It’s an old c-suite maxim: Surround yourself with people who compensate for the attributes you lack. At age 75, Phil Romano figures his gap is generational. He’s hatched restaurant after restaurant that clicked with baby boomers. But millennials? Some wonder if they were secretly dropped to Earth by aliens who couldn’t decode the youngsters’ dining preferences. That’s why the creator of Romano’s Macaroni Grill, Eatzi’s, Cozymel’s and Fuddruckers is switching from concept Michelangelo to operational Yoda at his latest brainchild, Trinity Groves in Dallas.
Marketed to the public as a dining destination, Trinity is actually an entrepreneurial lab where millennials can create and test-run concepts expressly for other millennials. Idea development is left to others, while the king of ideation plays financial backer and counselor instead. “Who better to create new concepts for new people than new people themselves?” asks Romano.
His experience figures heavily into the realization of the youngsters’ entrepreneurial dream, starting with the pitch. The would-be restaurateurs have to sell Romano and his partners on their venture the way contestants do on the reality show “Shark Tank.” They create a plan and explain why the restaurant will be a success, then field pointed questions and challenges from the approval panel.
The concept has to fit into one of Trinity Groves’ 20 incubator slots, spaces plumbed and wired to house restaurants, and the creator has to be the hands-on operator. From that 2,500-square-foot footprint, which typically can accommodate 125 seats, the owner-operator has to generate $1.5 million in annual sales. “If it doesn’t, we yank it out and slide in a new one,” says Romano.
But the entrepreneurs are given more than the keys and a pat on the back. “We’re there to make them successful,” he says.
They don’t pay rent. “We handle all of the back-of-the-house and operational stuff,” including purchasing and deliveries. And advice is theirs for the asking, says Romano. Bob Sambol of Bob’s Steak and Chop House has put together a consulting group to advise the protégés, while Romano assists in making the concept distinctive and duplicable, his fortes. “We go beyond [mere investors}, because we need to know how to put it together so we can take it and grow it,” he says.
His team provides up to $500,000 for the build-out, for which they get 50 percent of the business. If it succeeds, the backers get the right to duplicate the concept, a reverse of the process that brought Romano fame and fortune. He typically would create a concept, then turn it over to a company like Brinker International to expand, usually in exchange for stock. For a stretch, he was one of the largest shareholders in the Chili’s parent.
Working with today’s restaurant midwives, Romano sees some differences from the Rich Melmans and Norman Brinkers who developed the casual-dining concepts dotting malls and restaurant rows. “They got a lot of technology going for them,” he says. “We didn’t have that. The only technology we knew is what we’d read about.”
Then there’s what he calls “the social disease,” an epidemic manifested by tweets, Facebook posts and nervousness about Yelp. “Marketing is a whole different thing. Millennials understand it because they have the social disease themselves,” says Romano. “I’m still the old-fashioned guy.”
One of the sensibilities he tries to instill in his entrepreneurial protégés is the importance of subordinating technology to experience. “I help them make the technology work for the concept, not make the concept work for the technology,” he says. That means keeping staff and customer “belly to belly,” without the separation of machines or gadgets.
Similarly, he urges them to embrace his Rule of Five. “I tell them, ‘you have to pick five things about your concept that you cannot ever change. Change them and you’ll kill it,’” Romano says. “It’s easy to create something. Keeping it going is what’s hard.”
The proof is the number of familiar concepts that need life support today. “Those concepts are getting old,” says Romano. Plus, millennials “don’t like anything we did. They want their own world, and they’re going to invent it. And more power to them.”
He doesn’t buy the notion that a sense of entitlement blunts millennials’ desire to build something. In his view, entrepreneurs are no rarer today than they were when he bet fast-food eaters would trade up to a higher quality, more expensive burger. The result was Fuddruckers, which spawned the gourmet burger segment, foreshadowing today’s pack of better-burger, fast-casual entrants. We’re not going to see those gamechangers go away, Romano insists.
“They may be one in 10 or one in a hundred. Norman [Brinker] was one in a thousand. Rich [Melman] was one in a thousand. I’m one in a thousand. But they’re out there. You just have to look for them.
“When you see a baseball player, you know it. When you see a football player, you know it. When you see an entrepreneur, you know it.”
Trinity Groves, dining destination and incubator program in Dallas
Fuddruckers in 1980
Romano’s Macaroni Grill in 1988
Cozymel’s in 1994
Eatzi’s Market & Bakery in 1996
Phil Romano’s 3 phases of a successful career
- “In the first phase, you try to make money.”
- “The second phase is about recognition.”
- “The third is doing the intrinsically right thing. You’re doing what you want and what makes you happy. I’m in the third phase now. I like to create.”