Serial Restaurateur

UPDATED: February 11, 2013
PUBLISHED: February 11, 2013

When it comes to restaurants, Philip Romano’s hunger is never satisfied. He’s the first to admit that he gets bored quickly—a characteristic that repeatedly has sent him back to the kitchen to whip up another batch of success.

Mastermind behind the Fuddruckers and Romano’s Macaroni Grill chains, Romano grasped early that he didn’t fit in. “What got me started was realizing that I don’t think like other people think,” says Romano, 73, the creator of more than 25 successful restaurant concepts and an entrepreneur, painter, investor and philanthropist. “That made me unfit to work in harmony with others. So I decided I had to create my own destiny.

“I was in college and working on a business degree, and bored with the whole thing. It was all the same-old, same-old. What I was learning was how to work for somebody else. How to make someone else successful and someone else’s company successful. I told myself that if I’m learning to do that, I may as well learn how to do that for myself.”

Breaking the Rules

An Italian boy from a working-class family in upstate New York, Romano has always been comfortable being out of sync with conventional thinking. In the clean-cut 1980s, for instance, when most businessmen donned suits and ties, he sported a ponytail and an earring.

And when launching his enterprises, Romano has continually rejected the traditional “location, location, location” thinking. Instead his mantra is “authenticity, authenticity, authenticity.”

He began applying that rule in his Florida startups during the 1960s and ’70s, when he launched about 15 restaurants—“some very successful; some I sold too soon; some I didn’t sell soon enough. I learned; I made a good living.”

When he moved to Texas to start more restaurants, he dished up authenticity in the San Antonio area and later in Dallas. In fact, the first Romano’s Macaroni Grill was built in Leon Springs, Texas, an unincorporated town about 20 miles northwest of downtown San Antonio. Looking at rural land dotted with dilapidated shacks in late 1987, Romano envisioned an Italian restaurant mimicking his grandfather’s kitchen and offering old-style Italian recipes, affordably priced.

“I wondered, ‘If you put a great restaurant in the middle of nowhere, with great food and great service, would people seek you out and come?’ I decided to try it. I saw other Italian restaurants created by corporations. I did this one based on my heritage. My grandfather always put tablecloths on the table. He put flowers on the table. Light bulbs strung up in the kitchen. And he made wine and took the jug of wine from the cellar and put it on the table. And everyone congregated in the kitchen while he was cooking. I wanted to bring that nostalgia back.

“I also wanted big bowls of food. Pasta is inexpensive. You don’t have to charge $20 for veal scaloppini,” Romano says. “We made ‘peasant food’ that people gravitated to and identified with. And we couldn’t keep people away; it was that good.”

What Romano served up at Macaroni Grill was what he calls the “wow factor”—restaurants focused on exceeding customer expectations.

Romano sets principles in stone for every restaurant, a philosophy he carries into his personal life with his wife, Lillie, and 16-year-old son, Sam. “What you do is give your business a Bill of Rights, just like with the United States. And you don’t compromise. You may add more, but you never change your core concepts.”

Once Romano gets an establishment up and running, he moves on. “After my first restaurant, I realized I liked the restaurant business. So I kept doing it, one concept at a time. I’d get restaurants to about 80 percent of where they should be. Then I’d sell because I’d want to do something else. Create another idea.”

A Not-Quite-Typical Jock

Interestingly, restaurants weren’t even on the menu when Romano first began cooking up his success story.

After attending a Florida community college, playing semipro football in California, and earning black belts in karate and judo, Romano transferred to Florida Atlantic University and opened two of his own karate schools in the Sunshine State. “It was about the time the first James Bond movies came out… and martial arts were popular. My schools took off like crazy, and at the time, I was making more money than my professors.”

The father of one of Romano’s students approached him about a partnership in an Italian restaurant. “I thought to myself, Why not take a chance? It’s an American boy’s dream: food, booze and women. What else could I ask for?”

Romano sold his karate schools, left college and invested in The Gladiator in the 1960s.

About six months into the venture, he suggested to his Gladiator partner that one buy the other out. “I didn’t have any money. I’d sold my schools [and invested the money in The Gladiator]. So I went to my father, who was a hardworking middle-class guy, an electrician. He told me, ‘I will get you the money.’ ”

His parents mortgaged their house to help him. “That was one of the turning points in my life. If I failed, I would have lost my mother and father’s home.

“That is what I think motivates a true entrepreneur. It’s not the sweet smell of success, but the fear of failure. An entrepreneur is taking a chance. He’s betting the ranch half the time. He has to work his butt off to make sure it works. Everything is on the line. He believes in himself and that he can do it.”

Under Romano, The Gladiator was successful, and he subsequently opened the Nags Head Pub. Then he sold The Gladiator and more than repaid his parents.

Then the 1970s economic doldrums made him consider a change in venue. He was asked to look at a San Antonio country club that needed reinventing. In his eyes, the problem was that everyone in San Antonio knew the club’s owner, but not him. “Who am I? A carpetbagger from the East Coast coming to Texas? I won’t stand a chance.”

Although Romano declined that offer, which had included partial ownership, he kept thinking, What does San Antonio need that I can give? “They had just changed the liquor laws from BYOB to establishments being able to obtain liquor licenses. I thought to myself, There’s an opportunity. I know how to do that. That’s my business. And people here don’t know how to do that. They’ve never had bars. But I know and understand that.”

Romano initially opened a thriving Shuckers seafood restaurant modeled after one he pioneered in Florida. Then he created a small upscale private club, Enoch’s, and invited 25 of the city’s most influential people on opening night and served steaks, Caesar salads made tableside and more. And he picked up the tab.

