David Tamarkin profiles RJ and Jerrod Melman
TOC's dining editor follows the sons of Lettuce Entertain You's Rich Melman as they gear up to open an ambitious new French restaurant.
Wed Sep 29 2010
It’s 9pm on a Friday night, and to the sons of Lettuce Entertain You boss Rich Melman, that’s early. Really early. So early that they can escape from their restaurant, Hub 51, and deliver food to the White Sox locker room. The night is young. The Sox are hungry. The boys like making the Sox happy.
They climb into a Range Rover Sport and drive south. R.J., 31, is at the wheel. Jerrod, 28 this month, sits in back. In the trunk are trays of food: chopped salad, shrimp ceviche, short ribs, brownies.
The quiet in the car is interrupted by R.J.’s phone. He keeps getting text messages: Are you working? His friends—or maybe they’re just acquaintances—have arrived at Hub, and they want to know if R.J. can get them a table, bump them to the top of the wait list.
He texts them back at red lights.
At U.S. Cellular Field, the Rover glides through a security checkpoint—the boys are regulars—and rolls to a parking spot. A team of assistants pushes a trolley to the car, and the Melmans help load it with food. They wheel it inside and set up a buffet. Above the spread, they press a small poster on the wall: HUB 51: RESTAURANT. SUB 51: NIGHTCLUB LOUNGE.
More texts. R.J. steps out of the room and starts typing into his phone.
Are you working?
Yes, the Melman boys are working. The Melman boys are always working.
When R.J. and Jerrod opened Hub 51 in June 2008, the media and the public were dubious. At ages 29 and 25, respectively, how seriously would the brothers take their first solo venture? Likewise, with a menu that read as if it had been written by a starving Brody Jenner (a compendium of sushi rolls, nachos and burgers), how seriously was the public supposed to take it? Were the boys sincere about being restaurateurs? Were they just playing with their father’s money? Finally, there was the larger question: Was Rich Melman—the man who started Lettuce with R.J. Grunts in 1971; the man who went on to become one of the country’s most admired restaurateurs, and certainly the most influential restaurateur in Chicago; the guy who created Wow Bao, Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba, Everest, L2O, Tru and M Burger, among many others; the one who is (mistakenly) credited with inventing the salad bar and (correctly) credited with bringing tapas to Chicago—ready to pass the torch? And if so, would his sons put down their beers long enough to pick it up?
Anybody who doubted the boys could pull off a restaurant has since been silenced: Hub is a major success, busy from almost the moment it opens to, on the weekends, 2 or 3am. But one successful restaurant doesn’t make for the next Rich Melman. To continue the success that LEYE has had, the boys will have to prove they can open restaurants of every persuasion, from takeout spots in malls to gastronomic powerhouses. And so far at Hub, the attention of Chicago’s rabid food obsessives has eluded the boys. Their food is perceived as merely a supporting factor of their success, secondary to Hub and its small downstairs club Sub 51’s celebrity-magnet vibe.
This fall, that perception may change. The brothers have taken over the former Brasserie Jo space down the block, where they’ve installed not one but four heavyweight chefs. By November, the restaurant, called the Paris Club, will open its doors, and the Melmans will face a new test: If the restaurant succeeds, they’ll exchange their bro image for one of restaurateurs who are not only serious about food but may also possess their father’s legendary savvy in creating profitable restaurants in every category and price point.
But if the restaurant fails, it’s just them and the nachos.
What do you guys drink?
Jerrod: We don’t drink that much.
But if you had to pick something.
Jerrod: Same. I’ll have a gin martini.
R.J.: What do you drink?
Gin. But I can’t handle martinis.
Hub 51 is a restaurant that is, by definition, hard to describe. Sushi is a big part of the menu, but it’s hardly a sushi restaurant—there’s no sushi bar in sight. On weekends, women arrive at the restaurant in slinky numbers that fall off their shoulders, and high heels, and generously applied eye shadow. But when they sit down, most of them order tempura green beans and guac. Buried on the menu are dishes that appear to be attempts at finer dining—overnight-braised short ribs, filet mignon—but these, the boys admit, are the restaurant’s weaker sellers. The purposeful lack of direction is indicative of who the Melman boys were when they opened the place: young, hungry. No, literally—hungry.
