An Interview with Phil Romano

You may not have heard of Phil Romano, but chances are, youve enjoyed a meal in one of his restaurants. Maybe it was a Fuddruckers (150 locations worldwide) or a Romanos Macaroni Grille (190 locations worldwide). Or how about Nick & Sam’s Steakhouse, Who’s Who Burgers or eatZis Market & Bakery? Through these successful ventures, his Dallas-based company, Romano’s Concepts, has generated more than $10 billion in revenue and continues to produce $1 billion in sales each year.

But Phil Romano feels most successful when he turns his entrepreneurial vision to projects that help people, and even save lives. To help feed the homeless in Dallas, he and his wife Lillie created Hunger Busters; today it feeds and clothes over 70,000 people a year. Keenly interested in medical advances, Romano was one of the original investors in the Palmer-Schatz cardiovascular device, the heart stent that has saved millions of lives. Eventually purchased by Johnson & Johnson, Inc., it is considered to be one of the patents that have changed the world. Now hes helping another potentially life-saving idea get off the ground.

Nation’s Restaurant News magazine named Romano one of the top 20 restaurateurs in 2000 and “Innovator of the Year” in 1995. It cited eatZi’s Market & Bakery as the “Hot Concept of the Year” in 1996. The following year, Advertising Age magazine named Romano one of the “top 100 innovative and inspiring marketers who have most successfully established or repositioned a brand.”

Life is good for Phil Romano and his family, and if he can help his fellow man, he’s more than willing to do it. Recently, I had a chance to sit down and talk with Romano about the people who inspire him, the role of passion and vision in his life, and the rewards of being able to change peoples lives for the better.

Did you always want to be an entrepreneur?

I feel like Ive never worked a day in my life because I love what I am doing. Ive never collected a paycheck from anyone else. I had businesses when I was in collegea couple of karate studiosand at the time I was making more money than the professors who were teaching me. Before I got out of school I got into the restaurant business. So I was always writing my own check.

I think that being an entrepreneur and being successful is survival of the unfit. Not survival of the fittest. At least, when it comes to taking orders, I am unfit. I couldn’t hold a job. I couldn’t have other people making decisions my livelihood depended on. And I don’t like doing the same thing over and over again. I realized early that if I was going to survive, I needed to be in business for myself. So I created my own success and my so-called career doing what I am doing. 

Being an entrepreneur, you are out on your own, all by yourself. You start out to do something and people call you stupid or crazy and say it’s never going to work, its insane. You do it anyway and then, when it works, they call you an entrepreneur!

Do you feel that you are a risk-taker?

I have been very, very, very lucky and very fortunate. You ask yourself sometimes, why me? I think that Ive done stupid things, made stupid business decisions, but those decisions got me where I am today. I did things that the Harvard boys wouldn’t have thought about doing, but I did them and they worked. I was just stupid enough to do them. That is the difference.

Describe your thoughts on being a visionary?

I think its important to be able to see things that other people don’t see. When I look at something, a lot of times I can see a better way to do it. For some reason it is clear to me. 

Problems motivate mecoming up with the answer and figuring it out in a unique and different way. I am 65 years old and Im still going. You have to be doing something. So I keep on doing things. I love doing restaurants. Its a passion and a hobby for me. I also enjoy mentoring and I have great mentoring relationships. I enjoy seeing people grow and build careers for themselves. It is really rewarding for me. 

What role does passion play in your life?

Passion is a key. Without passion, your life is nothing. My passion comes from making people happy.

Passion is the thing that you feel when something just possesses you. Like when you are falling in love. I remember when I met my wife, Lillie. You meet someone and fall in love and bangevery waking minute you are thinking of that person. You can’t wait to please that person and be with that person. When I develop a new concept, I get that feeling again. I think constantly of it and I am possessed by it. I have to get out there and create it. I have to spend the time to make it perfect. I am passionate about bringing it into existence.

I’m an artist too, and its the same thing with a piece of art. I dont know where its going to end up, but when I finally get it done, I say, damn, that came from somewhere inside of me! I created something from nothing. Its something I like and it makes me feel good, so its got to make other people feel good.

