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R.J. Melman meets the coronavirus challenge with optimism and innovation

Lettuce Entertain You’s president counts on strong restaurant teams, creative ideas and a positive attitude to deal with the current health crisis.
RJ Melman
Photograph courtesy of Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises

As president of Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises (LEYE), R.J. Melman oversees more than 100 restaurants in 10 states—most of which experienced COVID-19 restrictions pretty early on. Each day brings a new challenge, requiring rapid decision-making and on-the-fly thinking, but he and his partners, chefs, bartenders and other team members are in constant touch and continuously brainstorming creative ideas to get through this health crisis.

“This is a scary time for everyone, including myself, but I am optimistic about the future,” Melman told Restaurant Business. “I feel good about reopening our restaurants. The best parts of my day are when I get to think about what happens next, not what happens now. That’s the key for restaurant leaders out there.”

Most LEYE concepts are full service and depend on sit-down dinner customers, private party bookings and catering to operate profitably. Despite the suspension of dine-in business, event cancellations and a temporary 80% or so reduction in staff, Melman and his partners are staying connected and supportive of all employees. A couple of weeks before the federal relief package was passed, his family funded a grant program for furloughed workers, setting it up in two days. It serves as an emergency fund for food, rent and other essentials, and LEYE is mailing out checks every week.

“Everyone is in a different financial position,” Melman admitted, but the advice he gives to other restaurateurs is: “Just try to do your best, try to take care of people and you can’t make a wrong decision. This is a time to really connect with the people who work with you. … The more of a human touch there is right now, the better it is for everybody.” 

LEYE is also maintaining that human touch with its guests. To create a sense of normalcy, the restaurants in the group got together and immediately launched family dinners, meal kits, a weekly dinner subscription program and cocktail packages to go. Promotions including WFH Lunches, LEYE chefs’ favorite recipes, Passover and Easter meals and interactive kids pizza and cookie baking kits followed.

“For many people now, the highlight of their day may be picking up a meal or getting it delivered from their favorite restaurant,” said Melman.

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