As Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises welcomes customers back to its modest family operation of 120 restaurants, R.J. Melman — the president of Chicago’s largest hospitality group — is thinking about more than patios. Americans are protesting police brutality. A few of LEYE’s restaurants may have sustained damage from looters in the wake of peaceful demonstrations, but Melman doesn’t want to talk about that.
“There are bigger issues for this country,” Melman says, thinking about the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. Melman adds: “We are certainly supportive of those movements bringing change.”
LEYE already reinvented itself during the pandemic, immediately focusing on takeout and delivery in March after Gov. J.B. Pritzker shut down dine-in restaurants. Chicago is still waiting for a guidelines for when indoor dining can resume with June 26 still looking like the target date.
LEYE last week started its recovery by opening up patios in the Central Business District and in Lincoln Park. On Friday, Lettuce opened the third-floor patio at Aba, its Mediterranean restaurant on Fulton Market. Tables have been moved at least six-feet apart, signs have gone up to remind customers to wear masks, and the elevator has been limited to six people per car. Melman says he wanted LEYE to get a head start on serving on-premise customers. He estimates most of LEYE’s patios right now are at about half capacity. Restaurants already take safety seriously, Melman says. But they’re now taking additional steps like using QR codes in lieu of printed menus.
While that was already happening, LEYE last week announced the closing of its two restaurants inside Water Tower Place. After 27 years in the Mag Mile’s shopping center’s basement floor, Mity Nice Bar & Grill and Foodlife will not reopen, as reported by the Tribune. Crowded shopping centers don’t exactly feel built for social distance guidelines. Melman says the leases were about to expire.
“I have such fond memories of Foodlife and Mity Nice,” he says. “Foodlife was so ahead of its time — really the model for food halls in America. We are sad to see both go.”
Melman acknowledges that LEYE has more resources than independent restaurants, but that doesn’t make the company immune to the effects of the novel coronavirus. He points to the struggles at the Cheesecake Factory: “I think everyone is in the same boat.”
Melman’s father, Rich, co-founded LEYE in 1971. His father has seen the ups and downs of the restaurant business. But 2020 has been special: “I don’t think anyone on Earth has seen something like this,” the younger Melman says.
Things will improve, and the company remains strong, R.J. Melman says. Right now, the goal is to reassure guests that it’s safe to dine out: “If it’s not the time for guests to dine out, we’re happy to welcome them whenever they want to come come in,” he says.