Food Arts presents its May 1991 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Richard Melman, Chicago's king of concept restaurants.
Mention Melman's name, and his 1950s style diners, Ed Debevic's Short Orders/Deluxe, jump first to mind. But Melman doesn't play favorites. His Chicago-based company, Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises (LEYE) now owns and manages 29 restaurants in Illinois, Arizona, California, and New York, and employs over 3,000 people. Sales in 1991 will exceed $100 million. "I view restaurants like children," says the 49-year-old father of three. "I'm proud of them all in different ways."
But Melman still holds a soft spot in his heart for his firstborn, the widely emulated R.J. Grunts in Chicago, which turns 20 next month.
The year was 1971. Melman, a college dropout, had spent four years working in the family's Chicago deli, but his father and uncle still refused to make him a partner. Frustrated but determined to prove himself, he teamed up with Jerry Orzoff (his very close friend and mentor who died in 1981 at the age of 45) and together they raised $17,000 to open R.J. Grunts. "It's not much, but it's Richie's," said his mother when she arrived for dinner on opening night. Melman met his wife, Martha, while she was waiting in line for a table.
But Melman is proud of all the restaurants that were born later: Scoozi!, an enormous Italian trattoria; Cafe Ba Ba Reeba!, a Spanish tapas bar; Shaw's Crab House, a seashore-style seafood house; Un Grand Cafe, a classic bistro; the sleek Northern Italian Avanzare—and on and on. With Ambria, The Everest Room, and the revitalized Pump Room, Melman proved he could handle haute cuisine as well as hamburgers.
"Rich is highly observant," says Bill Aumiller of Aumiller/Youngquist, the Mt. Prospect, Illinois, design firm responsible for bringing many Melman visions to life. "He can tap into what the public wants just by watching." (Pssst! A Greek/Mediterranean restaurant is next.)
The ability to foresee what lies ahead may give Melman the edge over less prescient competitors, but he insists that hard work and good management are just as responsible for the Melman magic. Job applicants, according to a company insider, are judged "49 percent on skills and experience, 51 percent on strength, confidence, leadership ability and what kind of person they are." Twice a year, groups of employees are encouraged to meet with management in strict confidence and assess their bosses, their restaurants and the company at large. A therapy fund is et aside for anyone who needs counseling.
A self-professed kid at heart (rub-on tattoos, baseball, cowboys and matchbooks are just a few of his passions), Melman is quick to laugh at himself and, employees say, is always open to criticism. A firm believer in teamwork, he rewards good managers by making them partners. "People perform best when they feel confident," he says, having battled to win his own self-esteem. "Again, it's like having children."