On one September day in 1980, Dori Geil walked into Lettuce Entertain You's original restaurant, RJ Grunts, for lunch and asked if the restaurant was hiring servers. Nearly 35 years, one 31-year-old daughter, and an empire of Lettuce Entertain You restaurants later, and Geil is still serving burgers and schmoozing customers at RJ Grunts. Geil chatted about just how popular the Grunts burgers have been over the years, how little the restaurant has changed, and her major part in saving the restaurant from shuttering in 1997.
Do you have any customers that have been coming in the whole time you've been working there?
Yes, this place has generations of people. I've waited on those people and I've waited on their children and I've waited on their children's children. I just waited on a policeman the other night and he said "you probably don't remember me," and his dad's a policeman and his grandfather's a policeman, and he said "I used to come in here and you waited on me when I was a little boy." This is just about a restaurant that makes people feel good, the food is great and it's a comfortable place to be.
Do you have any favorite customers?
Of course I have favorite customers. This isn't a happy memory, but a longstanding customer lost his wife and because I was so close I went to the memorial service and as I was walking down for the viewing I heard from the side "that's our waitress, that's our waitress, that's the girl at Grunts." We just share lives.
Has Grunts changed at all over the years?
No. Grunts has not changed at all. I think Richard Melman made sure that Grunts would not change. The pictures don't change, the booths don't change, nothing changes. That's why it's such a wonderful place. I have one customer that the mother introduced her to her husband and every Valentine's Day we take pictures. They have come in every single year.
Have the burgers changed at all?
The burgers have always been core to the menu. Things have changed around it but the burgers (have stayed the same). Now we feature a burger of the month and the burger this month is from Intro, CJ (Jacobson) is the chef, and he created the burger this month. They're highly successful because they're interesting burgers. Different chefs from different Lettuce restaurants create the burgers.
What percentage of your customers order a burger?
Do people ask for crazy toppings on the burgers?
We'll give them whatever we have here. This month the special burger is topped with crispy chicken skins. A couple burgers ago we added fortune cookies. We served one of the burgers with a carton of chocolate milk.
Have customers gotten more particular about their burgers over the years?
Gluten free is a newer craze. We have a gluten free menu now. Not at all (would I have ever imagined people caring about gluten free) but it's pretty big.
How many burgers do you serve a night?
What do you think of places that add crazy toppings and have all different styles of burgers?
They're probably trendy but I think burgers are basic and when it comes down to it I think people like basic good burgers. You may do the different toppings for fun but I think when it comes down to it and you had to order only one burger for your last meal it would be a basic cheeseburger.
Why do you like Grunts burgers so much?
I think Richard Melman would tell you that the key to our burgers is the grill. I don't know if it's really different (than other restaurants' grills) but his belief is that our grill is what makes our burgers great.
Grunts almost closed a few years ago and I read that one reason it stayed open is because a server led the charge. Was that you?
How did that happen?
I put fliers all over the city, all over the windows one night between 1 and 4 in the morning, and petitions, and the fliers read something like, "Help save RJ Grunts. Call or fax Rich Melman." It jammed their lines on Monday morning. People kept coming back and it was the worst and the best of times; it gives me chills now when I think about how it almost closed and how important the restaurant is to me.
How often do you eat the burgers at RJ Grunts?