Everybody Loves Romano

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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."

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Carlton Stowers
Contact: Carlton Stowers

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