Wednesday, June 5, 2024
R.J. Melman portrait
R.J. Melman, President of Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises
With America still in quarantine, Lettuce Entertain You has quickly adapted helping those who need it most.
By Arlene Michlin Bronstein for The National Business Post
April 30, 2020
It was late in January when R.J. Melman, President of Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, knew that things were going to be very different for his restaurants.
“I saw that things were going to change,” he recalled. “There was a two-week period, even before stay at home orders were issued, where you didn’t know exactly what would happen.”
He watched the cancellation of the NBA season, followed by all other sporting events. Then Coachella and various music concerts cancelled their events. Conferences, festivals and annual meetings no longer filled the calendars. Schools were shutdown.
“We still weren’t sure how that was going to affect us, but day after day more and more of these events were occurring,” R.J. remembered. “We were experiencing cancellations of our own bookings. Every day, the local government would be changing the rules of how many people were allowed to gather in one place and we had to adjust to keep open.”
By March 17th, all dine-in restaurants were ordered to be shut down. No one had ever experienced this almost instantaneous kind of change. There weren’t any guidelines for how to proceed.
“We didn’t have a lot of time to prepare for this,” R.J. lamented. “Truly, every day, there was a new challenge.”
Lettuce Entertain You was created in 1971 with one restaurant, RJ GRUNTS. It was the brain child of Rich Melman and his partner Jerry A. Orzoff. From this small hip restaurant, an “enterprise” sprang up.
Their goal was “not to be the biggest, but to be the best we can be. A progressive company with a firm commitment to its people.”
At the beginning of 2020, the company was one of the nation’s leading independent restaurant groups that owns, manages or lease more than 120 restaurants in 9 states, with 60 different brands. According to Founder Rich Melman, winner of the James Beard Lifetime Achievement Award, “LEYE was started because of ideas. We are a band of entrepreneurs that do something under one umbrella and it’s our culture of caring that bonds us. Caring about the food, service, our people and our guests.” That ideal would serve them well in March of 2020, as that “umbrella” would be needed to weather the storm ahead.
Even with a solid history of being a successful restaurant company, LEYE could not possibly have imagined a time when they would be told that they had to close their doors to their guests. The Coronavirus had made it unsafe for people to gather where they could not be at least six feet apart.
“When the order came that people had to stay at home, that’s when we went over the cliff,” R.J. said, “Within three to four days, restaurants all over the country had to close their doors to their guests.”
With so many restaurants and so many employees, the job of deciding how to handle the crisis was certainly not an easy task.
“We used our best judgment as to what was good for our people, what was kind and what was fiscally responsible. You never contemplate a world where you have no sales. So it’s been a disaster for the restaurant industry all over the globe. There is no comparison to this situation. Everyone’s individual company situation is different from every other, and yet in this moment in time, without sales, everyone was in the same boat.”
According to CNBC, $30 billion was lost in the restaurant industry in March, and $50 billion is anticipated for April.
The task ahead was unthinkable. R.J. and his management teams held an all-company conference call. They got as many cell phone numbers as they could and created a mass text with a call-in number so they could get the information out. Facing the reality of the situation for the company as a whole was overwhelming. For the Melman family and LEYE as a whole, this was the hardest part of the crisis.
Sadly R.J. recalls: “What happened was we had to furlough thousands of people in our company. It was one of the most tragic days of my life. And I know it was so much worse for those people. It was not perfect, but we had to communicate with everyone as much as we could.”
Very difficult choices had to made of which restaurants would be able to stay open for carry-outs and deliveries and which had to be closed immediately.
“Some things were very simple for us. Everything in Las Vegas had been shut down, so we couldn’t be open even if we wanted to. In Chicago, we decided to keep restaurants open that could be used for delivery. Early on we had more open, but then decided to consolidate the business. In other cities, being able to handle deliveries and carry-out became the criteria to stay open. We use many third-party delivery services. The local government moved pretty quickly to allow us to sell liquor too. That was a big help.”
Today, only 30% of the LEYE restaurants are open for business and they are doing only a fraction of the business they had been doing before the crisis.
How did LEYE handle this transitioning of their restaurants? R.J. explained how they developed a check-list to close many of their restaurants. He talked about going into each of the restaurants and powering down the computers and the cable service, turning off the equipment, locking the doors and turning on the alarm systems.
“Then we consolidated food from the closed restaurants and moved the food to the restaurants that were still open. Many of our vendors had to close too, so they were very kind in bringing us food that they were going to be stuck with. We definitely made a lot of meals for our employees to come and pick up.”
For the stores that were going to stay open, LEYE has been developing health and safety guidelines based on the recommendations of the CDC and other similar organizations. Those policies are changing every week to comply with the latest mandates.
“We have to decide how to handle different situations. How do we address someone with symptoms? How do we handle people who are actually sick? We are creating rules to try and cover these new situations. We might make mistakes along the way, but we are really trying our best to protect our employees and our guests.”
The company’s concern for their workers is legendary. They are diligent in their hiring practices and their managers, culinary staff and employees are a valued commodity. No matter what the position in the restaurant, each worker is treated with respect. In 2019, LEYE was one of the top 10 winners of the coveted Top Workplaces Award from the Chicago Tribune. This award is “based on employee surveys and assessing everything from work-life balance to confidence in company leadership”. In that spirit, LEYE has now created the Lettuce Employee Emergency Fund.
