Steve Jobs was a true genius in so many fields of endeavor that there may never be anyone like him. The tragedy of his passing made me think about whether there could be someone from the restaurant industry whose brilliance, entrepreneurial talent and impact might be at least partially comparable. Some well-known names come to mind.
First, there was my leader, Ray Kroc, whose recognition of a timely and attractive burger concept, along with his talent for inspiration, established and grew McDonald's, which became the most famous and consumer-friendly restaurant brand ever.
Then there was Dave Thomas, supremely believable when he claimed that Wendy's served the best burgers in the business. Norman Brinker was another giant of the restaurant world, who spread his leadership over both QSR and casual dining. Joe Lee quietly built the Darden restaurant brands into a colossus of a company, but with less recognition than he deserved. There was Colonel Sanders for KFC, Glenn Bell for Taco Bell, the Carneys for Pizza Hut, Tom Monaghan for Dominos, the Rosenbergs for Dunkin Donuts and Carl Karcher for Carl's Jr.
More recently, we turned our attention to people such as Steve Ells for Chipotle, John Schnatter for Papa John's, Ron Schaich for Panera, and Howard Schultz for Starbucks.
In fine dining, celebrity chefs who own operate restaurants are more famous than ever. Mario Batali, Lydia Bastianich, Bobby Flay, Grant Achatz...the list grows longer each year. There are an unusual number of stars in the restaurant industry firmament — probably more than most other categories of business.
But is there any one individual at the top of the industry hierarchy who could be recognized as a person who was as accomplished as Steve Jobs; who made such an impact on our lives and touched us in so many ways? That's not likely, but just within the restaurant business, is there anyone who attempted such a variety of ways to reach people and serve them? Think about it. Is there anyone you know, even by reputation, who has dipped his toe into so many different ways to please consumers?
I believe there is such a person in Richard Melman. I don't know him that well, (we worked together on a short-term project several years ago) but what I see is a relatively unassuming, down-to-earth guy who has developed more successful restaurant concepts by far than anyone, any time. With the support of an organization that he developed, led by people he selected and mentored, he has created and operated restaurants that touch virtually every segment of the industry. From Maggiano's to Corner Bakery...Mon Ami Gabi to M Burger...Wildfire to Wow Bao...Reel Club to foodlife...the diverse collection of Lettuce Entertain You Restaurants is a monument to Melman's creativity.
He shares the Jobs-like drive for bringing something new into people's experiences, and the discipline to bring his ideas to life. He does not fear failure because he has proven that if the ideas don't resonate with consumers, they can be revised to become viable. He never stops trying to improve the product, constantly tweaking menus and making changes that guests usually love. The managers and employees are precious to him, and he rewards loyalty handsomely. Not just the restaurant world, but the entire business community respects and admires him. And most important, everyone who has met him will tell you he's really a nice guy.
As restaurant people think about Steve Jobs' accomplishments, let's salute our man who best symbolizes what Jobs was all about. We hope to enjoy the accomplishments of Rich Melman for a long time to come.
Barry Klein is best known for creating the Ronald McDonald character and led the "You Deserve A Break Today" advertising campaign for McDonald's. In his current occupation as a marketing consultant, Klein has developed business-building concepts, new products and more for Coca Cola, Pizza Hut, Quiznos, Cadillac, Ruby Tuesday, Friendly’s, Perkins, Pay Less Shoes and others. He has been a key contributor to such projects as Stuffed Crust Pizza for Pizza Hut, Prime Rib Subs and Torpedoes for Quizno