Omi

We’re excited to check out the new Bub City.

I’ve been trying to avoid this interview! I’ve been dodging it for at least a year.

Well, the time has come. What are we drinking?

We are drinking a Mexican firing squad, which is one of the signature cocktails at Bub City. It’s tequila, lime juice and homemade pomegranate syrup. It’s a classic cocktail, but it’s not normally served frozen.

This concept pays homage to one of your dad’s early restaurants, Bub City Crabshack and Bar-B-Q, which originally opened in 1989. This time you’re teaming up with the guys at Joe’s Bar to make it a whole new type of experience. What can country music fans expect?

I think there is going to be some aspect of a discovery room, young and emerging artists coming here and there are going to be some big shows. I don’t know how often, we don’t exactly know the answer to that, but I think Bub City is going to be a fun place no matter what day of the week. There is going to be live music, DJs and country music everyday. I think it’s going to be fun. That’s the most important part.

Who is your favorite country music artist?

Darius Rucker. I’ve seen him twice in concert and thought he was great. I like Miranda Lambert quite a bit too.

Let’s go back to the beginning, what was your first job?

I was 12 and I worked at the original Bub City. I was a busboy and bread boy. My job was to make the bread that got sent to the tables and drop it off. I was working odd jobs in the restaurants every summer and then when I was 17 I started cooking at Heaven on Seven, the one on Rush Street. I was in the kitchen for a long time. I was a line cook. Through college I worked at Chili’s and did various stints in other cities. From then on I fell in love with the restaurant business.

Did you ever have a plan B?

When I was in high school I was always fascinated about politics and public policy. I was a political science major in college so I probably would have gone into law or politics. Although, during high school I worked on a political campaign for a local representative and I could not have found it more miserable. I was working phone banks and had to solicit voters and ask to talk to people and kept getting hung up on. I found it to be really one of the worst jobs I could ever imagine. It gave me a total distaste for going into politics. I wouldn’t have enjoyed that. I probably would have gone into law. I still find law pretty fascinating.

When you decided to go for it and follow in your dad’s footsteps, what were you hoping to bring to such a successful and established restaurant group like Lettuce Entertain You?

Obviously our dad is a very talented restaurateur, one of the best in the country, if not the best creator of individual concepts and new restaurants. He’s an innovative guy. I think the one thing he doesn’t have is that he’s not 20 or 30 years old. Our perspective is different. My siblings and I connect differently with music than our dad does. You know, he’s still listening to Barbra Streisand and we’re listening to dance music and country music. We just have a different perspective. I think that’s the great balance. Jerrod, Molly and I also each have different perspectives than each other too. We went to different colleges, we have different sets of friends, we have different ways that we look at things and I think that is a huge asset when you can use those together to make something great. The biggest purpose of us opening restaurants is to connect with the public. If we can connect with people our own age, younger or older, that’s spectacular. That’s obviously the goal.

It’s been almost five years since opening your first concept, Hub 51. What do you remember most from that part of your life?

It was a totally different time for us. I know that’s weird to say just five years later, but it was just my brother, my sister, three or four other managers and myself. We were idiots and we didn’t know anything. We were just kind of figuring it out everyday. I had opened probably six restaurants before Hub 51 opened, but never as the creator and director; never really in charge of the whole thing. It was just a fun time. We laughed so hard everyday. We probably fought too.

What is the strongest quality you think you bring to the table among your siblings?

I’m probably the least emotional about things in the group. I’m pretty logical about how things are, good or bad. I think my levelheadedness is an asset. I think that logic outweighs my emotion a lot and that helps balance the other two out—not that Jerrod is rash or anything. I just think it’s good to have balance.

Does your dad still give you advice?

He gives us advice whether we want it or not. So that’s the fun part about it. He’s got amazing perspective. He’s made every mistake and every great decision; he’s done it all. He’s had a 50 year restaurant career that’s been amazing, but at the same time sometimes we like making our own mistakes and figuring it out. One of my favorite times was [when we opened] Studio Paris; it became a much bigger thing than we thought it would be. I remember the first couple of weeks I felt like that was the first couple of weeks at Hub 51 again. We didn’t know what we were doing. It might look like it from the outside, but internally we were trying to figure it out. I actually think that’s the fun part, when you don’t know what you’re doing and you’re doing it. We didn’t know anything about booking great, big DJs. I didn’t know anything about negotiating contracts with William Morris, but it’s fun to figure it out.

Is it hard to date being in the scene and always surrounded by gorgeous women?