After dinner he quizzed his guests. Did you like the place? Would you want to bring friends? “Here’s what I’m going to do,” Romano told the small gathering. “I’m going to put a lock on the front door. You have to be on the list to get in. And everybody here tonight is on that list. What I would like for you to do is give me the names of other people you’d like to have on that list, and I’ll send them a letter saying you recommended them.”

Romano’s core customers grew to more than 6,000 private members, and the restaurant was “packed all the time. It got to be quite the rage.” So, of course, that meant he would soon sell the enterprise.

But he grew restless again, wanting to try a concept he could replicate on a larger scale. “I thought about it, and came up with the hamburger, because I love the hamburger. McDonald’s was king. I looked at the quarter-pounder. It was consistent. Always looked the same, tasted the same, but what they constantly changed was the price. They would charge more and more, but not make it better. I thought: Wow, here’s an opportunity.

“I decided to go out and make a much better hamburger.” The result: Fuddruckers, World’s Greatest Hamburgers, launched in 1980 in San Antonio.

Romano established these key principles for Fuddruckers: He ground beef on-site and grilled patties to customers’ specifications in an open kitchen for all to see. Buns were baked on the premises, with heavenly aromas wafting from the bakery. Condiments were fresh, numerous and close-by, so customers could build their own burgers. The kitchen surrounded the dining room. And there were big outdoor patios, so guests could indulge in a picnic atmosphere if they wanted to eat outside.

“I put the restaurants in high-density areas, where young people were living in apartments,” Romano says. “They could get beer, burgers and a back yard. And bingo, it worked.”

In 1983 Romano took the company public. “I got out of Fuddruckers when I had about 80 of them around the country. It was time to do something else. I had contributed all I could. I had the right people in place. I slowly but surely made an exit, turning it over to people who had helped me make it successful in the first place. I tried to retire.…

“I had more money than I could spend. I built a big house. I played all the tennis I wanted and flew off to wherever I wanted to go. But I got bored and wanted back in the restaurant business and to be in touch with people again. It was in my blood.”

Thus, the birth of Macaroni Grill. Still living near Leon Springs, Romano looked out an upstairs window at the landscape far below. He drove out and found an old dance hall and a functioning grocery store-gas station among the buildings. He called around, found the owner and paid $600,000 for the acreage and structures.

And there, in 1988, Romano’s Macaroni Grill was born. “We ate in the kitchen when I was growing up. I wanted customers to come through the kitchen and see food being made. I made real Italian food, like when I was a boy. I even had the Italian American club over to visit, and little grandmas gave me their recipes.”

Mike Taylor, co-chair of the Leon Springs Business Association today, remembers the first Macaroni Grill. “I was college-age at the time,” Taylor says. “It was immediately very successful. The food was spectacular. It was away from the city, yet you always had to stand in line to get in.”

Romano had another winner: “We couldn’t keep people away. I knew it was time to do something, and I didn’t want to deal with another big corporation, as I did with Fuddruckers.” He remembered something from the early days of creating and expanding Fuddruckers: Norman Brinker—creator of the Steak and Ale, Bennigan’s and Chili’s chains—had visited one of the restaurants and asked that Romano give him a ring.

So Romano dug up Brinker’s business card and called him.

“It was the first time we’d ever talked. I said, ‘Hi, this is Phil Romano, returning your call.’ Norman’s response was, ‘That was 10 years ago.’ I told him I didn’t want to call him back until I had something else really good to show him.”

His schedule full, Brinker sent a representative to visit the following day. A day after that, Brinker showed up himself. The two restaurateurs cooked up a deal. Romano received stock in Brinker’s company, which he later sold for more than $30 million. In exchange, Brinker purchased the Macaroni Grill concept in 1989 and took it national.

“Norman wanted me to come work for his company, to make sure Macaroni Grill was run right,” Romano says. “I told him I didn’t work for anyone and hadn’t had a job since before I got out of college. I can’t take orders. I can’t be told what to do. I’m a misfit.”

Romano tentatively agreed to be a consultant at Brinker for 30 days. Either man could nullify the agreement if not satisfied. “That lasted 15 years,” Romano says. “I helped him do several other concepts. I’d own 50 percent, so I would have complete control. We became joint venture partners and kept rolling. When Norman [who died in 2009] left and his successor took over, he told me to deal with his marketing department. That’s when I walked away.”

Today the silver-haired Romano is still cooking up deals. His latest pursuit is what he calls a restaurant concept incubator in a revitalization project in Dallas—now his hometown—near the Santiago Calatrava-designed bridge, an architectural masterpiece connecting downtown Dallas with the adjacent working-class neighborhood. The incubator will provide funding and guidance to up-and-coming entrepreneurs, chefs, restaurateurs and the like who want to start and own businesses. A committee of investors will help with financial issues; experts also will assist with concept creation, menus and cooking techniques. He envisions restaurants, fresh fish and meat markets, retail boutiques, music and theater venues and more on 75 acres.

“This will be for Dallas what Ghirardelli Square is to San Francisco,” Romano says. “There are many creative young people out there. They need money; they need mentoring and a little wisdom. I enjoy helping people. I remember, when I was young, I needed help. I’ve never forgotten that.”

Romano expects the project to create at least 1,000 new jobs within the first couple of years and more after that. “We’re giving back to the community. It’s a win-win for the city, entrepreneurs and restaurant industry,” which needs new concepts.

Asked whether he worries about a down economy, Romano laughs.

“I don’t think the economy has too much to do with opportunities. If you come up with the right idea, even in a bad economy, you can make a mint. If you come up with a good idea in a good economy, you can make a mint. It’s just coming up with the right idea.”

So will he ever slow down? “I’ve been given the opportunity to be creative. I really think it’s a gift from God. Using that creativity and doing something with it is a gift back to God.”