Exactly one month ago, Rich Melman received a James Beard award - kind of a culinary Oscar - named "Restaurateur of the Year."
However, the Chicago native wasn't in New York to receive it, he was in the midst of planning a nationwide tour, visiting all of the restaurants that bear the Lettuce Entertain You imprint, as a way of thanking his thousands of employees. The Logan Square native and founder of Chicago's best-known restaurant company recently reflected on how things all got started.
It's the salad bar that launched an empire: 40 years ago this week, Richard Melman and Jerry Orzoff opened RJ Grunts in Lincoln Park.
It wasn't exactly a success at first.
"I thought he was rude and he thought I was a punk or something like that," said Melman. "I didn't know anything about banking, there was a lot I didn't know. But I did know restaurants, and I had worked in restaurants from the time I was about 14 years old."
That's because both Melman and Orzoff's mothers were waitresses, and while Grunts started off painfully slow, the birth of Lettuce Entertain You was under way.
"If this didn't work, I don't know what I'd be doing. I don't think Lettuce Entertain You would've been here if this thing failed," he said. "I remember we said that we want to make a place that our mothers would have loved to work at, and so the culture started early on, where we said - let's do things for the people that work for us that the average restaurant is not doing - especially the servers."
In the 70s, there was a succession of kitschy names, including The Great Gritzby's and Lawrence of Oregano.
Melman described the names as "corny", and when asked if corny was cool then: "I guess I thought it was. I thought we were being very funny, and it only myself, my whole team thought they were great."
In 1979, Melman teamed-up with Gabino Sotelino, a big name in an era before there were "celebrity chefs." The chef made Melman go to France with him.
"The bread was baked down the block, and the cheese came from some farmer up in the mountains, and the butter was unbelievable, and the wine was great... and I said, 'Oh my God, my first meal in France and it's like unbelievable, and it's a cheese sandwich,' and he said, 'Now I'm gonna start educating you as to what fine food can be," Melman said.
That led to Ambria in the 80s, as well as Shaw's Crab House and Scoozi. In the 90s, Melman hit another home run with Maggiano's, named for Marvin Magid, who had led the company's Italian Division. The concept was later sold to Brinker International for millions of dollars.
Wildfire has proven resilient, with several suburban locations, and over the last decade, Chinese arrived in the form of Ben Pao, Big Bowl and the more recent Wow Bao. Through it all, Melman has somehow been able to guess what people wanted before they even knew they wanted it.
His three children all work for the company now, having launched Hub 51 in River North, and the Paris Club, next door.
Asked what he would do if someone said they did not like the burger at Hub, Melman said: "The first thing I would do, obviously, is come in and try the burger. I might look at all the sandwiches and all the burgers and analyze them: how is the bun, do I like the bun, is the lettuce fresh, what are the condiments they're using, what method are they using to cook the burger?"
At 69, he still plays an integral role - advisor, sounding board, and yes, taster. And he tells his staff not to worry about the other guy down the street.
"I don't look at other people, I just know if I'm trying my best or I'm slacking off and that's what I tell our guys: be the best that you can be. Don't compare yourself to anybody else," he said.
On the actual anniversary next Friday, June 10th, RJ Grunts will roll back the prices of all its burgers to their 1971 prices: just $1.50. That comes with cottage fries and a pickle, of course.
RJ Grunt's 2056 North Lincoln Park West 773-929-5363
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Since LEYE founder Rich Melman's favorite food on the menu at R.J. Grunts is the cheeseburger (cooked medium rare) with cottage fries, in honor of the restaurant's 40th birthday, R.J. Grunts is rolling back the prices of all their burgers to what they were back in 1971.
For just $1.50 you can try the Gruntburger (fried onions and bleu cheese), Yowza Burger (peppercorn burger, spicy ketchup, pepperjack, smoked bacon, lettuce & tomato), Mushroom Swiss Burger (grilled mushrooms and Swiss cheese), and even the Turkey Burger (tomato, lettuce, Swiss cheese and thousand island dressing), to name just a few. Each burger comes with R.J. Grunts signature Cottage Fries and a pickle (if you want regular fries or sweet potato fries, that's a bit more and it's only one per customer, dine-in only).