This past June marked a milestone for Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises (LEYE) as the company celebrated the 40th anniversary of its first restaurant, R.J. Grunts. Since LEYE’s creation, Richard Melman, founder and chairman of the board, has opened more than 150 restaurants across 11 states.
The restaurant business has been Melman’s life work, beginning with his early days as a teenager working in fast food eateries, gaining experience in his father’s restaurant and a local soda fountain, and selling restaurant supplies. His first break came in the form of a serendipitous meeting with local real estate entrepreneur, Jerry A. Orzoff, in 1970. Orzoff loved Melman’s off-beat ideas and lent him his complete support and confidence, and Melman was drawn to Orzoff as a mentor and friend. Together, they raised $17,000 to create a hip, casual, healthy eatery geared toward young singles in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood.
Melman and Orzoff made the restaurant a true meeting place for the Woodstock generation. The menu was designed to appeal to all guests – from vegetarian, organic and macrobiotic food and juices to hamburgers and milkshakes – and was the first to introduce a salad bar to Chicago diners. Together, the duo hired bright, attractive waitstaff and bartenders and decorated the place with hanging plants and modern artwork. Forty years later, the concept and restaurant’s irreverent name remain the same. Often asked its origin, Melman explains that R.J. Grunts stands for the first initial of each of the partners’ names combined with the sound that Orzoff’s girlfriend (nicknamed “Piggy”) made while eating.
R.J. Grunts opened on June 10, 1971, and within three months was a definitive success, quickly becoming one of the hottest restaurants in Chicago. Now, 40 years later, R.J. Grunts is still popular as ever and is still offering their world-famous burgers and shakes. In fact if you ask Rich Melman to pick a favorite dish, after all these years and restaurants, he will say he still craves the R.J. Grunts cheeseburger (cooked medium rare) with cottage fries.
“It was the first thing I cooked,” Melman said. “I can’t help but be fond of it. I think it’s as good a dish as any we’ve ever served.”