Well, that makes it easy to date!

Are you dating anyone?

No.

We thought maybe you were.

I’ve never heard that. And if anyone is surprised by the answer in this interview then they should probably call me.

What type of date would you take someone on?

It depends. I would say dating me or my siblings is probably a little less traditional, right? We don’t work 9-to-5 jobs. The job is all about interacting with people everyday both employees, customers and whatever else you need. You are talking all of the time. Sometimes I like a little bit of quiet on my days off. I want a date that is a little bit lower key; a restaurant where nobody knows me, a movie, something very simple. I’m not looking for a big adventure.

When you became successful with your own money what was something fun you bought for yourself?

About 10 months ago I really wanted a sports car. I’ve never had one in my life, so I said, “Hell with it!” I went and bought it and I absolutely hated it and I traded it in four months later. I loved the car, loved the way it looked but once I drove it I decided I didn’t enjoy it. I can’t explain it. I’ve always been a guy that drove SUVs and trucks. So I will never buy myself a gift I thought I wanted again! Though, I did just redo my kitchen at home, so that was a gift I gave myself. It’s great for cooking and entertaining. The main thing I use my house for is for having a party a couple times a year.

You say you don’t often get starstruck. Who have you met along the way that you’ll always remember?

Since the restaurants have opened I’ve had the chance to meet a lot of my childhood heroes and I think that’s pretty cool. I got to meet Derek Jeter—I’m a huge baseball fanatic—and some legendary baseball players. We had five Hall of Fame Yankees in for dinner one night. So that was really, really special for me. I was certainly in awe.

Most fun memory?

We’ve had some amazing things and really kind of silly things that have happened in Studio Paris. That’s kind of been a magical place. A couple months ago Coolio just came in and said he wanted to rap. We plugged in a microphone and he jumped on stage and rapped a couple of songs, including “Gangsta’s Paradise”. It was nuts. That goes in the category of kind of surreal [moments].

You originally didn’t plan to have bottle service in any of your venues. What made you guys change your mind?

Well, I don’t think we were club types from the beginning. We got into the club business certainly by accident. Sub 51 was a space Jerrod and I didn’t know what to do with. I think it was Jerrod’s idea and he said, “Let’s try bottle service down here one time.” We knew nothing about it but we are fortunate to have mentors in the industry. We went to work everyday and after work at 2 a.m. we went to the 4 o’clock bars and literally would measure how big the tables were by measuring with our feet. We’d try to figure out how big the aisles were. We knew nothing about how things should be laid out. Initially we thought Studio Paris would be a very simple extension of Sub 51. We thought Studio Paris would be bigger but pretty easy to run and it just exploded to say the least. I still love Sub. I have equal fun at both places.

Do you see yourself with kids one day, having little R.J.s runnin’ around?

Sure. I don’t know what the plan is, but I probably won’t call them R.J.

One thing that would surprise people about you?

I don’t know. I guess I’m surprisingly un-reflective. I’m not a big drinker. I don’t know if that’s surprising or not. I like nightclubs, but I don’t necessarily like drinking.

Favorite movie?

When I was growing up I loved the movie “Grosse Pointe Blank”. It’s a John Cusack movie.

Go-to meal?

I love the burger at R.J. Grunts. A simple cheddar burger or a Grunt burger which is blue cheese and fried onions. It is awesome.

If you could have a drink with anyone, who would it be?

Tony Gwynn.

Which of your restaurants would you take him to?

Maybe RPM.

Photography by Neal Agustin

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  • Dr Paul

    The Melmans are truly business geniuses of course, but there’s something extra going on in their stunning successes. While their establishments are the go-to venues for A-list actors and musicians who live in or tour through Chicago, it’s their natural way with everyday customers that takes their start-ups and makes them thrive for decades – unheard of in the restaurant industry. What they do can’t be learned in a school, or an internship, or even from a business mentor – (except if they are your mentors) – because it’s in their blood to treat an ordinary person as if you were famous. Shrewd at business, but it’s not just “good customer service.” The welcome you’ll feel from all levels of staff is clearly because everyone who walks through their doors really is, to them, “A-list.”

  • apgouds

    Great site, its cool!!!

  • Beth Hull

    Melman’s Mexican Firing Squad drinks look delish! What a fun place to visit…like the American Flag…very patriotic. Another place we hope to visit when in Chicago. Great interview that reveals some nice personal touches about Melman’s life. Like strating work at 12 year of age as bus boy/bread boy. Hard working and successful…along with love of family.

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