How one man's creativity is feeding our future.
Phil Romano is probably best known as a restaurateur, but these days, Phil calls himself an artist. His abstract paintings feature bold strokes and unusual colors. He claims that painting gives him energy and is another outlet for his creativity.
Where do creative, energetic entrepreneurs like Phil come from? Romano thinks his entrepreneurial interests date back to a boyhood paper route. The enterprising young Romano came up with a value-added service. On wet, snowy days he would stick the customer’s paper between the storm door and the front door – all for a modest up charge (sometimes paid in cookies, sometimes in dimes and quarters). It wasn’t just about profit. It was about serving his customers.
“You never think about making a profit,” Phil explains. “You think about service, giving the people something they want, and you make twice as much profit.” It’s a win-win. While going to college, Romano set up several Karate Studios. It was the heyday of martial arts movies and Phil thought, “why not?” It wasn’t long before he was pulling down more money than his college professors. One of his karate kids had a dad in the restaurant business. The dad was looking for a partner. That day, Phil hung up his black belt and dove in.
“My restaurants are high energy and what I do is high energy,” Phil chuckles. “If you want, you know, a quiet, romantic place to eat, maybe you should go to a funeral home.”
Phil’s boundless energy begat one restaurant after another. Soon he was on the quest for the great American burger. He launched Fuddrucker’s. It was a totally new concept: toasty, home-baked buns and a butcher shop right on the premises to grind fresh meat.
“You got to go against the, against the grain. You got to have a point of difference.” Fuddrucker’s not only had a point of difference, it had the best hamburger in the country according to the Hamburger Appreciation Society of North America (HASNA). They should know. After all, Phil Romano and his fraternity brother are HASNA’s only members. “Hey, it’s marketing, right?”
But creativity doesn’t sit still. Romano spun off Fuddrucker’s. And his energy exploded into one new concept after another: Macaroni Grill, EatZi’s and Cozymel’s. In the midst of all this success, he even began to dabble in the venture capital game.
Some doctor friends had developed a design for a cardiac stent to prop open clogged arteries. Against the advice of his attorneys and accountants, Romano provided $250,000 in angel funding for its development. The life-saving design was sold a year later to Johnson & Johnson. It was a patent that would save millions of lives and make Romano millions of dollars in royalties. But money isn’t everything.
“Money to me is applause, “ Phil says. “I create things to help people.”
Those days, everything Romano touched seemed to turn to gold. He was making money, helping people and having fun. Then one day, he came face to face with his own mortality. He was diagnosed with cancer and told he had maybe five years to live. It shook Phil up. He decided to make radical changes in his life. And he decided to look for even more ways to give something back to the community.
Phil concluded he wanted to do something to help the homeless. One day, the concept hit him, fully-bloomed. “What if we got a van and go out there and feed them?” Hunger Busters was born––another Romano original––a soup kitchen on wheels.
“This is my community. These are my neighbors. I’ve got to take care of them. I want my city strong, my community strong.” Sounds like that energy talking, again.
Seven years later, Phil Romano is in remission and Hunger Busters is feeding 3,000 street people a week. As he dips his brush into the burnt orange paint and splatters an expressive brushstroke across another canvas, Phil makes a confession. “I’ve always wanted my paintings to hang in a gallery. Today, they do.”
“Of course,” Phil adds. ”I own the gallery.”
As he looks back on his life, Phil Romano has shaken up the restaurant scene and the medical world. He has fed the down-and-out and the well-to-do. His contributions are as inspiring and as impactful as his paintings. They demonstrate something that Phil has always known. Entrepreneurship is not just an outlet, it’s a creative force.
Phil Romano is restaurateur, venture capitalist and a serial entrepreneur. He has launched such restaurant chains as Macaroni Grill, Fuddrucker’s and Eatzi’s. Today, he enjoys painting and helping the less fortunate.