Phil Romano flips on the light at his Dallas art studio and waits for my reaction. Whoa. Around the room are huge, flashy wall-size canvases—all painted by Romano—full of loops and splashes and dribbles of color. “What do you think?” he wants to know. Good question. I think the guy is a frustrated abstract expressionist. I also think the paintings are a window into the mind of one of the smartest restaurant idea men in the country today. Look at his art and you can see what makes his restaurants work: dramatic colors, grand gestures, high energy, and a penchant for painting outside the lines. “Other people look at what has been done so they can make it better,” he says. “When I do something, I make it different, so people will remember it and talk about it.” Trim and fit at sixty, Romano has been a restaurateur for forty years. He’s owned or started some 25 eating places, first in Florida and then in Texas, where he has lived since 1976. His two biggest creations are Fuddrucker’s and Romano’s Macaroni Grill, both national chains. A third, Cozymel’s Coastal Mexican Grill, has thirteen locations, mainly in Texas and the Midwest. EatZi’s, a gourmet-to-go store and produce market, opened in 1996 and has four outposts, two of them in Texas. On any given day, almost 200,000 people in 43 states and 8 foreign countries eat and shop at Romano-inspired enterprises, and by Romano’s estimate, his ideas have generated cumulatively more than $8 billion in revenues over the years. Within the industry, colleagues rank him among the two or three top concept men in the country. They speak of him with awe, comparing him to Steven Spielberg and describing him as a wizard who can imbue an idea with the sizzle and magic that make it a megahit. Not bad for a first-generation Italian boy who started out with a Florida spaghetti house named the Gladiator. Dreaming up restaurant ideas has made Romano a multimillionaire and a happy man. “I love what I do,” he says. “I can’t wait to get up in the morning.” He and his second wife, Lillie, 38, have a 4-year-old son, Sam, who is Romano’s first child. “I have a T-shirt that says, ‘I’m not the grandfather,’ he adds, laughing. But he’s also a restless man, one in thrall to the entrepreneur’s compulsion to create new things. So he is fine-tuning three additional restaurants, all in the Dallas area, that are already up and running: Nick and Sam’s, a sleek steak-and-seafood house; Wild About Harry’s, a fast-food spot selling only hot dogs and frozen custard; and Wé Oui, a casual French bistro. (A fourth idea, his own charitable project, is food vans—he calls them “rolling soup kitchens”—that he hopes will be feeding street people in Dallas by October; he’s thinking of calling the operation Hunger Busters.) When he judges that an idea has germinated sufficiently, he turns to Brinker International, the Dallas-based parent of Chili’s and other major chains, to see if it is interested in buying and reproducing the concept. Since 1988 it has rolled out three of his most popular creations—Romano’s Macaroni Grill, Cozymel’s, and eatZi’s.
These days Romano isn’t slowing down, but he does sense a change in the air. For one thing, he is itching to start painting again. “When I’m doing a restaurant, I don’t do art,” he says. “I do the design and the colors, so the restaurant fulfills my artistic needs. The whole time I was doing Wé Oui, I didn’t pick up a brush.” But now that this latest offering is on line and has become an enormously popular destination for the habitués of trendy Dallas eateries, he feels the old urge returning. “My guy is already stretching more canvases,” he says.