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.