Thus, you can be forgiven for assuming the Melmans subsist on junk food and Hub Punch, the sweet tequila concoction that flows from the restaurant’s taps. And you could follow that same line of logic and assume Sub 51 is how these boys roll late night: with bottle service, unlimited Veuve Clicquot and DJs flown in from L.A.
But you’d be wrong. Or at least half wrong. Frat boy technically can be applied to R.J., who pledged ZBT at University of Kansas and whose old Facebook profile picture shows him gripping a 40 of Budweiser and wearing a shirt that says BROTALLY. But R.J.—who, like his brother, claims 14-hour days and just bought a townhouse—has since seemed to trade his college habits for businessman ones. And Jerrod never had those college-boy habits to begin with. After one year at Arizona State, he moved back to his childhood home and commuted to DePaul. “College was something I needed to get done so I could go and work,” he says.
Neither brother had spent any time in a club before opening Sub. That’s why it started as just a lower-level bar. The Melmans remember Sub’s earlier vibe as somewhat horrific: too hot, too crowded, an inferior sound system. And everybody kept asking for bottle service, which the boys were philosophically opposed to. Jerrod in particular hated the exclusivity he associated with clubs. “Restaurants mean saying yes to people,” he remembers thinking. “Clubs mean saying no.”
Rich expressed confusion when his sons told them about the bottle-service dilemma—People want to spend money and you’re not letting them? he asked—and so the boys relented and got to work.
“We’d work from 8 in the morning to 2 in the morning,” R.J. recalls. “We’d wait to close here and then go to [clubs], because we didn’t know anything about the club business. I mean, literally. We’d never met a DJ before. We’d never hired a DJ. We called everybody we knew associated with the business and picked their brain….”
The boys replaced the sound system, instituted a reservations-only policy, made bottle service a requirement for a seat and hired Matt Roan to book the DJs. Soon, Sub 51 had been embraced by the Hub 51 crowd. And by the DJ scene. And by the boys themselves, who, to their surprise, suddenly found themselves in the nightlife business.
Jerrod: From ages 6 to 11 I wanted to be a comedian.
Jerrod: I realized I wasn’t depressed enough.
None of the Melman children—neither the boys nor their younger sister, Molly—report being pressured to join Lettuce. If they experienced any professional pressure at all, they say, it was to find their passion, no matter what that passion may be.
R.J. was a debate champ in high school and college, and dabbled in politics. But after working on one campaign, he headed straight for restaurants. (He had been working at various Lettuce joints, on and off, since he was 7.)
Molly entered Teach for America after college and taught in New York for a few years. But she hated it and now works as a manager at Hub.
Jerrod toyed with the idea of being a comedian. It was a short-lived dream: In 2001 he took a hosting job at Second City, hoping to immerse himself in the scene. But “everybody was sitting around, smoking and reading The Onion,” he recalls. “I couldn’t relate.” One gets the impression it wasn’t the smoking or reading that bothered him, but the sitting around. Both Jerrod and R.J. are carrying on their father’s tradition of working, nonstop (or, as they would say, almost as nonstop)—even when they could be playing. Last year, comedian Pat McGann approached Jerrod to tape a pilot for The Chicago Stand-Up Project, for which Jerrod would write an act and perform it for an audience. Even though it was just a pilot, Jerrod went all Melman on it anyway, trying out his act at multiple open-mic nights before going in front of the cameras. (The show was picked up by WTTW but the pilot hasn’t aired.)
“On the surface, Jerrod is more sarcastic and more standoffish and so forth,” Rich says. “Even though R.J. is this teddy bear that likes everybody, Jerrod is more attuned to people and is probably the guy who, if you had to go to the hospital, he’d be the guy to take you.”
