If you like to go out to eat, you’ve been in one of Rich Melman’s restaurants. As the Chairman of the Board and Founder of Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, Melman has built an empire of restaurants that combine curated atmospheres with delicious, high quality food.
Over the last 43 years, Winnetka’s Rich Melman, his family, and his partners have developed more than 70 concepts for restaurants in more than 130 locations. Several of the heavy hitters include Wildfire, a 1940’s style steak and seafood supper club; Big Bowl, specializing in authentic Chinese and Thai food with a create-your-own stir fry bar; Maggiano’s Little Italy, a homestyle Italian place made to feel like a trip to the old neighborhood; and Shaw’s Crab House, a jazz-oriented seafood restaurant with an oyster bar. No matter your favored fare, Melman has crafted an evening with you in mind, making him the North Shore’s ultimate master of ceremonies.
Sheridan Road: How do you conceptualize a new restaurant?
Rich Melman: “I’d say 80 percent of the success of a restaurant takes place before you ever open the door. It’s finding the right location. It’s laying out the restaurant properly so that the economics work,
so that you’re not wasting labor. It’s having the right amount of seats. It’s being able to hit your goals. Hopefully, you do a good job and you’ve trained your people well. You’ll make changes if people don’t like certain foods that you have; we’re very flexible in terms of that. Over the course of a long career, it’s worked pretty well for me.”
How do you craft a crowd-pleasing atmosphere?
“I don’t like duplicating. We’ve done it in the past, we duplicated Maggiano’s, we duplicated Big Bowl, but it’s usually my partners that are more excited about that than I am. I like doing different things. I think it starts with the layout of the restaurant, which determines so much. Lighting and music are extremely important. We always use acoustical materials. I don’t like restaurants that are too loud. You don’t want it as soft as a library, but you want people to be able to talk across the table. We pay a lot of attention to that. Overall, people don’t analyze it. They either feel comfortable in the space, or they don’t. We also want people to look good in our restaurants. We spend a lot of time on the lighting with that in mind.”
After you’ve opened as many restaurants as you have in your career, have your feelings changed about opening nights?
“No. It’s like if you’re an actor in a play. I would hope that on opening night you’ve got a little bit of nervousness, because it’s important to you. You want it to go well. Once you get into it and you say a few lines you probably relax. It’s the same thing in the restaurant business. There’s never a time I take it for granted. If I started opening restaurants and I wasn’t nervous about it, I would think that maybe my psyche is telling me it’s time to retire. It’s so important that I do them well. I never want to embarrass myself. I always want to try and do better. So, there’s never an opening that I’m not nervous.”
Whose idea was it to call your enterprise Lettuce Entertain You?
“I actually wanted to call it Applesauce Enterprises. I liked applesauce, and I thought it was a cool name. This is 1970, when we started thinking of names. My girlfriend, Martha—who became my wife—didn’t think it was a great name. I said, ‘Well, if you don’t like it, come up with a better one.’ She and her friend Cathy came up with Lettuce Entertain You. Our first two restaurants had salad bars. I liked it. I agreed it was better than Applesauce Enterprises. That was it. Martha and Cathy were the ones who created it.”
What advice do you give to aspiring restaurateurs?
“I think the most important thing—it’s what I always told my kids—you need to find something that you love to do. Otherwise, it’s just too hard. I talk to a lot of people in the course of the year that think about getting into the restaurant business. The single most important thing is to start working in restaurants. If you’re a librarian and you’re dreaming about being in the restaurant business, I don’t think you’ll learn enough about the restaurant business. I don’t care how many books you read about restaurants, you have to get in there and do it. See how it feels, meet people in the business, meet purveyors of foods, and all the other things that go along with it. Test it and see how it feels to you. See how the long hours feel. See if you’re energized by it. If you’re not, don’t jump into it. If you are, you’re going in the right direction.”
For more information on Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises visit leye.com.