In 1971, Rich Melman worried that he might have been a little too ambitious after opening his first Chicago restaurant, R.J. Grunts. “It didn’t take off right away,” he said. “I remember thinking, “I’m going to have to take two jobs: one to live off and one to pay my part of the debt”.
A half-century later, the venue is one of more than 120 belonging to the restaurant group that he founded, Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises. It thrives on a reputation of good food, friendly attitude and (depending on whom you ask) inventions like potato skins and the salad bar. But like every other restaurant in the state, R.J. Grunts faces COVID restrictions literally designed to keep customers away.
Melman has never been in this kind of a situation before—nor has anyone else, for that matter—but he has learned a thing or two about perseverance Here, the Chicago-born legend talks about his continuing effort to create restaurants that offer joyful experiences.
What do you think of the government COVID restrictions on restaurants?
Well, they’ve been devastating for the restaurant industry, without question. And the saddest part is what is happening to our people. I wish everyone in Illinois would have hunkered down in the beginning, when the restrictions were first put in place last spring. Maybe we wouldn’t be back in such a bad situation now. Lettuce is in a number of locations outside of Illinois, and no other state we’re involved in is as bad as here. I know the vaccine is coming, but right now is still rough. I’m hoping for the sake of restaurateurs throughout the country that another PPP from the government is approved, and I hope the Democrats and the Republicans can work together to help our industry.
How has it affected your personal life?
I’m just trying to stay home and not see too many people. My kids keep reminding me that I have to take care of myself. It isn’t easy for me, but I’m really laying low, doing a lot of Zoom calls, and thinking and writing.
Have your restaurants tried the innovations like outdoor igloos?
We’ve done everything we could think of. We’ve got a great team that has been very creative.
What will the industry look like when we emerge from this pandemic?
I don’t think we’re going to come back overnight, even when everybody gets vaccinated. It would be very difficult to get back quickly to where we were before COVID. I hope that slowly and gradually people will start coming back to eat in our restaurants—that they will want to go out and have fun and resume normal lives. If we can get COVID under control—if the infection rate stays around 6% or so, I think the governor and the mayor will probably open up seating a little bit. But, that could take awhile. And, as people get vaccinated, I think they’ll have more confidence about going out. I also hope we’ve learned a lot during this time. I know we’ve learned a lot in terms of medical advancements. I think there will be many positive changes in business as well. Basically I’m an optimistic person.
Besides the current pandemic, what other obstacles have you faced during your career?
When I was first starting out, so many people didn’t even want to talk to me about my restaurant ideas. I was an unknown, without a track record. I was a college dropout, and I probably wasn’t very good at selling myself. Plus I was always changing my ideas, and thinking about new things. The truth of the matter is, the first restaurant I did on my own took a couple of months to take off. Almost failing taught me a valuable lesson, and I’ll never take success for granted.
What was the operating philosophy of that first restaurant, R.J. Grunts?
It was pretty simple. I wanted to do something I liked, do it well, and hopefully make some money. I wanted the servers to be friendly and polite. I wanted cold food served cold, and hot food served hot. I wanted service to be on time. The servers didn’t wear uniforms—they could dress anyway they wanted. A lot of them wore jeans and many didn’t wear bras. It was the times. R.J. Grunts kind of had the feel of the hippy places that were so popular then, but we were more professional. In a lot of places then, if you came to eat at 6, and were planning to see a movie at 8, you might not get served in time to get to your movie. We made sure you’d get out in time at Grunts. The bottom line is, I have always wanted our customers to have enjoyable, respectful experiences.
What about the salad bar?
People credited me with having the first salad bar, and that might be true. I remember reading about one in Hawaii that was much simpler, and I thought it was a neat idea. R.J. Grunts is very small—only about 98 seats. When we opened, we didn’t have room for a salad station in the kitchen, so I thought it would be efficient for people to make their own salads while their entrees were cooking. Little did I know the customers considered the salad bar a great value. It was also perfect for vegetarians.
What other innovations did you introduce back then?
In the 1960’s, before Grunts, I partnered with a friend of mine, Bruce Sears, to start a business financing inventors. We put an ad in the Chicago Tribune: Inventions wanted; will finance. We thought we could become big business successes. Amazingly we got nearly 200 responses. We met one prospective inventor for lunch. He was a guy who had a mid-level job with the Post Office. His goal was to quit that job and write a book about the correlation between eating properly and good health. When I ordered mashed potatoes with gravy, and spaghetti and meat sauce for lunch, he was appalled. The more we talked, the more he made me think about serving healthy food, and I remembered that when Grunts opened almost 10 years later.
What inspires the themes of your restaurants?
The idea comes first, and that directs whatever you want to do. Let’s say you and I are partners, and you want to create something. Pick something. ME: Cruise ship. Ok, a restaurant on a cruise ship. We’d sit around and talk about it; we’d do some research. Maybe this restaurant should specialize in seafood. And, let’s say this ship is going to the Caribbean. I would want to do something indigenous to the Caribbean. The most important thing to know is that the creation of the food should lead the way.
Of all the themes you’ve created, which was the most challenging to implement?
The Pump Room was difficult. What I remember was that my parents, who didn’t have a lot of money, went there for an anniversary. They went late and had dessert, and they were so impressed. Years later, I was walking by the Ambassador East Hotel, and I thought, “There’s that famous restaurant that my parents loved”. I walked in to check it out. There was a well known maitre’d there, named Arturo Petterino, who stopped me to tell me there was a dress code (I was wearing jeans). I apologized, and mentioned that my parents had always talked about the Pump Room, and I was hoping to take a look. He was very gracious, and let me in, but told me not to walk around the dining room. Every one of our restaurants that Friday night was full with long waits, but the Pump Room was only a quarter full. I was surprised. The following week I called the owner of the Pump Room, to inquire whether he might want to sell it. He never even called me back. A year later, a mutual friend introduced me to him, and we made a deal. I never realized what the Pump Room had meant to Chicago. There were a lot a challenges, and I made a lot of mistakes. It was the first time in my career that I ever attempted a fine dining restaurant.
How do you determine what to put on the menu?
It’s part art, part instinct, part science. I want great tasting food, a well-balanced menu, and I want the whole package to work together. A lot of it has to do with my taste and the taste of the team in charge of the restaurant.
What do you like to cook at home?
I’m not a cook. There’s not one thing I can make…No, I take that back. I think I make great malts and shakes. I’m also a good sandwich maker. But, I think I’m a great taster. I know what the public wants, and I give good directions to chefs.
What were your favorite restaurants when you were a kid?
I loved a place called Richard’s Drive-In on Lincoln Avenue. I didn’t have a car, but I walked there a lot. There was a pizza place in my old neighborhood called Mary’s that I loved. I liked Henry’s hamburgers. I worked there, and my best friend worked at McDonald’s, and we used to argue about which place was better. I guess I lost that argument.
Speaking of kids, what’s it like to have yours in the family business?
My three kids really do an amazing job. Not only are they hardworking and level-headed, but they care, and people like and respect them.
How did the city of Chicago contribute to your success?
I love Chicago. It’s my home. It’s where I was born and raised. I understand Chicago tastes. The people of Chicago have been very supportive and loyal.
What will you do to celebrate R.J. Grunts’ 50th anniversary next year?
We’re deciding that now. The creative team gets together weekly to plan it out. It doesn’t seem possible that it’s been 50 years. If R.J. Grunts didn’t work, I can’t imagine where I’d be.