Everybody Loves Romano

Page 6 of 6

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.

KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Carlton Stowers
Contact: Carlton Stowers

Latest Stories