The Untold Truth Of Romano's Macaroni Grill

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Romano's Macaroni Grill is the brainchild of Phil Romano, an entrepreneur ... and artist and author and healthcare investor. Like many restaurant chains, this franchise hasn't survived the past 30-plus years without experiencing some major uphill battles along the way. Romano's has weathered bad press surrounding their menu as well as crippling financial and legal issues that could have sunk the business. But thanks to a new CEO, Romano's Macaroni Grill still lives on. The restaurant remains just as resilient as its curator, who directly benefited — not just financially — from a healthcare investment made in the early days of its inception.

Though some international fusion restaurants may have a somewhat kitschy or gimmicky theming (right down to the décor), it's actually quite the opposite at Romano's Macaroni Grill, which offers a nod to the founder's first generation Italian-American roots. With the success of the Macaroni Grill franchise (and his other related ventures), what more could Phil Romano ask for?  "All I want to do are things that make a difference for others. I want to know I made a difference with my life," he tells Fortune. Read on to discover the untold truth about Romano's Macaroni Grill and the man behind the Bolognese.

Romano's founder was originally in the burger business

Phil Romano, a first generation Italian-American born in upstate New York, originally started his restaurant crusade in 1980 with a San Antonio-based burger chain called Fuddruckers. Perhaps an Italian-style eatery was simmering somewhere in the back of his mind at the time, but in the '70s and '80s, the burger business was sizzling, particular in Texas.

This fast-food-meets-casual-sit-down-diner — aka drive thru and counter service only — has been around for over four decades, and was the first of over 25 different restaurant concepts created by Romano throughout the past 40 years.  

Fuddruckers is known for their larger-than-life burgers, super fresh ingredients, and in true American splendor, wedge cut and sweet potatoes fries rather than those of the "french" variety. On the financial side, Fuddruckers was named the second-best business for potential franchisees by NerdWallet. In its heyday, Fuddruckers had over 500 locations nationwide, but as of June 2021, there are a mere 92 locations spanning across the nation.

Romano's Macaroni Grill is an ode the founder's nonna

Building on the success of Fuddruckers, Phil Romano launched Romano's Macaroni Grill on April 19th, 1988. According to Food Business News, Romano found inspiration for his Italian restaurant concept in the rustic, homestyle dishes that were prepared and cooked by his Italian nonna (grandmother). The original  Romano's Macaroni Grill, first opened in Leon Springs, Texas (now part of San Antonio) in 1988. (San Antonio Business Journal reports that this location is no longer in business after being occupied by Burkle's The Grill, which then closed due to a fire in May 2021.) In 1989, restaurant investment firm Brinker International, Inc. (Chili's Grill & Bar and Maggiano's Little Italy are among the chains currently in its portfolio) purchased the franchise rights to Macaroni Grill from Romano and proceeded to open up over 230 locations across the nation during the next 15 years. 

In its heyday, Romano's Macaroni Grill was considered to be a "next generation" Olive Garden, and had been a flourishing and popular concept at that time (via Nation's Restaurant News). But things went south by the end of the aughts when the chain, like many restaurants across the country, suffered due to the U.S. economic crisis. 

Romano's has gone through multiple owners – and bankruptcy

Romano's Macaroni Grill has been through the ringer when it comes to acquisitions. For nearly two decades, the chain was owned by Brinker, but by 2007, the investment group ended up in massive debt and sold off some of its restaurant concepts including Romano's Macaroni Grill (via Real Money). In December 2008, MAC Acquisitions LLC, an affiliate of Golden Gate Capital (who is responsible for California Pizza Kitchen) purchased a majority stake (roughly 80%) of the eatery (via WSJ). During this four year tenure, MAC Acquisitions LLC closed 40 Romano's restaurants, but deemed it a successful investment since the return was 2.5 times the capital that was originally invested. 

In February 2013, Ignite Restaurant Group — previously the parent to Joe's Crab Shack — purchased the Romano's brand with the intention of revamping it (via PRNewswire). They ended up selling it to Redrock Partners LLC just two years later at a loss. Then in October 2017, Romano's Macaroni Grill filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, citing "a shift in customer preference and an "overall downturn for the casual dining industry" (via FSR magazine).

Romano's had a quick turnaround thanks to a new CEO

Just four months after announcing that it had filed for bankruptcy, MAC Acquisitions had raised enough funds to revive Romano's Macaroni Grill and pull it out of financial ruin (via FSR magazine). But the brand had another trick up their sleeve: their new CEO, Nishant Machado, who is considered to be a restaurant turn-around specialist having "rescued" big-name chain restaurants such as El Torito, Acapulco, and Chevy's Fresh Mex (via Mackinac Partners). According to FSR magazine, Machado joined the Romano's team in May 2017, and guided the chain through the bankruptcy. 

