you fucking hit ’em in the head.” So that’s what I did.

Dad was not a wildly successful entrepreneur. Among other things, he and his brother were bookies. In the ’50s, they started a place across from the Civic Opera House called Melman’s Cafeteria. The reason they opened it was so they could put a dice game in the back. But the restaurant turned out to be so popular and made so much money, they got into it.

I got into therapy when I was about 24, and it was the best thing I ever did. It was the early ’60s, when people weren’t doing it. But I dated a girl whose father was a psychiatrist. He would just see me around the house and hear me talk, and he would tell her things about my behavior that she’d repeat to me. It was enlightening. I was aware enough to know that he was right: I wasn’t a good boyfriend.

Jerry Orzoff, my original partner, was in real estate, and he wanted a place to meet girls. He thought a restaurant would be best. I never would’ve been as successful without him. He polished all of my edges. Somebody once asked him, “What the hell do you do in this partnership?” He said, “It’s simple: Richard takes care of the restaurants, and I take care of Richard.” And that was exactly it. He was my guiding light.

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R.J. Grunts took its name from his life. Well, R for Richard, J for Jerry. And he had a girlfriend to whom he gave the nickname of Piggy because she used to make these guttural grunting sounds when she ate.

Of all the restaurants I’ve done, I don’t think any was more influential than R.J. Grunts. We did a lot of things by instinct that I didn’t think of as breakthroughs, but they were. It just came out of the life I was living. We had a lot of healthy food on the menu, for one thing. Having waitresses who weren’t in uniforms was another. Music in restaurants used to be elevator music, and we did Woodstock.

Lettuce was supposed to be called Applesauce Enterprises. I loved applesauce. But my wife and her friend didn’t like the name. I said, “Well, come up with a better one.” And they did.

I’m confident enough to know I don’t know it all. Which is the advantage of having not been a good student.

My parents had always talked about the Pump Room. They couldn’t afford to eat there, but they once went there for dessert on their anniversary. Fast-forward to 1975: It’s a Friday night, like 8 o’clock, I’ve made the rounds to our four restaurants, and every one of them is jammed. I happened to be on the Gold Coast and realized, “God, I’ve never seen the Pump Room.” So I went in to take a quick look, and I see only five tables with customers. I said, “Wow, this place has nothing happening, and we’re doing all this business?” I called the next day to ask if it was for sale.

No, the customer’s not always right. The customer is usually right, is how I feel. I don’t have any tolerance for when customers abuse our people.

I always pay when I eat at our restaurants. Every single time. It just feels right.

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