By Tom Karow | From the Fall 2011 issue of Roosevelt Review
"We’re expanding and we’ll need someone to run our corporate office. Why don’t you do that?”
That question asked 37 years ago by Jerry Orzoff resulted in Roosevelt alumnus Bob Wattel becoming a senior executive of Lettuce Entertain You, Inc., one of the nation’s most innovative and successful restaurant companies with 5,000 employees and more than 80 restaurants in six states.
At the time, Orzoff (who died in 1981 at the age of 45) and his partner, Richard Melman (currently founder and chairman of Lettuce), were operating three restaurants in the Chicago area, including Great Gritzbe’s Flying Food, where Wattel was working as the third-shift manager, often getting home at three or four in the morning.
“I hated the hours and I had come to the conclusion that managing a restaurant was not for me, especially since I had three young children,” Wattel recalled. “I was ready to take another job when Jerry and Rich created the position.” Wattel, who now has the title of “founding partner” at Lettuce Entertain You, first met Melman at Roosevelt University where they were business students. Both enjoyed sports and were members of the Praetorians, a fraternity where they participated in intramural athletics. Wattel graduated in 1961 with a bachelor’s degree in business administration.
After Roosevelt, the former classmates remained close friends and Wattel was one of the first people to work for Melman and Orzoff in their newly formed restaurant company. In 1968 Melman was the best man at Wattel’s wedding. “The best part of going to Roosevelt was that I met Bob Wattel,” Melman said. “He has now been my partner at Lettuce Entertain You for 37 years and has been invaluable to me. Over the years he has done just about every job in the restaurants from watching the pennies and paying the bills, to being the head buyer, to managing a restaurant, and eventually to heading up our marketing department. I’m proud to call Bob my longtime friend and partner.”
During the past 40 years, Lettuce Entertain You, Inc. has enjoyed remarkable growth and a stellar reputation for excellence. It now owns or manages some of Chicago’s most popular establishments like Shaw’s Crab House, Scoozi!, L20, Wildfire, Mon Ami Gabi and Tru. In addition to the Chicago area, the company’s 55 partners operate restaurants in Minneapolis, Las Vegas, Washington, D.C., Santa Monica, Calif., Scottsdale, Ariz. and Atlanta.
The vast array of unique restaurants under the Lettuce umbrella has been a major reason for the company’s success. “Rich (Melman) is still our creator,” said Wattel, a soft-spoken Chicago native who still enjoys going to work every day. “He has a knack for listening to what people say and knowing what the market will bear.”
This year that creativity was recognized when Melman won the Outstanding Restaurateur Award “for high national standards in restaurant operations and entrepreneurship” from the James Beard Foundation. The Beard awards are considered to be the Oscars of the food and beverage industry. During an interview in his office on Sheridan Road in Chicago, Wattel pointed to scores of framed menus from restaurants Lettuce has operated since 1971, restaurants with such colorful names as Jonathan Seafood, Fritz That’s It! and Lawrence of Oregano. “Many are closed now,” Wattel said. “Concepts change and leases expire, but they all had good runs.”
Although sales at Lettuce Entertain You slipped during the recession, they have rebounded strongly this year, especially at its high-end restaurants. Wattel believes people who were saving money by eating at home have now decided it’s time to go out and enjoy a good meal.
Throughout its existence, Lettuce Entertain You has worked to maintain a reputation for quality service. “If you’d ask me who are the most important people in our company, I’d say the servers because they touch the customer,” said Wattel, who oversees customer service. “We’re always looking for personable employees. We believe 49 percent of an individual’s makeup should be technical skills like knowing the menu and prices, but 51 percent should be emotional skills — being able to deal with customers. An unfriendly server can ruin a meal.”
If a dining experience turns out to be unpleasant, it is Wattel who often deals with upset patrons. “We always ask them to give us details about the problem so we can correct it,” he explained. “Then we may say, ‘Thanks for the feedback. Here’s a $25 certificate so you can go back and try us again.’ Turning a negative into a positive is what it’s all about.”
The Roosevelt alumnus, who also is responsible for marketing, is particularly proud of three successful ideas he created to encourage diners to try the firm’s various restaurants.
The Frequent Diner Club was started a dozen years ago and now has 100,000 members. Participants who join for $25 get points every time they eat at a Lettuce restaurant. The points can be redeemed at other Lettuce restaurants or for wine, spa packages or trips.
Wattel also developed the Lettuce gift card program which makes it more convenient for people to use the restaurants.
Cards are sold in $25, $50 and $100 increments and are used like debit cards until the value has been fully redeemed. The concept is particularly popular in November and December because participants receive an additional gift certificate which is redeemable during the winter.
His third innovation is a direct mail piece which is sent once a year to approximately 200,000 homes in the Chicago area, providing those who eat at the restaurants with certificates or frequent diners’ points. “We have had an unbelievable return on this piece,” Wattel said. “The results are well beyond what anybody who does direct mail has achieved.” What’s next for the Lettuce executive? Work. Wattel said he still loves what he is doing and has no immediate plans for retirement. “It’s been a great run and I plan to continue doing what I am right now,” he said.
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