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Richard Melman owns or operates nearly 75 restaurants, most in Chicago but many with branches in half a dozen U.S. cities. His dining rooms offer a startling range of food, from pizza and burgers to haute cuisine. The company he founded, Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, employs 5,500 people and pulls in about $325 million in annual sales. That number will likely take a big jump if Melman succeeds in his current plans, which include the purchase of several smaller restaurant companies.
More drama awaits the opening of new Lettuce restaurants. Frankie’s Scaloppiné—the group’s first-ever spot focused on pounded meat and fowl—is about to go into business on the sixth floor of the Bloomingdale’s building at 900 North Michigan. Papagus in Oak Brook will soon be reincarnated as The Reel Club, a seafood spot. A Lettuce legend—he won’t say which—will get a top-to-bottom rehab and emerge as . . . to be determined. Melman’s temple of fine dining in Lincoln Park, Ambria, served its last canard this summer and will soon be a totally revamped high-end seafood restaurant with Laurent Gras as chef. And Melman’s two sons are slated to open their own Lettuce restaurant early in 2008.
This burst of activity merely underlines the obvious: Melman is more than a restaurateur. He is a man who understands people and the currents of a culture. He is a man who knows how to build an empire. Would his savvy and experience apply to any budding entrepreneur in search of fame and fortune? With that question in mind, we spent time with the man these past few months to gather the precepts that ensure success. The following rules—the Melman canon—are ours, not his.
Photograph: Todd Baxter