Everybody Loves Romano

How can Phil Romano, the "Steven Spielberg of the food business," become even more successful? By opening more restaurants, making more money--and feeding the homeless.

Soon, Gladiator was turning a modest profit and Romano's horizons began to expand. He kept it for three years, then sold it for twice what he'd paid for it. He opened an English pub that he operated for a year, then sold it for a $100,000 profit, establishing another trend he would follow throughout his professional career. The real rush for Romano was not in the having but, instead, the building. Once a new business was an acknowledged success, he was ready to sell it and move on to the next challenge.

It was an attitude that first led him to test the waters of fine dining, planning an elite restaurant he would build in Palm Beach and call Romano's 300.

"That," he admits, "was one of the scariest things I've ever done. But if you want to be an entrepreneur, you absolutely must have a healthy fear of failure. That's what drives you, keeps you thinking about ways to do things better than the other guy."

Volunteer Casey Coda, right, has been involved with the Hunger Busters program from its inception. She and Romano are close to their customers.
Mark Graham
Volunteer Casey Coda, right, has been involved with the Hunger Busters program from its inception. She and Romano are close to their customers.

Though his life has now moved far beyond the comfort zone, Romano admits that he spent a lot of apprehensive years before success came to stay.

"I've always been a worrier," he says. "When I was making plans to build Romano's 300, there was this seedy old bar right across the street. A really nasty little place. I felt I had to get it out of the neighborhood if the restaurant I was planning was to succeed."

To solve the problem, he bought the bar and padlocked the door, then began exploring ways to recoup his investment. Rather than tear it down--his original plan--he remodeled and renamed it The Key Hole. "I knew, though, that I didn't want the old clientele to return when I opened it," he says, "so I just kept the lock on the door." He began contacting friends and old customers, sending them a key in the mail. It would, he said, be the only way they could get into the new bar he was soon opening. Drinks would be a buck. All the customers would have personalized pewter mugs, and all they had to do was call ahead to make sure the mugs were chilled by the time they arrived. An artist friend would be on hand to do a quick charcoal portrait of them so it could hang on the wall. And, hey, you could even write your name into the surface of the bar for a $15 donation to benefit a refuge for unwed mothers.

The place was soon jammed. "What people liked," Romano says, "was the very personal atmosphere--having their own key to the front door, seeing their picture on the wall, their name on the bar." By the time he sold it, The Key Hole was one of the most popular drinking spots in the city. And the golden touch of Phil Romano was beginning to be noticed.

"What I was learning," he says, "was that people were drawn to something unique. It became a challenge to come up with a new and better way of providing service. The question I began to continually ask myself was: How can I be different?"

By the time the upscale Romano's 300 opened, he had realized the importance of being a marketer as well as a restaurateur. Still in his 20s, he was never afraid to try a new idea. As he prepared for his grand opening, he summoned a local mystic-motivational speaker to address his staff. "What she told everyone--me, the waiters, the chef, the hostesses--was to take three minutes at the beginning of every day and focus their thoughts on positives: cooking the best meal they'd ever cooked, taking a record number of reservations, serving more people than they'd ever served before, things like that."

Did it work? Romano shrugs. "It damn sure didn't hurt," he says.

By the mid-'70s, Florida seemed headed toward full-blown recession. Concerned Palm Beach bankers, impressed with Romano's success record, were approaching him almost daily with offers to buy other struggling restaurants on the verge of bankruptcy and work his genius.

Instead, in 1975 he sold his own restaurants as well as his home, got into his Mercedes and began touring the country in search of a new beginning. He would find a new place to reinvent himself and would get out of what he calls the "dining business" and into the "eating business." He soon settled in San Antonio and began laying the groundwork for what would evolve into a financial empire.

"Things were booming in Texas at the time," he says, "and it just seemed the place to be. I saw it as sort of a last frontier of the food business." He opened a seafood restaurant fashioned after one he'd owned in Florida and watched it thrive. A small steakhouse did well, then a private backgammon club.

All he really wanted to do, however, was test-market an idea he'd been cultivating for some time: to create the world's greatest hamburger. "I was convinced that people would like the idea of coming into a place where they could participate in every phase of the preparation of their food. I wanted them to be able to look through the glass and see the beef being ground, watch as it was cooked on a blackened grill, smell the fresh buns baking, then walk over to the salad bar and build their burger themselves."

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