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.

Crosland, who admits he has no expertise as a restaurateur, agrees. "It has been a privilege for me just to watch Phil create Lobster Ranch," he says. "He's the most innovative person I've ever been around. He went up to New England, spent some time visiting a lot of great seafood restaurants, then came back with the idea he wanted to develop."

Romano readily admits that his usually reliable "gut instinct" has not always been on target. Shrugging, he ticks off several examples:

While still in San Antonio, he launched Stix Eating Spa, an upscale health-food restaurant that people stayed away from in droves. Disappointed, he hired a marketing firm to determine why. "The good news," he recalls, "was that demographics showed that our average customer was in the $75,000-and-up income range. The bad news was that there were only 6,000 of them living in the entire city." He finally took a million-dollar bath and shut it down. Another disappointment was We Oui, a Dallas-based French restaurant that would serve healthy portions at reasonable prices.

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."

When he launched Eatzi's, he was sure the gourmet take-home meal concept was ideal for the on-the-go New York commuter. But after opening a market and bakery in the high-traffic lower level of Macy's, the popular Manhattan department store, Romano watched as people didn't so much as slow as they passed. "The problem," he says, "was that we didn't understand the New Yorker. Once he gets off work, all he wants to do is get the hell out of the city as fast as he can. And he doesn't want to carry food items home on the bus or train or subway." The New York Eatzi's was soon money-losing history.

Still, at last count, two dozen of his concepts have been successful. And he says he's not through. "I like to think that my best idea is still out there somewhere," he insists.

And when it does come into focus, he'll build on it, make it work and then pass it along.

"Most businessmen," says Romano's longtime friend and San Antonio-based attorney Cecil Schenker, 59, "rarely want to turn loose of something they've nurtured to success. The fact that Phil has consistently been able to come up with an idea, prove it a good one, then turn it over to a management company...is what has made his career unique."

"When Phil Romano opens a new concept, it's as if he's producing a Broadway show," David Swinghamer of the New York consulting firm Tabla and Eleven Madison Park recently told Nation's Restaurant News. "Everything has to be in exactly the right place."

As if things weren't going well enough, Romano hit another gold mine in 1986 after a couple of doctor friends convinced him to join them as investment partners in a newly invented stent that could be implanted by surgeons and keep the collapsed arteries of heart patients open. Despite repeated warnings from financial advisers that he stick with opportunities he knew something about, Romano bought in for 30 percent. "We eventually sold the stent to Johnson & Johnson for $10 million and royalties," he says. At last count, he'd earned more than $160 million from that investment.

Lest his story sound like pure storybook fantasy, it should be noted that there was a dark time in the San Antonio phase of Romano's life. In 1989, doctors diagnosed a cancerous growth on his appendix. Following surgery, the then-42-year-old underwent chemotherapy treatments that caused his hair to fall out. "I didn't tell anyone about the cancer, not even my parents," he says. "Anyone who asked what had happened to the ponytail I wore at the time was told that I'd shaved my head after losing a bet."

The experience, he admits, triggered a drastic change in his life. Once assured he was cancer-free, Romano told his wife, Lydia, to whom he'd been married for 26 years, that he wanted a divorce. "I'd spent a lot of years doing what others wanted me to," he admits, "and I had just reached a point where I no longer wanted to be married.

"I left San Antonio and moved to Dallas to start another new life," he says. Once again, Phil Romano was reinventing himself. He would hit town as the free-spirited CEO of Romano Concepts and creative consultant and joint venture partner of Brinker International.

Only the free-spirited part would be short-lived. While visiting California, he met 21-year-old Lillie Triche, a recent graduate of Louisiana State University who was managing a Fuddruckers. Soon, a serious courtship, helped along when he had a Porsche delivered to her home, was under way. They were married at The Mansion on Turtle Creek in 1993, and three years later son Sam was born.

Romano, realizing that there would be those quick to chide him for having a child at such a late stage in life and wishing to beat them to the punch, began wearing a custom-made T-shirt that carried the message, "I'm NOT the grandfather."

The twilight is now giving way to darkness as the volunteers pass out the last few meals and blankets are being distributed. Nearby, Romano watches, nibbling on a leftover cookie. Tomorrow, he will be back at work.
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