One college summer in 1971 when I returned to Chicago, I witnessed a powerful culinary moment: the simultaneous appearance of McDonald’s breakfast item, the Egg McMuffin, and the arrival of something that would become a dining phenomenon–the salad bar. That was at a Chicago northside restaurant.
The founders of both businesses were entrepreneurs from Illinois. Ray Kroc set down his headquarters for McDonald’s franchises outside of Chicago, having bought the rights to the name; Rich Melman, partnering with Jerry Orzoff, came up with the idea to open an eatery geared toward young singles who loved rock music, funky décor, casual clothes and an all-you-can-eat salad bar. (Rich) Melman and (Jerry) Orzoff paired their first initials, added the sound a pig makes when eating and baptized the establishment R.J. Grunts in Chicago’s Lincoln Park.
When the salad bar at R.J. Grunt’s opened, it was veggie-laden and offered much more than greens. “You gotta get over here,” one friend said. “They have chopped liver.” On a salad bar? Really? Today there are over 50 items, from soup to pudding.
A month after its opening, R.J. Grunt’s caught the public fancy and took off like a barn fire. Seemed like Melman was somehow able to guess what people wanted before they even knew they wanted it.
And the Egg McMuffin? It had staying power and changed with the times. Today, you can get an Egg White Delight McMuffin.
See, kiddo, my dad said. It’s Chicago. If you can’t start a business here, you can’t start it anywhere. Rich Melman and his Lettuce Entertain You enterprise now own nearly a hundred food establishments all over the country. And the golden arches? Everywhere but the moon.