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New LEYE President R.J. Melman Dishes on Working at Chili’s and More

Rich Melman’s son talks about the future of Chicago’s largest restaurant group

R.J. Melman
Christina Slaton
Ashok Selvam is the editor of Eater Chicago and a native Chicagoan armed with more than two decades of award-winning journalism. Now covering the world of restaurants and food, his nut graphs are super nutty.

On Wednesday, Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises — the biggest restaurant group in Chicago and one of the nation’s largest — promoted R.J. Melman as the company’s new president. Melman, 38, is the son of Rich Melman, the man who co-founded LEYE 46 years ago. The younger Melman will partner with Lettuce CEO Kevin Brown and run the company as his father remains as the company’s chairman. The older Melman’s title hasn’t changed while Brown has ceded the title as president to R.J. Melman. Those two will split duties as needed.

There’s about 90 restaurants in LEYE’s portfolio — from M Burger to Three Dots and a Dash to RPM Steak. R.J. Melman answered a few questions Thursday morning about his promotion and the future of the company. Here’s an edited transcript of the interview.

What should longtime Lettuce customers expect now that you’re president of the company?

Chicago is our home and the one thing that we have always pursued to be is excellent at what we do and that will not change. We’re going to do fun, new concepts. We’re going to some repeat concepts. We’re going to have a good time and hopefully entertain diners. And most importantly we’re going to continue to be focused on taking care of the guests.

Many children aren’t sure if they want to follow in their parents’ footsteps. When did you realize you wanted to follow in your father’s?

I worked in summer jobs for Lettuce and other places all the way through high school. I worked at a busser for some of the restaurants. I worked with Jewel-Osco for a while — just the random kind of middle school and high school jobs. When I was 17, I started cooking. I worked at prep cook at one of our restaurants (Wildfire in Oak Brook) and I fell in love with it. I went to college, but I cooked in the summers between college, and I’d also host. In college, I actually worked at Chili’s [in Lawrence, Kansas] as well. I think when I got toward the end of college, I realized I didn’t want to do anything else. If you asked me before I’d probably say I’d go to law school or something like that. Then college came to an end and I wanted to go into the business. I’ve been working full time for Lettuce until five days after college.

Will we see Lettuce restaurants pop up in different neighborhoods and locations?

We probably look at 20 deals to do one. We’re constantly evaluating other markets, other areas of the city...I see us doing more in additional neighborhoods; that’s a distinct possibility...We’ll probably do more in the West Loop, I imagine that we’ll look at other neighborhoods as we go. For sure, as a company, we’re evaluating cities that we are not in.

What’s the future of fine dining at Lettuce after Intro Chicago’s shutter and Tru’s upcoming closure?

It might not be on our immediate road map, to do another fine-dining restaurant, at least at that level of a fine-dining restaurant. I don’t rule out the possibility of doing one in the future. We had great experiences with our fine-dining restaurants. Tru was around for 19 years and sometimes things need to change. But with the right talent and the right concept...If there’s steps or people that get us excited about food and we want to do it, I think we’ll do it. We are as committed to be as creative in the future as we were in the past.

Your brother and sister, Jerrod and Molly Melman, also work at Lettuce. How will they be affected by your new title?

They are as instrumental for the future of Lettuce as myself and Kevin. They care incredibly deeply about Lettuce. They are my partners. Without their support I could not have even thought about going into this role. I love working with them. All of us will be more involved in the corporate aspect. Their roles won’t change. I’m lucky to work with my siblings who are my best friends and my partners. It makes it pretty easy in life.

Did you father leave you with any advise when accepting this new job?

He said it gets harder, you’re going to have a lot more responsibilities. You’re responsible for the 8,500 people who work here. You have to think about that every day. I don’t take that very lightly. We have a responsibility to take care of our employees. That will not change. I am hyper aware of the need to do that.