Thats what I think of passion. We have the ability to know what makes us feel good and what we need in life. If we can go out and produce that thing that makes us feel good, then other people are going to want it too.

What is your personal definition of success?

I guess in life you do what you like to do. Whatever you like to do is what you are going to be able to do best. I like creating concepts, but I don’t like to get involved in the day-to-day operations. I like to do unique things, different things. I would rather fail at something that is unique than be successful at something that is the same as everyone else.

I used to say that it wasn’t the sweet smell of success that made me work hard, it was fear of failure. If I fail, then I fail, and I’m dead in the water. I am an entrepreneur, so I have to pick myself up. But I had good advice from my father. He would always say that a successful man is someone who does something he can succeed at. And when you do successful things, then you are successful.

Is their a spiritual element in your life?

I am not a religious guy, but I am spiritual. I don’t believe that I achieved my success all by myself. I have some help. I talk to God every morning. Its not just praying, but talking and communicating with Him. I pray for my family and for myself, that I become a better person and a good role model. I want to be a better role model for my son, and for my employees and other people, so I try to do good things and to be good. Its not easy being a good role model. You have to work at it. 

What inspires you about Hunger Busters?

Lillie and I get so much back from Hunger Busters and the people we meet. Hunger Busters may be one of the most selfish things I have ever done. I set up the project because it makes me feel good to do it. I worry about the homeless. They are people that many want to forget ever existed. 

What I am doing with Hunger Busters is saying, this is my community and it starts here. Its up to us, the citizens of the community, to take care of the community. Not Washington, D.C., not the government, but us. We are here and we are human beings and we should take care of our community. So we are doing something to make a difference. We are feeding the homeless people and clothing them, and giving them the chance to stay alive and keep warm and have the opportunity to be healthy and functional.

We see many people who are drunk or on drugs. Well, that is their choice. I am not there to be judgmental. I am there to feed another human being who is hungry. The idea started with a friend of mine who is a priest. Father John buried my father and baptized my son. When I built my house here, I built a place for him.

At first, we thought about doing a soup kitchen downtown. I wanted to charge a lot of money to an upscale crowd and use the money we made from them to feed the homeless. So I started researching it. But then I saw the trucks that feed the construction workers drive by. And I thought, why don’t we take that idea and put our meal on wheels?

When we first went out there we fed only fifty or sixty people. Gradually they began to trust us and know us and know that we were going to be there. We haven’t missed a night in four years. Now we are part of their lives. We have built their trust up, built our customers up, and the quality of our food.

It was funny. It was like sitting down and starting a business, looking at the location and what kinds of clientele are in the area, what they like and dont like. When we first went out there we started feeding them apples. Well, they couldnt eat apples because of their teeth. Now we serve them bananas.

When we started Hunger Busters, people couldnt figure out why we were doing this. Theyd come us to us when we were serving food and say, “What do you want me to do for this? Do you want me to pray?  Do you want me to sing?”  They couldn’t understand why we were giving food away with no strings attached. What is important is that they began to know that someone was out there who cared about them. 

So give back to the community that you live in. Make it stronger. This is a big part of being successful. 

How do you choose to impact humanity?

I have always believed that if you are going to do something, then do something that is going to affect a big market, something that everybody needs, and something good that can really help people. 

Years ago, a couple of doctors came to me and said they wanted me to look at a project they were working on. My attorneys said don’t do it. My accountants said don’t do it. But I liked these two doctors, I liked the product and the market, and I felt like it was going to make a lot of money and help a lot of people. So, I decided to do it. I committed at the time a quarter of a million dollars. The doctors continued to do their research and the work that they did best, and I stepped in to do what I did best. We ended up selling it to Johnson and Johnson for $10 million. 

The product is the heart stent, the device that holds a heart valve open during angioplasty surgery. Today it has made almost $600 million. So here is an investment that people told me not to make, but I did anyway. And weve saved lives. What appealed to me about it was how it would impact humanity. To this day I think to myself, wow! A lot of people would not be alive today had I not invested in this. I get thank-you cards from friends I grew up with saying, you saved my life. All I can tell you is, wow, that is a great feeling. 

