Entrepreneur Of The Year® US National Award winner

RJ Melman | Lettuce Entertain You Restaurants

RJ Melman

Lettuce Entertain You Restaurants

RJ Melman
Chicago, Illinois
Founded: 1971

In the words of our judges

“A second-generation leader, RJ expanded the family portfolio of more than 130 restaurants while personally investing in employees’ financial wellbeing during the pandemic, rebounding stronger than ever.”

Family ingenuity


Ask RJ Melman what feeds the growth of Lettuce Entertain You Restaurants, and the restaurant group’s president will mention three ingredients: employee wellbeing, customer relationships and sustainable practices.


Growing up in the family business, RJ had prime seating when it came to witnessing Lettuce’s evolution. His father, Richard Melman, cofounded its first Chicago restaurant in 1971, and the company now owns, manages and licenses more than 130 eateries nationwide.


RJ joined as a busser when he was 12, and his long-lasting appetite for a hospitality career drove him to eventually become a sous chef at a Lettuce restaurant. He quickly moved up to management, overseeing new concepts in new locations. RJ went on to cook up his own concepts, including a successful nightclub and barbeque-focused music festival, and he and his siblings opened fine-dining spots as Lettuce partners under the brand RPM.


RJ was named President of Lettuce in 2017, and his pandemic-era leadership also led to proud moments. Lettuce never had to terminate any of its 6,000 employees, and only a handful of locations closed, primarily because of lease end dates. And although furloughs were necessary, the Melmans used family money to start a $2 million emergency relief fund that financed $400 bonuses for employees.


The resulting employee thank-yous motivated RJ to solve other pandemic-driven problems. Expanding delivery to the Chicagoland suburbs proved key to Lettuce’s survival, while a rewards program nourished connections with frequent customers. Amid supply chain issues, RJ found creative sources for kitchenware and containers, and Lettuce became one of the city’s first restaurant groups to join a plastics-reduction initiative. In 2021, as staffing challenged businesses everywhere, another solution of his helped Lettuce restaurants: Employees could keep their previous benefits if they to their position within a year.


It’s no surprise that Lettuce has surpassed its pre-pandemic performance, but RJ isn’t resting. He intends to stay hungry for more innovation and hospitality.