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National Restaurant Association - LEYE chairman talks restaurant issues

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LEYE chairman talks restaurant issues

Richard Melman shared his thoughts on healthful food, fast casual trends and the restaurant industry last month at the National Restaurant Association Fast Casual Trends and Directions conference. Melman’s Chicago-based company, Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, operates 42 concepts in about 90 locations.

melman.JPGPlaying favorites: I view restaurants as if they were kids. My favorite is my first: R.J. Grunts. I met my wife Martha at the restaurant the second year we were open. If that didn’t work out, I might not be in the restaurant business.

Staying focused: One of the hardest things for me in business is deciding what I want to do. With 11 restaurants opening in 16 or 17 months, I try to keep us on track, no matter how confusing or difficult. We set a tremendous number of goals. It’s not enough to say we want to open an Italian restaurant -- I go into all type of details about what customers will want and what people should work in that restaurant. After a while, the restaurant lets you know if you’re on the right track. It’s like making a film.

Customer perspective: I do everything through the customer’s eyes. It gives me a wonderful advantage to view a restaurant with a customer’s viewpoint but a restaurateur’s knowledge. Part of my goal is to figure out whom a restaurant will appeal to. I’ve learned that young people don’t like to go where old people go, but old people like to go where young people are. So I tend to skew things young. Our focus is making the experience exciting for the customer.

Partner power: When I wanted to open R.J. Grunts, a lot of people turned me down. Gerry Orzoff, my first partner, literally changed my life. He knew more about life than I did and showed me all different types of things. I would never have accomplished what I have without him being there in the early days. Since then, I realize that I love partnerships. I love the sharing part. It’s been very enriching. We learn so much from our 60 restaurant partners, and that is a very important part of our culture.

Give the people what they want: I think more about good food than fads. Good food never goes out of style. People are very knowledgeable, and they want value, great taste and great presentation. But you can never forget that you have to make money. The better you run your restaurant, the better it is for the customer. My goal was never to be the biggest. Part of me is an artist, and part of me is a businessman. Sometimes I’m more of an artist, but I have a lot of business people around me so I don’t go too far.

Menu trends: In our company, we have room for everything. I’ve played around with doing healthy food since 1971 with our first restaurant. We had juices, organic food, lots of vegetarian things, and the macrobiotic meal of the day. At foodlife, in Water Tower Place, every one of the 13 stations has a healthful component. We started doing gluten-free eight to 10 years ago, and we’ve been doing small desserts since 1981, when we offered the world’s smallest hot fudge sundae for 39 cents. The key is don’t make them too big – customers just want a bite.

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