To increase sales and boost Romano's images, Machado focused on the main source of income: the customer. "We take care of guests that come into our restaurants. The best way to double up sales is to get everyone to come back. That's our focus," he tells FSR magazine. In addition to making guests the priority, Machado revised the "honor wine" system (more on that later), created a new brunch menu, reimplemented six menu favorites, and introduced 11 new entrées. As part of their rebranding, Hospitality Tech reports that Romano's acquired Sullivan's Steakhouse. The company is also tackling their international image by stationing restaurants (for both brands) at airports around the nation (via Grill Pro Club). There are currently 41 Romano's Macaroni Grill locations open across the United States.

Macaroni is barely on the Romano's menu

Most people know what macaroni is and what it looks like. When it's mixed with creamy cheese, it's the perfect vessel for the quintessential comfort food loved by the young and old alike: macaroni and cheese. Besides it being associated with a universally beloved dish, macaroni is actually a shape of pasta. In fact, according to The Pasta Project, macaroni (alias elbow macaroni) is actually known as gomiti in Italy. That being said, you'd think that a restaurant dubbed Romano's Macaroni Grill would, of course, live up to their namesake and have some sort of dish that would honor the noodle in its true form.

But that's not the case here. To be fair, Romano's Macaroni Grill's menu does offer fried macaroni and cheese bites as an appetizer — using the actual macaroni noodle — but it's more like a riff on arancini. Other than that, nowhere else on the menu is there an option to have a macaroni-focused dish. That being said, Romano's Macaroni Grill has plenty of other delicious items to choose from, like Tomato Bisque, Ricotta Meatballs and Spaghetti, and Chicken Marsala. They also offer multiple items that cater to the vegetarian crowd, with entrées like Butternut Tortellacci, Fettuccine Alfredo, and Mushroom Ravioli. But if you're still hankering for mac n' cheese, their Signature Truffle Mac and Cheese — made with penne pasta and five difference cheeses — should satisfy your cheesy pasta desires.

They were graded as one of the unhealthiest restaurants in America

Let's be honest: Unless it's their specialty, most chain restaurants in America are not really great sources of healthy, nutritious food. Take, for instance, Romano's Parmesan-Crusted Chicken Salad. While it has a decent amount of protein (64 grams), the restaurant's allergen and nutritional menu reports that this "salad" also has 48 grams of fat (9 grams from saturated), 910 milligrams of sodium, and 100 grams of carbs. According to The Mayo Clinic, a healthy 150-pound adult following a 2,000 calorie diet should consume about 82-136 grams of protein, 44-78 grams of fat (of which 16-22 grams can be saturated), 2,300 milligrams of salt, and 225-325 grams of carbohydrates. That means the Parmesan-Crusted Chicken Salad supplies more than half of all daily nutritional requirements — definitely not a dish that abides by the recommended 2,000 calories per day regime. 

It may not come as a surprise, then, that Romano's Macaroni Grill was given an "F" rating from  Men's Health for the health-factor — or lack thereof — of their food. This was in 2007 though. Thanks to an increase in health awareness — as well as a law enacted by the FDA in 2018 that required all restaurants with at least 20 locations to provide their nutritional and allergen information for public access — the restaurant has since revamped its menu which now highlights multiple options that are 600 calories or fewer.

They offers wine based on the honor system

As an Italian-American, it only makes sense that Phil Romano would incorporate different traditions from his roots and weave them into the atmosphere at Romano's Macaroni Grill. Of these traditions, one of the most hospitable — and trustworthy — is the Honor System Wine. This practice entails leaving a bottle of house wine in the center of the table and allowing guests to help themselves to as much as they would like. This tradition has been removed and reinstated multiple times, and it varies from state to state depending on their laws surrounding alcohol consumption.

Customers are supposed to keep track of how many glasses they've consumed by marking down the number of drinks they've had on the spiffy butcher paper table cloth, though this could possibly pose a bit of a problem if the wine flows a little too freely. However, Romano believes that sitting around a table while enjoying a good meal is where friendship and honesty are built — and elevated by excellent wine (via Business Wire). At least the glasses provided are small water glasses.

Romano's Macaroni Grill items used to be in your grocer's frozen section

In response to demands for more high-quality frozen entrées, General Mills and the marketing team for Romano's Macaroni Grill joined forces to create four different restaurant-inspired frozen meals. These decadent dishes would be available in the frozen section of grocery stores all around the nation (via Food Processing). Toted as high quality and made from all-natural ingredients, these rich and hearty 24-ounce meals served two, and, according to Gabrielle Wesley, Marketing Manager for General Mills, went from freezer to dinner plate in just 12 minutes (via Refrigerated & Frozen Foods).

The line included four non-vegetarian options: Grilled Chicken Florentine, Creamy Basil Parmesan Chicken, Roasted Garlic Shrimp Scampi, and Spicy Italian Sausage Pomodoro. Perhaps General Mills and Romano's tried to expand their offerings too soon when they added additional single-serve raviolis that same year — or perhaps it was due to the poor choice in packaging, because the raviolis looked like they were in an ice-cream container, as described on Reddit.  Ultimately, none of these meals seemed to garner much traction among shoppers and they have seemingly disappeared from grocery stores. 

