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."

And, in the Romano tradition, he's begun laying plans to expand the Hunger Busters concept, first to other major cities in Texas, then nationwide. Considering his track record of success, it isn't difficult to imagine the plan becoming a reality.

If one were to attempt to trace the first emergence of Romano's entrepreneurial mind-set, he would venture back to a New York winter when Phil was a sixth-grader with a paper route and a weekend job as a pin-setter at the local bowling alley. It was the paper route, he decided, that offered room to grow. "I was making $9 a week, throwing papers to 96 homes," he says. "Then, when the weather started to get really bad and the snows came, I came up with the idea of knocking on everyone's door to ask what they would be willing to pay if, instead of just tossing the paper in the yard, I put it inside their storm door." The offers ranged from a nickel or dime to free cookies and hot chocolate. A few old grouches, he recalls, offered no additional compensation. "Which was fine," he says as he sits reminiscing in the kitchen of his 9,000-square-foot home. "I felt it best to let the customer set the price." Bottom line: His brainstorm doubled his income.

By the time his electrician father, Samuel, decided he'd had all the northeastern cold weather he wanted and moved his family to West Palm Beach, Florida, 13-year-old Romano was devoted to the work ethic he'd inherited from his late dad. "He was a wonderful role model," he says. "He worked hard, took good care of his family and at the same time was always generous to others. I can remember going with him to the coffee shops where he and his buddies would meet, and he would point out those who never offered to pay or leave a tip. He'd lean down and whisper to me, 'That guy must have fish hooks in his pocket; that's why he never puts his hand in there.'"

Romano has never shied from the work and financial risk-taking that have made him wealthy. By the time he enrolled in Florida Atlantic University, he was already buying all his own clothes, had purchased a car and had a growing portfolio of U.S. savings bonds he'd begun purchasing in his paper route days. And even as he pursued the academic requirements necessary to one day become a teacher and football coach--in high school and later at the semi-pro level he'd been a better-than-average linebacker--he constantly sought new ways to be self-supporting. In the evenings, after college classes, he operated a couple of karate schools. Then, after becoming friends with the owner of a local private investigative agency who expressed the need for an assistant, Romano applied for the job. "Most of the guy's work was divorces and insurance fraud," he recalls. "What he had to do was go out and get the evidence that would prove some guy was cheating on his wife or playing golf when he was supposed to have a bad back. He needed some help gathering the proof." With his linebacker's build, the young Romano perfectly fit the role.

He laughs as he reflects on what he admits were the zaniest days of his professional life. "Sometimes," he says, "we'd do what was called a 'crash job,' rushing through a motel door to take pictures of some cheating husband and his girlfriend in a compromising position. It was a little dangerous, but the fee, which we'd split, was $5,000."

The routine was simple: Romano would burst through the door and his boss would quickly follow, snapping photos. It wasn't always easy. Once, he remembers, a startled man bolted from the bed and jumped out of a second-story window. On another occasion, Romano had to fight off a stark-naked man who had chased him out of a motel room and down a hallway. "He finally cornered me and began pounding away. Trying to defend myself, I took a swing at him. He ducked, and my fist went through a window."

Soon, Romano was in search of a gentler occupation.

"The father of one of my karate students was opening a little Italian restaurant called Gladiator and was looking for a partner. The only thing I knew about that kind of business had come when I briefly had a job delivering ice to bars and restaurants, but the idea appealed to me," he says. Romano withdrew his savings, dropped out of college, sold his karate schools and bought into the business that would become his life's work.

It wasn't long, however, before he and his partner parted ways. "He was a real jerk," Romano recalls. "We couldn't agree on anything, so, six months later, I offered to buy him out." But to do so required more money than the 22-year-old college dropout had. Romano went to his father, who agreed to mortgage the family home to help raise the $8,000 his son needed.

It took Phil less than a year to repay the debt.

"The first thing I learned," he says, "was that I liked the idea of working for myself. I fired the chef, elevated the dishwasher to cook and handed him a bunch of my mom's recipes." He put his mother on the cash register and tended the less glamorous jobs himself. "If a toilet got clogged up, I rolled up my sleeves and took care of it," he remembers.

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."

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."

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.

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."

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.

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.

For the moment, however, the man who has started more than 25 eating places in his 40-year career, who knows that people in 43 states and eight foreign countries frequent restaurants he inspired, is clearly comfortable in a part of today's society most choose to ignore. In a few minutes, it will be time to leave. Yet the man who needs constant reminding of the nonstop schedule he keeps seems in no hurry.

Out of the corner of an eye he notices a car pulling into the parking lot and watches as a neatly dressed man gets out and walks hurriedly toward the van's service line. A frown begins to form as Romano sees the man speak to the volunteer who is ladling soup. "What the hell? Is this guy just stopping by for a free meal?" Romano asks.

Seconds later, his question is answered. The man turns away from the van and walks in his direction, hand extended. "Sir," he says, "you probably don't remember me, but two months ago, I was down on my luck and was one of those standing in that line over there. I just wanted to come by and tell you that things are better now. I've got me a good job, got me a car..."

Now Romano is smiling.

"...and," the visitor continues, "it dawned on me that I never properly thanked you for what you did for me."

That, explains Lillie Romano, is her husband's payoff for his latest brainchild. "You know," she says, "most nights he sleeps restlessly, usually for only four or five hours. On Wednesdays, though, things are different." On that night, she says, he sleeps soundly.

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Carlton Stowers
Contact: Carlton Stowers

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