Image: Richard Melman
M. Spencer Green  /  AP
Restaurateur Richard Melman, sitting, with his children from left, Molly, R.J., Jerrod, and his wife, Martha, in his first restaurant, R.J. Grunt's, in Chicago.
updated 7/20/2006 7:55:56 PM ET 2006-07-20T23:55:56

Richard Melman is watching what you eat, and how you eat it. It's nothing personal. The man who has been called one of the world's most innovative restaurant creators is simply looking for inspiration for the next great American restaurant concept — or Asian, Italian or whatever theme strikes him as rich with potential for fun and profit.

“I'm always looking for holes in the marketplace,” says the founder and chairman of Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises Inc., an eclectic group of 68 restaurants whose eateries range from fast food to four-star dining.

Melman and his 35-year-old restaurant empire have been hailed as a creative force within the industry beyond the success of such restaurants as Big Bowl, Everest, Tru, Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba and Wildfire. Industry consultant Ron Paul goes so far as to compare him to a certain filmmaker who likewise is known for exploring a variety of themes and styles.

‘The Spielberg of the restaurant industry’
“He's the Steven Spielberg of the restaurant industry in terms of being innovative and in terms of his track record, with the number of successes he's had,” said Paul, president of Chicago-based restaurant consulting group Technomic Inc. “There's not a single other restaurant operator with as many different kinds of concepts as he has.”

Melman doesn't like applying labels to his restaurants, such as specialty-themed. Instead, he uses such words as “different,” “new” and “fun” to describe them during an interview at the company's offices, where a giant, detailed photograph of — what else? — a head of lettuce greets all visitors.

“When you do things a little better and a little different, often people beat a path to your door,” he said.

Different on the light side, that is.

“A sense of humor is very much part of what we do,” said Melman, who's known for wearing sneakers with his business attire. “If we can't have fun and make money, there's something missing.”

Fun, for the affable restaurateur, is creating 1940s-style dinner clubs with steak and chops (Wildfire), a '30s Baltimore wharf seafood restaurant (Shaw's Crab House), a short-order takeout bar with Chinese steamed buns (Wow Bao), and an "exciting" new style of buffet (debuting in Las Vegas next spring).

It's developing hit concepts like Corner Bakery Cafe, Maggiano's Little Italy and Big Bowl fresh Chinese and Thai, building them into thriving mini-chains and selling them to larger companies that expand them. Maybe buying them back, too, as in the case of Big Bowl.

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It's restaurant names like Lawrence of Oregano, Great Gritzbe's Flying Food Show, Jonathan Livingston Seafood and Fritz, That's It — even if the fun couldn't keep them in business.

Or it might be waffles in the shape of dollar-bill signs in Las Vegas, or an offbeat idea for dessert insurance that he has considered offering — buy insurance for, say, $1 when you walk in and save 50 percent off the price of dessert.

All told, Melman estimates he's developed 130 restaurants and 70 or more different concepts since he and best friend Jerry Orzoff opened a funky burger joint in Chicago's upscale Lincoln Park neighborhood in 1971. Orzoff died in 1981.

R.J. Grunt's, a name memorializing their initials and the noise made by a girlfriend of Jerry's when she ate, captured the spirit of the hippie era, Melman recalled fondly. It featured tofu burgers and the macrobiotic meal of the day, served by waitresses who wrote political messages on customers' checks. Psychics came in to read fortunes, and the restaurant's slogan was “Catering to the neurotic compensation of eating.”

‘It was wild, and it was fun’
“We did wild stuff then,” said the restaurateur, who had stored up creative ideas working in his father's deli. “It was wild, and it was fun.”

Lettuce had five other restaurants by 1979 besides R.J. Grunt's, which remains in operation today. Melman then traveled through Europe and returned to open a steady flow of new restaurants covering all genres of dining, many featuring a theatrical environment.

A made-to-order creperie, flamenco dinner shows, one-bite desserts — all have been spawned from a bulging idea file Melman fills with scribbled notes, clipped-out articles and pictures, and ideas inspired by dinner conversations.

“If we go out to eat, I'll be paying attention to what you eat and how you eat it and what you say,” he said.

The 64-year-old Melman handed the CEO's role to protege Kevin Brown three years ago.

His legacy may be passed on through his three children, all of whom are involved in the business. R.J., 27, is general manager of R.J. Grunt's, the restaurant he was named after; Jerrod, 23, is a manager at the Lettuce restaurant Osteria Via Stato; and Molly, 21, a senior at the University of Michigan, is waitressing this summer at R.J. Grunt's.

‘Daydreamer of the company’
Now chairman and the self-described “daydreamer of the company,” Melman vows to never take it public or let it turn into a mega-chain on his watch. He still puts in a full week either brainstorming possible restaurant concepts in his office or working on new concoctions in the test kitchen 50 feet away.

“Everything I think of, I relate to restaurants,” he said. “If I'm in a hardware store, I'm in a movie, I relate it to restaurants.”

Not everything works. One colorful flop was a pizza restaurant in Las Vegas located near the entrance to a popular rollercoaster with a view of the city. But no one wanted to eat before riding for fear of getting sick, and no one felt like eating afterward, either.

“It was a dismal failure,” he said.

Lettuce clearly hasn't suffered much for such goofs. Today, the privately held company has annual sales of over $300 million and about 5,000 employees. Melman won't discuss its earnings but doesn't dispute a report that puts them at over $50 million.

The success partly reflects what consultant Paul says is the most successful frequent dining program in the industry, thanks to the variety of restaurants it offers.

Clark Wolf, a New York-based food and restaurant consultant, noted that Lettuce restaurants haven't always translated to success on the East and West coasts. He also said Melman has been more businessman than innovator in recent years, opening additional outlets of existing concepts or working with partners.

But few others, he said, have had such a knack over the years for picking up on trends before they became mainstream.

“He was and probably still is the first and best restaurant collection maven,” Wolf said. “He's someone who's had a strong influence and strong impact on the evolution of restaurants in America over the last 30 years.”

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