Richard Melman: Chicago’s Foodie

On a consistent basis since opening R.J. Grunts in 1971, Richard Melman and his Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, Inc. have been broadening, recasting, and invigorating the dining-out experience for Chicagoans—not to mention raising the flavor bar on everything from the fast, casual munch to comfort food to four-star fare.

So one could be excused for perhaps thinking the seventy-three-year-old Winnetka resident, with roughly one hundred fifteen restaurants operating nationwide, seven thousand employees, annual revenues of five hundred seventy-five million dollars, and a solid corporate culture in place, might be mulling retirement, or at least cutting back just a pinch.

Good news, diners. Not gonna happen. “To me, my friends who have retired have gotten older quicker,” says Melman. And besides, he shrugs: “I don’t know what else I would do. My career, my love for what I do is all wrapped up into one. Maybe if I had other interests I would think of retiring, but I just don’t. This is what I do, and it is fun for me.”

While both fame and fortune have come Melman’s way, neither is nor ever has been a driving motivation, he says. “I’ve never been interested in being the biggest, or the richest, or the most well-known. All I’ve ever wanted to do is be the best that I can be. I’m the same way today as I was forty-five years ago. I enjoy improving every day or every week or every year. That is what I do.”

These days, as chairman of the board, Melman sees himself as “the daydreamer of the company.” By that, he means above and beyond the standard fare of leadership meetings and oversight duties, he focuses on the “artistic” part of his role, by which he means concentrating on developing fresh concepts, creating and updating foods, and attending to details, all the way down to the size and shape of the salad plates.

“Mine is not a controversial-type business,” says Melman, who estimates that LEYE has developed roughly two hundred twenty-five restaurants over the years and projects that it will open six to eight more this year. “I try to give people simple enjoyment. It’s as simple as that. I give people nice service in a nice atmosphere and good food at a fair price. That is what I try to do.”

To that end, says Melman, all LEYE restaurants across the culinary spectrum have one thing in common: “It always starts with the food.”

That would explain why, in the test kitchen at LEYE headquarters on Sheridan Road in Chicago, two to five people are almost always hard at work. “This is where we create a lot of new things. There is never a time when we are not working on something. For example, somebody might remind me of how good the banana cream pie is at L. Woods, and I might say, ‘Hey, let’s work on a coconut cream pie.’ There is always something.”

Melman himself passes judgement on everything from the wow in the bao to the crunch in every crust. “I like to eliminate our weaknesses and replace them with something great,” he says.

Another reason there is “always something” is that Melman keeps his antennae up. “I pay attention to what people say. Iam always listening.” For example, after Melman and now-deceased LEYE co-founder Jerry Orzoff opened the high-end French restaurant Ambria in the Belden Stratford, he heard the staff raving about the kitchen meals they were getting from chef Gabino Sotelino. Those meals, like the onion tarte and frites, soon became anchors of Un Grand Café across the lobby.

Melman doesn’t plan to retire from the business he co-founded anytime soon, saying, “Maybe if I had other interests I would think of retiring, but I just don’t. This is what I do, and it is fun for me.”

Melman doesn’t plan to retire from the business he co-founded anytime soon, saying, “Maybe if I had other interests I would think of retiring, but I just don’t. This is what I do, and it is fun for me.”

By his own account, Melman is “obsessive about doing the little things that make it better for our customers.” For instance: “I hate restaurants that are too loud,” he says. “I pay a tremendous amount of attention to acoustics in our restaurants.”

He also has the savvy to know when to make moves, hence Eccentric became Wildfire, Avanzare became Tru, Papagus became Osteria Via Stato, and so on.

“I can see when there is a downward trend,” he says. “I can see when I am not as excited about a restaurant as I should be. I have goals in terms of what I think a restaurant needs to do. If they don’t hit that criteria, I will change something. Sometimes it will be minor surgery, and sometimes it will be major surgery.”

To peruse the walls of LEYE’s reception area is to further understand Melman’s business philosophy. “None of us is as strong as all of us,” one poster reads. “You become successful by helping others become successful,” reads another.

“It is the responsibility of the leader to make other people successful,” says Melman. “The higher up you go in an organization, the more you have to cater to people rather than the other way around. That is my job, making other people successful, and that is how I am successful.”

Indeed, LEYE operates today as it has from the beginning, based on the importance of developing partners (there are currently more than sixty), nurturing and retaining in-house talent, and sharing profits.

“We have a very strong culture,” says Melman, who last year was awarded the prestigious James Beard Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award for his decades of service as a creative force in the industry. “The culture is about caring about the customer, caring about the food, caring about each other, and caring about yourself, and it has worked.”

To then peruse the walls of Melman’s private office is to better understand why he has earned a long-standing reputation as a “regular guy.” Behind his desk, there’s a black-and-white photograph of the cramped alley behind the Logan Square home in which he grew up, as well as a photo of the Mozart Park basketball court on which he played hoops. “We were lower middle class people. It reminds me where I came from,” says Melman, who worked for many years in Mr. Ricky’s, his father’s deli in Skokie, before eventually striking out on his own.

There’s a photo, too, of one of the many softball teams he played on for years, autographed pictures of quintessential city-of-big-shoulders Chicagoans like Jack Brickhouse and Irv Kupcinet, and shots of pro athletes like Wayne Mass, Steve Stone, and Bobby Douglass, who became friends back in the day. “I don’t lead any big rock-star, glamorous-type life,” says Melman, whose preferred attire remains blue jeans and ball cap. Typical relaxation includes dinner with friends, a movie or theatre here and there, a little travel, and the occasional Cubs-Bears-Bulls game.

His everyman leanings extend to food, as well. “Give me a nice bread, a salad, and a bowl of pasta, and I’m a happy guy,” he says. Some of his North Shore favorites: the bacon at Walker Bros. Original Pancake House, the burger or tuna sandwich at Meier’s Tavern, pizza at Lou Malnati’s. “I like Subway,” he adds. Of course, he is a regular at LEYE restaurants, too. In a recent week, he had a “terrific” bowl of pasta at RPM and “the best lemon olive oil cake I have ever had” at Beatrix.

Above all, Melman makes clear that family is his rock. He and Martha, whom he met when she was a customer at R.J. Grunts, have been married forty years, as of March. “I have been very lucky,” he says. “I picked the right woman for myself.”

Their three children, R.J., Jerrod, and Molly, all started in entry-level jobs at LEYE, worked their way up, and now all are partners. “When they wanted to come into the business, I wasn’t going to give it to them. I wasn’t going to give them anything unless they earned it,” says Melman.

“I love how the kids have turned out,” he continues. “It was not always easy, and I give a lot of the credit to Martha. I was working a lot, and she was the one who set the standards in terms of what had to be in our home. I feel blessed to have the family and the life that I do.”

About the author

Alan P. Henry is a New York Times bestselling author, six-time national fiction contest prize winner, and thirty-five-year newspaper veteran with the Chicago Sun-Times, Boston Globe, Boston Herald, and now, 22nd Century Media.

More From Chicagoly