Everybody Loves Romano

The winter darkness was fast approaching, normally the signal to Dallas' street people to begin seeking safety and shelter. Their retreat would have to wait, though, as people like Sundance and Sweetie Pie, Big Chief and Lonnie began to gather with a hundred or so others in a parking lot across from the downtown Dallas Public Library.

It was Wednesday, and the down-and-out's version of a gourmet dinner was soon to be served.

A line had already formed when the converted FedEx van pulled up and a barrel-chested man in jeans and a sweatshirt exited and began to mingle. Even before the freshly made sandwiches, hot soup, fruit and cookies were passed out, trembling hands reached out to shake his. One of the numerous regulars, he was told, couldn't make it. "She's got bad pneumonia and they took her to Parkland last night," he was informed. Another of his favorites, he learned, had abruptly left town for warmer climes. Someone quietly asks if it would be OK to get an extra serving tonight to take back to the bridge. "My buddy's got a pretty bad leg infection and wasn't able to make the walk," he explains.

Few, if any, of those standing in wait have any real idea who their benefactor is. They don't know there was a time he was so wary of them that he carried a handgun for protection while making his rounds. Or that when he first conceived the idea of providing them a nutritious meal once a week his primary concern was not the cost of the project but, rather, that it might simply prove too depressing to carry out. Or that now he finds himself worrying over them, watching the TV weather forecast with a nightly prayer for mild temperatures and clear skies.

To many in the Dallas business community he is a multimillionaire restaurateur famous for inventive dining concepts that have earned him riches and recognition--"the Steven Spielberg of the food business," according to Technomic, Inc., a Chicago research company that charts dining trends. Yet it is a safe guess that none who spooned soup from oversized Styrofoam cups has ever sampled the free caviar or expensive wines at his restaurant Nick & Sam's or fashioned a hamburger at one of the Fuddruckers that was his brainchild or pondered his menu at Cozymel's, Spageddies or Macaroni Grill. Nor had they ever selected carryout at his trendy Eatzi's Market & Bakery.

All they know is that Phil Romano, a first-generation Italian who hasn't completely lost the accent he picked up as a kid growing up in Auburn, New York, is someone who cares about them. Tell them that his former Highland Park neighbor Dick Cheney is now the vice president of the United States, or that he's hosted private dinner parties for kings and owns an impressive art collection, or that he's worth an estimated $100 million, and they aren't likely to even look up from their meal.

"Mr. Phil," says a middle-aged woman with the trademark battle scars of the street--a painful black eye and a sizable scab protruding from her upper lip--"has been good to us. He's our friend." Then, as if sharing a secret she's not sure she's supposed to tell, the woman whispers that he often arrives with more than food. "He brings us blankets and warm socks, stuff like that. He's a nice man. God bless him."

Indeed, for Phil Romano, the 62-year-old entrepreneur who has spent a lifetime dreaming up money-making dining concepts, the idea for Hunger Busters, a rolling soup kitchen that makes stops at several designated spots in Dallas every Wednesday evening to feed an average of 300 people, is the one he now judges his most satisfying.

A man who estimates that more than 200,000 people nationwide eat daily in restaurants that bear his trademark, earning $1 billion in annual sales, he says that a few years back, following a lengthy conversation with a longtime friend and Catholic priest, Father John Waggoner, he realized there was still one customer he hadn't served. "Probably the most important one," he says.

Romano first considered opening a free soup kitchen but soon learned that many in the homeless community viewed such operations with great skepticism. In too many instances, local homeless advocate Clora Hogan pointed out to him, food was served only after religious services, hymns and long-winded lectures on everything from the dangers of drugs to personal hygiene. There were, Romano learned, many street people who believed it too great a price to pay for a bowl of soup.

"So, we found where they were and went to them," he says. Without lectures, Bible-pounding, condemnation or quid pro quo demand. "One way or another, everyone is secretly looking for something to do that will make them feel good about themselves, some way to give a little back. This is my way."