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.