“We realized that we are in a world that no restaurant can afford to pay their payroll without sales. We really wanted to do something to help our employees who are in the worst situations, so we organized a GOFUNDME, and our family started it out with a million dollar
Jerrod Molly and R.J. Melman
(L to R): Jerrod, Molly and R.J. Melman
contribution. Since then many of our patrons and some corporations have donated to this cause. My brother Jerrod and my sister Molly oversee this fund. Much of it has already been distributed among the workers. All gratuities from our pick-up service are also part of this opportunity to help those workers who need it the most. Most important, the money is not taxable to the recipients because it comes under the guidelines of a pandemic or federal emergency.”
Even though these are the worst of times for the restaurant industry, LEYE is always looking ahead to provide its guests with new and positive experiences.
Emily Ehrenberg, Director of Public Relations and Communications, explained, “What Lettuce did first, that no one else really did, was to emphasize how innovation and creativity is so important in a time of crisis. The teams and R.J. and all the other partners took the time to reassemble how the company was doing business.”
To that end they created “dining at home” opportunities like the Lettuce Take Care of You Family Meals where you get three meals that feed a family of four. There are interactive Cocktail Kits, meal kits like Make Your Own Pizza, ideas for how to Celebrate your birthday at home during quarantine, Virtual Happy Hour deals and more. A Virtual Wine Dinner through Summer House in Santa Monica California sold out immediately as people crave the opportunity to be with people outside of their homes.
“We can offer our guests delicious meals with great value and also have packages that get people excited again,” Ehrenberg continues. “Our restaurants are in a tough situation with their dining rooms closed, but they are concentrating their efforts on being a positive source of great food and entertainment. Their efforts are bringing a sense of normalcy to our guests.”
Even before this crisis, LEYE had decided to create some “virtual restaurants” with no dine-in option. All meals could be obtained through delivery or carry-out only. They started with SEASIDE’S serving Fried Chicken, Ribs and King Crab dishes. Six months ago, LEYE paired exclusively with GRUBHUB to create two new virtual restaurants. Their first-ever branded restaurant is WHOLE30 Delivered, which features “real, whole, unprocessed foods” that make it easy to maintain a healthy lifestyle.
PADMA’S CURRY LEAF creates authentic Indian Cuisine. Portions of every order go to support Step Up Women’s Network, a charity “to empower girls in under-resourced communities to become confident, college-bound, career-focused and ready to join the next generation of professional women.” For today, all of these restaurants are only available in Chicago.
What’s ahead for the restaurant industry? There are so many questions and no real answers yet. For now it’s a wait and see proposition. But for LEYE, they are committed to making today a good day. They are dedicated to staying strong and to serving their guests. They are feeding hospital workers on the front line. They are making sure their employees are receiving the funds to get through this hard time.
R.J. relates the current time to the events of 911: “People knew that in that moment, life had changed forever. Many thought they would never travel again. They feared going into public places. But the human spirit is resilient and we can find meaning in the worst of times and new ways to live our lives.”
He speaks with a quiet humility when he says, “We’ve learned about how amazing people are in a crisis. We have learned to be smarter about how we do business. We’ve are learning how to operate more efficiently. But what we knew before, and what we now value even more, is that the most important business between people is that of being kind and compassionate to one another.”
He looks forward to the day when it is safe to gather together and he can open his restaurant’s doors and say, “Welcome back.”
RECIPE: Summer House Santa Monica’s Whole Roasted Chicken
Chef Ben Goodnick
Summer House Roast Chicken
Summer House Santa Monica's Whole Roasted chicken
Serving size: 3- 4 people
1 Whole Chicken (approximately 4 pounds)
3 Tbsp Butter (room temperature)
1 tsp Fresh Thyme (finely chopped) *
1 tsp Brown Sugar
2 Large Yellow Onions (peeled and quartered)
Salt and Ground Black Pepper to taste
*Substitute: ½ tsp Dry Thyme or Italian Seasoning
1. Set the oven at 425°F.
2. In a small bowl, mix together butter, thyme, brown sugar, salt and pepper.
3. Place the onions in a 9-by-13-inch baking dish, then place the chicken, breast side up, in the center.
4. Using your fingers, gently separate the skin from the breast, then rub half the butter mixture between the skin and breast. Carefully push some of the butter between the skin and meat of the legs, as well.
5. Dot the rest of the butter over the onions, then sprinkle the chicken and onions with salt and pepper.
6. Roast the chicken for 50-60 minutes, or until a meat thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the thigh registers 165°F.
7. Let the chicken rest for 10 minutes before carving and serving.
8. Slice the chicken onto a platter and serve it with the vegetables.
Copyright © 2020. The National Business Post. All rights reserved.
Arlene Michlin Bronstein is a writer and the author of several books: Beautiful Buffets, Beautiful Buffets II, Carlos: Contemporary French Cuisine and My Word is my Bond: Voice’s Inside the Chicago Board of Trade. She was the executive producer of My Word Is My Bond, a PBS special based on her book. Her most recent book, How did Nonnie Get to Heaven? is a children’s book about loss. She is fascinated by the life-events that make each human being a unique storyteller. Arlene lives in Scottsdale Arizona.