Phil Romano invested in the heart stent

It seems odd that the founder of Romano's Macaroni Grill would be involved in the healthcare industry, but Phil Romano isn't just a restaurateur — he's an entrepreneur. In the mid-1980s, Romano was approached by two cardiologists who were working on a device that would open up clogged arteries. He ended up investing $250,000 into what is now known as the heart stent. In less than a year, Johnson & Johnson agreed to pay $10 million for it, with a 10% royalty going towards Romano. After three years, the pharmaceutical company ended up paying the three gentlemen $600 million, with Romano receiving a third of that income (via

The hook here is that around 2012, the relatively healthy Romano had not one, but two heart stents put in (via Dallas News). Data Research notes that in just the U.S., over 2 million heart stents are implanted per year, as of 2021. It's a bit eerie that less than three decades after making this device accessible to an innumerable number of people, Romano ended up on the receiving end of his investment. He believes it to be his biggest business achievement, telling Dallas News, "People will tell me, 'You saved my life.' 'You saved my mother's life.' 'You saved my father's life.' I saved my own life ... that's much more gratifying than 'The food tastes good.'" 

Phil Romano put money towards the lap-band and weight-loss protein shakes

In addition to bringing the heart stent into hospitals across the world, the founder of Romano's Macaroni Grill also helped finance the American Institute of Gastric Banding (via Crunchbase). According to Bloomberg, the American Institute of Gastric Banding operates outpatient surgical weight loss centers across the United States, and offers gastric bypass procedures like lap-band and the sleeve for medically necessary weight loss.

In 2006, Phil Romano helped to develop a weight-loss protein shake for patients who had received outpatient bypass surgery (via Dallas News). Through his acquired knowledge of the lap-band procedure and recovery process — not through personal experience — Romano realized that the protein shakes meant to help patients heal their livers (and were required to drink for 30 days) tasted absolutely disgusting. So he and his business partner, Stuart Fitts, brought in a Baskin-Robbins flavor creator to help come up with three appetizing shake options. Of course, the winning flavor was chocolate. That company, AmazeRx Shakes, ended up being a dud and was ultimately shelved after two years of poor sales.

He's written two books

The restaurant and healthcare industries weren't the only creative ventures that Phil Romano dabbled in. In 2005, he authored "Food for Thought: How the Creator of Fuddruckers, Romano's Macaroni Grill, and eatZi's Built a $10 Billion Empire One Concept at a Time." That title sure is a mouthful. You would've thought that he'd authored a cookbook, but according to Dallas News, Romano is an eater and not a cook. According to his website, "Food for Thought" encompassed Romano's entrepreneurial recipe for success and, in turn, earned a spot on the 2005 CEO Best Sellers list. 

His second book, "The MAD Entrepreneur: Making a Difference in the World, In Business and in Life," came out on April 19th, 2019, exactly 34 years after he first opened Romano's Macaroni Grill. In "The MAD Entrepreneur," Romano lays out over 50 years of insights and successes he's had in the restaurant industry. It's similar to: Food For Thought," but updated and geared more towards readers who are looking to start their own businesses or, as he puts it, "those interested in ... capitalizing on an opportunity or realizing a dream," (via Amazon).

Romano also finds time to paint

Yet another surprising fact about this restaurateur (turned medical investor, turned diet shake creator, turned author, and much, much more), is that he's also an accomplished painter. That being said, none of his artwork is going to be gracing the walls of any Romano's Macaroni Grill locations ... yet. While he took up painting in his youth, he sold his first painting at age 68 (he's now in his 80s) and has made over $1 million on his artwork alone (via Dallas News). It just goes to show that you're never too old to change careers or take up a new hobby — if that's not fully obvious.

Like many artists, Romano is very invested and somewhat emotionally attached to his artwork, so much so that his creations are almost like his own flesh and blood. He tells Samuel Lynne Galleries that meeting the individuals who will be adopting — Romano's word for "buying" — his artwork is non-negotiable, because when he purchases art, he wants to "make sure good vibes would be in my home." Romano considers himself to be part of the Reflectionist School, which is grounded in mindfulness, meditation, and the belief in the theory that the universe reflects what one puts out (via Longview Museum of Fine Art).

Romano's Macaroni Grill has their own hashtag for customer artwork

What artists wouldn't want their work shown on a worldwide platform for millions of watchers ... for free? Romano's Macaroni Grill has you covered — though technically it's not really free since you have to eat there. The tables are covered with butcher paper, which might lead you to believe that it's either an easy way to not only keep little kids (or adults) entertained, but also to cut costs by not having to wash linens on a nightly basis. 

Chances are, you've seen kids at restaurants scribbling on their paper menus — or the paper tabletop cover — and seen some impressive artwork. At Romano's, all guests are provided crayons (if desired) and are encouraged to take advantage of the table-sized blank canvas. If you take a photo of your table-side artwork and post it on Instagram with the hashtag #MACGRILLDOODLES, they'll pick their favorites and repost them on the official Romano's Macaroni Grill Instagram account.