Today I am involved with something new that is really exciting, helping people with obesity. Obesity is a major problem. It is an epidemic, and therefore a good market for something that helps people.

Currently, the most radical procedure that you can do for obesity is stomach stapling, which reduces the size of the stomach. There is about a 2% mortality rate with the procedure, and it is irreversible. To my way of thinking, it is just not good. You can find yourself back in the hospital with many complications. And it can cost in excess of thirty thousand dollars.

Again, a couple of doctors came to me and told me about a new procedure they were doing. They had just started and already it had been FDA approved. It is a band that is put on your stomach. Your stomach is essentially a tube, and when they put this band around the stomach, it makes it like an hourglass. The procedure is done as outpatient surgery . You go in the morning and it takes forty-five minutes. And it is reversible. If you have any problems, you can go in and have them take it out. It costs about $15,000 and insurance companies are paying for it. It can be done in surgical centers and the market is growing. So we want to buy surgical centers. 

What I like about it is that it is a creative specialty that is helping people. The patients are losing up to 10 pounds a month. And when theyve lost all the weight they want, they can come back to have the band taken out. These doctors are taking morbidly obese people and helping them to reshape their bodies. It’s like taking a big block of granite and making a masterpiece.

Today there are groups of people who are evangelical about this procedure. I love this because I am doing something that is changing people’s lives, possibly even keeping them from needing a heart stent! It builds so much self-esteem for both men and women in the way they feel about themselves. Many times the whole dynamic of the persons personal relationships changes with their spouse and others. I feel that I am helping people get healthy, and that is very rewarding. These are the things that give an intrinsic value to what you are doing. 

Do you have personal heroes?

My biggest hero in my life has been my father. My father gave me a value system. He was a hard-working middle-class man, second-generation Italian. I remember my first restaurant, The Gladiator. I got into it when I was in college after I had sold my first karate school. My dad had told me he would get me the money to buy my first restaurant, and he did. He mortgaged his house. You talk about pressure and the fear of failure! But I paid him back. When we sold the place, I gave him half the profits.

I spent a lot of time with my father. He was a great guy. When he died I was holding his hand. My biggest regret in life is that my father never saw my son. But my greatest joy is that I know exactly how he would feel about the things I have done. In my heart he is there for me and will always be my hero.

What have you learned from your life that you share with others?

I have an 8-year-old son. I have never had a son before. I drive him to school every morning, so I have a captive audience for 15-20 minutes.  I talk to him and tell him things that he should know, things that he has to know. I hope to give him a value system that he can use. Not a black and white system. I am kind of molding him and bringing him up to be able to do positive things. The world has been very good to me, and I am very grateful for it. I want to give back to it. And I want my son be thinking like that too.

I tell my son, Sam, if you do good things, then good things happen to you. If you do bad things, then bad things happen to you. Its that simple, so do good things. I want to teach him values in life, like the value of saving and the value of giving back.

In my businesses, when I create a new restaurant concept, I say, what are the five things that are holy or sacred to this, such that, if they changed, so would the concept and so would peoples feelings about the concept?  And its the same with life itself. In your personal life, you are a concept: who you are depends on what your principles are. I think you have to establish what are the five things that are most important to you. These are things that you try not to deviate from. Its like the Bill of Rights; if we had deviated from them, the United States would not be what it is today. In the same way, if you deviate from your five ideals you probably will not achieve your full potential.

So here are my five ideals:

Number one is principles.  If you ask my son what principles are, he will tell you, Daddy, that is sticking to your deal. Doing what you said you were going to do.

Second is responsibility. That is doing the right thing.  Knowing right from wrong, and always making sure that you do the right thing.

Third is integrity, which is simply telling the truth and having people be able to trust you.

The fourth is love. You have to have good relationships with your friends and the people you work with, and create a good, strong family you can love. That gives meaning to everything else.

And the fifth is to communicate.  Develop the skills to communicate and listen.

So these are the things that I talk to my son about and teach him. And, most important, when you do good things, then good things are going to happen to you.

Interview by Laurel Barrett