Not that either boy appreciates being typecast.
“Do you always wear blazers to work?” I ask Jerrod.
“Don’t stereotype me!” he screeches back.
R.J.: I’d say we have two, maybe three concepts we’re actively working on.
Tell me something about them.
Jerrod: This guy. You’re such a pain in the ass.…
There is a rumor out there.
R.J.: What’s the rumor?
R.J.: False. False.
R.J.: Completely false.
Jerrod: We saw that there were too many people doing burger places. I think we started to see that it was too much. We don’t want to be doing what everybody else is doing.
So what’s the next burger joint?
R.J.: French. French is the next burger joint.
Since opening Hub 51, the Melman boys’ idea that pulled chicken nachos can make for a successful, celebrity-magnet of a restaurant has spread throughout the broader Lettuce Entertain You empire. In May 2009 the boys opened La Grande Orange (LGO for short) in Santa Monica, outfitting it with a menu almost identical to Hub’s. But the boys’ influence extends further than their restaurants: Earlier this month Lettuce gave Mity Nice Grill, a dinerlike concept that opened in Water Tower Place in 1993, a complete interior and menu overhaul. Now on the menu: pulled chicken nachos.
“The boys are part of us,” says Chris Meers, one of Lettuce’s executive partners and the mentor assigned to the brothers when they were opening Hub. “We’ve learned from them.… They’ve focused on that 20–30 crowd like nobody else in the company has.” It was a natural move, then, for the company to look to them when considering what to do with Brasserie Jo. With the lease on the space coming up, Rich was unsure whether the restaurant was still on the right track (despite the fact that, financially speaking, Rich says it was still doing well). At the same time, the boys couldn’t help but notice their neighbor’s buzzless existence. At 10pm on any given night, most restaurants on that stretch of Hubbard Street—Rockit, Social Twenty-Five—are just getting started. But Brasserie Jo was getting ready for bed. “The energy in the restaurant didn’t match the energy on the street,” Jerrod says.
If there’s something Jerrod and R.J. believe they can bring to a restaurant, it’s energy. In the short time Hub has been open, the boys have enticed celebrities both visiting (Phoenix, Glee cast members, Michael Cera) and local (Bears, Sox and Cubs players) to visit the restaurant. (They’re mum about how they do this, but their Hub 51 Black Card program, whose members receive 40 percent off their checks, probably helps.) Ostensibly, they will bring this energy (and celebrity attention) to their new concept in the Jo space. But that is one of only a few Hub elements they plan to take with them.
“The [French] restaurant is not where we were two years ago,” Jerrod says. “Inherently, a restaurant is a representation of the people—”
“Of the time and place…” R.J. interjects.
“—creating it,” Jerrod continues. “And two years ago our passion was coming up with the best homemade tortillas and coming up with the best homemade tacos. And we’re still very passionate about those things. But now we’re seeing food that maybe we wouldn’t have been excited about two years ago. That is truly exciting to us.”
As much as the boys insist they put a lot of work into (and are proud of) the food at Hub, they admit the French restaurant will have a stronger identity as a place to eat—whether you care about being seen or not. It’s hard to imagine the restaurant not getting buzz from the food paparazzi: The quartet of chefs involved in the place are Walter Manzke, who received rhapsodic reviews for his work at L.A.’s Church & State; Tim Graham, the former executive chef at TRU who will be the French spot’s executive chef; Doug Psaltis, the former cook at New York’s Country; and Jean Joho, former executive chef of Brasserie Jo.
The boys are walking a tricky line: They want their new place to be serious about food, but they want to avoid “serious food” altogether. “In France, coq au vin is done one way. It’s not up for interpretation,” R.J. says. But “for us, why can’t it be up for interpretation? It doesn’t mean anything to us.” With that as the restaurant’s philosophy, the French spot will serve French food that’s a little twisted. Frisée salad will arrive not with crispy lardons but with soft pork belly. Beef bourguignonne will be made with short ribs. Escargot will be served by the piece; frites will be made with sweet potatoes. At Hub, punch and beer flow from the taps. At the French place, wine will.
