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.

Friends and business advisers told him he was nuts. Yet from the idea came the first Fuddruckers. Romano had not only moved from the business of "dining" to family-style "eating," but was on the brink of becoming one of the food industry's national celebrities.

In time, Dallas business giant Norman Brinker, having heard of the phenomenal success of the hamburger place with the strange-sounding name, stopped into the suburban San Antonio location and left his card with Romano's late sister, Rosalie, who was serving as manager. He asked that she have Phil call.

"He won't do it," she warned. Brinker shrugged, took back his card and left.

Phil Romano has gone from making $9 a week to owning a 9,000-square-foot home.
Mark Graham
Phil Romano has gone from making $9 a week to owning a 9,000-square-foot home.
"Mr. Phil has been good to us," says one homeless person. "He's our friend...God bless him."
Mark Graham
"Mr. Phil has been good to us," says one homeless person. "He's our friend...God bless him."

Ten years later, in 1988, Romano finally got in touch. "I didn't want to call you until I had something really good," he explained. He'd recently opened a restaurant called Macaroni Grill and was confident that it had the potential to become a highly successful franchise nationwide.

Brinker sent an advance team to look it over, then paid a visit himself. Not only did he immediately agree to purchase the concepts of both Fuddruckers and Macaroni Grill but offered Romano a position with Brinker International.

Pointing out that he had no ambition to work for someone else, Romano did finally agree to serve as a creative consultant, a position he retains to this day. "It was an opportunity that suited me perfectly," Romano says. "I've always been the type of person who gets bored easily. What I like doing is coming up with an idea, getting a restaurant going, then turning it over to professional management."

During the years they have been friends and business associates, the 70-year-old Brinker has often pointed to the fact Romano owns all the ingredients that breed success. "He's very imaginative," says the chairman emeritus of Brinker International. "He's a risk-taker, he's energetic...and he's absolutely honest. He's one of those people who is a pleasure to be around."

Romano's involvement in Hunger Busters, Brinker says, is "typical of Phil." "What he is doing is marvelous." It is, he says, another measure of Romano's string of imaginative successes.

That's not to say there haven't been disagreements and duds along the way.

Romano's business history, beginning with his decision to buy out his Gladiator partner in the early Florida days, has been dotted with a stubborn wish to run things his own way. It is a mind-set that has resulted in splits with Harry Coley, once a partner in the Dallas-based Wild About Harry's frozen custard and hot dog places, and Patrick Colombo, former co-owner of Nick & Sam's.

After wife, Lillie, and son Sam (now 6 years old), returned from a visit to the Wild About Harry's on Knox Street, raving about its custard, Romano paid Coley's establishment a series of visits, and talks of a franchising partnership began. But soon after opening new stores in Richardson and Plano in 1999, a disagreement over long-range retail plans developed. "We just couldn't get together on how we would best move forward," Romano says. He filed suit in 2001 to recoup his $1.4 million investment, and the litigation is currently in the arbitration stage.

Coley, meanwhile, told the Dallas Observer that he didn't want to comment on either his past business relationship with Romano or the ongoing suit.

After a congenial beginning, Romano and Colombo encountered "creative differences" about the running of Nick & Sam's, which they had agreed to name after their respective sons. Wanting freedom to pursue his own management ideas, Romano eventually bought out Colombo and is now sole owner of the Maple Street fine-dining establishment. "It was an amicable separation," Romano says. "No one sued anyone. Patrick and I are still friends, but, unfortunately, it just wasn't a good partnership."

"The fact is," Colombo says, "we're too much alike; we both have our own way of doing things. We just came to a realization that our goals were different and decided to dissolve the partnership. Phil was aware that I wanted to do some things on my own."

Today, Colombo oversees his new restaurant, Ferré, featuring Tuscan cuisine, and a recently opened wine bar called Cru in the West Village. "Phil and his family have visited my restaurant, and we go to Nick & Sam's," Colombo says. "Our wives are good friends." As he spoke, his 4-year-old, Nick, was looking forward to attending Sam's upcoming sixth-birthday celebration.

Romano, then, would like it made clear that he's not soured on the idea of working with someone else. When friend and Dallas investor/real estate agent Luke Crosland came to him recently, saying that he owned a building in Preston Center that he'd like to turn into a restaurant, Romano quickly began outlining a new concept he was eager to try. They formed a partnership, and, in late April, their Lobster Ranch, a seafood restaurant, is due to open. "It will be the only restaurant in Dallas where you can get real New England-style seafood," Romano promises. He also notes that the restaurant's logo is certain to draw attention: a cowboy riding a bucking lobster.

And what does he think the odds are that this latest partnership will last? "You've just got to hook up with the right guy," he says. "It's a little like a marriage. If it works, it's great. If not, you've got to get out. But I have a good feeling about this one."

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