Richard Melman, the founder and chairman of arguably one of the most well-known MCO groups, made his business philosophy evident when accepting his James Beard Foundation Lifetime Achievement award in 2015. “It’s hard when you do things just for the money. The restaurant business is too difficult if you’re not in love with it.” With more than 100 restaurants under the Lettuce Entertain You umbrella, including nine opened in the last year, it’s a mindset he’s passed on to the rest of his team.
“You can’t help but admire him and realize his brilliance,” said fellow MCO Larry Levy, co-founder of Levy Restaurants, to the James Beard Foundation. And that includes treating staffers in the organization—many of whom worked their way up—as partners and profit-sharers. Among the group’s latest concepts, for example, is Mediterranean-inspired Ema, helmed by chef C.J. Jacobson, who first started his partnership with LEYE as the first chef-in-residence at its Intro rotating incubator before turning the concept into a spot of its own.
While Ema is upscale, it’s not just high-end concepts that the group is known for in modern days. LEYE has been expanding its positioning with more casual spots in Chicago: Tallboy Taco, a taqueria run from its Nacional 27 restaurant; fast casual M Burger; and Beatrix, which turned half of its location in Northwestern Hospital into a grab-and-go spot.
LEYE has been growing steadily, with five or so new restaurants in the works right now. Still, overt growth hasn’t been the plan. “What our dad has really instilled in us and our partners is that our goal is not size,” says Executive Partner Jerrod Melman. “It’s not about the number of concepts, but rather about finding things we are passionate about and that we know we can do well,” he says.
“One of our biggest benefits is that ... we are competitive with ourselves. Our partners help push us to do new things.” —R.J. Melman
The next generation of Melmans—R.J., Jerrod and Molly—weigh in on the group’s success.
How do you push LEYE to innovate?
“There’s strength in the way we’re set up,” says R.J. “One thing that makes Lettuce unique is our partnerships. They push our innovation,” says Jerrod.
What’s Lettuce’s philosophy for growth?
“One guiding principle is, ‘Do we get excited about the food?’” says R.J. Adds Jerrod, “We’re in a fortunate position where we’re able to be picky.”
How do you keep the company relevant?
“We’re constantly looking at what we do, analyzing the best and worst sellers, trying to stay relevant within ourselves,” says Molly.
Concepts: Antico Posto, Beatrix, Big Bowl Fresh Chinese and Thai, Bub City, Cafe Ba- Ba-Reeba, Community Canteen, Di Pescara, Don & Charlie’s, Eiffel Tower Restaurant, El Segundo Sol, Ema, Everest, foodlife, Frankie’s Scaloppine & Fifth Floor Pizzeria, Hub 51, Joe’s Seafood, Prime Steak & Stone Crab, L. Woods Tap & Pine Lodge, M Burger, M Street Kitchen, Magic Pan Crepe Stand, Mity Nice Bar & Grill, Mon Ami Gabi, Nacional 27, Naoki, Osteria via Stato, Petterino’s, Pizzeria via Stato, R.J. Grunts, Reel Club, RPM Italian, Saranello’s, Shaw’s Crab House, Stella Barra Pizzeria, Stripburger, Studio Paris Nightclub, Summer House Santa Monica, Tokio Pub, Tru, Tucci Benucch, Twin City Grill, Wildfire, Wow Bao and more