“I very much like a lot of the food at Hub,” Rich says. “But it’s not what I would call a foodie place.… I think this restaurant is going to grab a lot more food attention.”(He’s likely right. After all, TOC didn’t do a cover story on the Melman boys when they opened Hub 51.)
As if to signal how serious they are about the new restaurant, the boys have asked Gordon Sinclair, the chef-owner who single-handedly turned River North into an eating destination with his now-defunct restaurant Gordon’s, to mingle with guests at the restaurant during its first few weeks. It’s the kind of move that’s encouraging to Rich: “I said to myself: Good. They’re getting it. They’re already doing things that they wouldn’t do at Hub.”
Still, when asked what they hope people will say about them after eating at the French spot, the boys contend they really don’t care. “The easy answer is, ‘I hope people say we’re serious about food. Wow, these guys really know food,’” Jerrod says. “But I don’t worry about that, do you?”
“Yeah,” R.J. says. “I don’t worry about what they’re going to say.”
But after thinking about it more, R.J. relents: “What do [we] hope people’ll say about us? That hopefully we have some versatility. The ability to do something that’s fun. And new. And different. Outside what you’d expect us to do.”
Did you just give that girl one of your Silly Bandz?
Jerrod: Yes. It’s called flirting.
Which Silly Bandz did you give her?
Jerrod: I gave her the kangaroo. Are you really going to write about that?
Jerrod: What’s interesting about that? Don’t write about that. What if I’m not single?
But you told me that you are single.
R.J. and Jerrod are aware that being a Melman has afforded them certain opportunities. The restaurants would have been harder to get off the ground, obviously, had they not had their father as a partner and adviser. They also know their last name garners attention. When a reporter asks them what their childhood was like, R.J. says, “I assume you’re asking what it was like growing up with Rich.”
Still, the shadow most people are interested in is not the one the Melmans live under, but the one they will cast. The boys contend that when they’ve climbed further up Lettuce’s ladder, the company will still look as it does today: eclectic. Innovative. But what the company looks like today directly correlates to who Rich is; what it will look like in 30 years depends on who R.J. and Jerrod become. In a company that was built on restaurants that reflect the owner’s personality, who the Melman boys are is a glimpse into Lettuce Entertain You’s future. And there’s a lot at stake: LEYE now boasts 84 outlets operating under 38 brands in eight states—including 36 in the Chicago area, ranging from M Burger on the low end to L2O on the high, generating some $340 million in 2009. If the brothers are sometimes careful not to reveal too much about themselves, this could be why.
But at Sub 51, in the middle of a typically long Saturday night, it’s hard not to see who they are. They watch from the corner of the club as tables fill, DJ Spider gets the crowd riled up and bottles of Veuve are ceremoniously delivered by waitresses carrying oversized sparklers. R.J. purses his lips and dances a little with nobody in particular. Jerrod stands in the DJ booth, looking ill at ease, stoically playing with the lighting. He makes the lights orange. Then pink. Then orange again.
Later, the boys have switched places: R.J. is in the booth, and Jerrod is standing on a banquette in the corner, where he can see the entire crowd.
He points to a corner of the club. The energy is too low there, he says. It’s bringing the vibe down. He steps off the banquette and whispers something into the doorman’s ear. Ten minutes later, the low-energy people are gone and the bouncer has installed a new group in its place. They’re rowdier. They dance more. They will probably order more booze.
Doesn’t Jerrod ever just want to get a drink and join them?
He grimaces and shakes his head. “I’ll drink on my birthday,” he says.
But that’s just once a year.
“I’ll drink on R.J.’s birthday, too. So that’s twice a year.”
He brings a walkie-talkie to his mouth. “R.J., make the lights orange,” he says. Across the room, R.J. pushes the headset deeper into his ear.
“The lights,” Jerrod shouts. “The lights!”
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