All Work and No Playboy, Restaurateur Rich Melman Thinks He's Within a Hares Breadth of Rescuing the Bunny
Melman, 43, brought more than a clever company name to the job. Since he and a partner opened their first eatery, R.J. Grunts, in 1971, Melman has created 22 other restaurants with equally original names—Jonathan Livingston Seafood (recently closed), Fritz, That's It!, Ed Debevic's Short Orders Deluxe and Lawrence of Oregano to name a few. They run the gamut from funky to high chic, but they all feature excellent cuisine, upscale tableware and an attractive, chatty staff. Together the restaurants gross $40 million in sales. "There are a lot of restaurateurs who know a lot more about food and service," says the jeans-clad, boyish-looking entrepreneur, who constantly chews Bubble Yum to quell his appetite. "But the proper selection of people, their training and motivation—I think that's where I stand out." Last week the world at large got to see just how good Melman's Lettuce was for the Bunny: On Nov. 6, the first new warren, remodeled and renamed Playboy's Empire Club, opened in Manhattan.
At the debut, the traditional Bunnies, still with cottontails attached to those satiny thigh-high suits, were joined by cupid Bunnies, artist Bunnies, Bunnies dressed as astrologers and even Bunnies wearing long slinky dresses. "A lot of what we're doing is tongue in cheek," Melman readily admits. "After all, there is some campiness involved in the Playboy Bunny." To attract women club members, Melman has introduced the Rabbit, a male Bunny decked out in tank shirt and tux. "The only thing we disagreed on was the club's name," he says. "And Hefner finally agreed that the Playboy Club name might be better off changed. He even allowed me to make 'Empire' bigger than 'Playboy.' " Nonetheless skeptics are already questioning whether Bunnies in any garb can ever mix happily with yuppies, and Playboy will wait to see how the innovations sell before it tries them in the rest of its 12 surviving clubs.
Melman is no stranger to risks. As a teen he constantly got into fistfights at school and verbal skirmishes with his late father, Morrie, who hired his son to work in the family's deli-style restaurant in suburban Chicago. They seldom agreed on how it should be run. Once, when his parents were away on vacation, Melman had the place remodeled. "The people didn't like it," says his mom, Bea. "That was very costly."
After drifting in and out of restaurant jobs and colleges, repeatedly being fired and rehired by his dad and failing at an attempt to start his own restaurant, Melman teamed up with Jerry Orzoff, a real estate developer, and opened R.J. Grunts (the "R" for Rich, "J" for Jerry and "Grunts" for the sound Jerry's girlfriend made while eating). It was an immediate success, and so were most of the 11 restaurants the team cooked up in the next 10 years. Melman was stunned by Orzoff's death at 45 in 1981 after heart surgery. "Jerry was the most important man in my life, after my father," says Melman, who occasionally wears a piece of his clothing for good luck. "People today who tell me they like my ideas, I remember them turning me down."
The fast pace of running so many restaurants almost ended Melman's marriage. To save it he has cut his workweek back from seven days to six, and he spends more time with his wife, Martha, 36, and their three children. To keep his whirlwind life in perspective, he also draws on some wisdom he learned from Orzoff. "Success is almost like a mad dog that can turn around and attack you at any time," Melman says. "You need to work on yourself to feel comfortable with the success you've attained." But the Bunnies, having been bitten by the mad dog once already, might not make it if the creature turns on them and Melman now.
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