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Phil Romano

Phil Romano

Phil Romano divides his life into three phases.

First, he wanted to make money. Then he wanted to make a name for himself. But now, he wants to make a difference.

That last motive became part of the name of Romano's new book, "The MAD Entrepreneur: Making a Difference in the World, in Business and in Life."

The Auburn native and founder of restaurant chains Fuddruckers, Romano's Macaroni Grill and EatZi's wrote the book, his second, to inspire young entrepreneurs, he said over the phone Friday.

Romano, 79, attributes his own success as an entrepreneur to knowing his strengths — and knowing how to use them to give customers something they want.

"Being an entrepreneur, to me, is being an opportunist. I don't think about profit, I think about satisfying needs," he said. "The only way to create sales is to create something people want and need."

Though he's best known for the national chains he created, Romano has more than 20 other restaurant concepts to his name. They include Rosalie's Cucina and Johnny Angel's in Skaneateles, where Romano maintains a home. He lives in Dallas, where he paints in his free time and operates a restaurant incubator, Trinity Groves, as well as one of his more novel concepts, the Network Bar.

Part restaurant and part country club, the Network Bar welcomes business professionals into an upscale setting where they can connect. However, one must be recommended by a current member to become one, and pay an annual fee to remain one. Entry also requires accessing an app where users can browse the resumes of other members.

Romano said he created the Network Bar to help young entrepreneurs learn to communicate the old-fashioned way.

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"(Technology) takes out the personal effect," he said. "I want to talk to someone, feel someone's emotions, understand what they're trying to do or say."

With the #MeToo movement, young entrepreneurs also face different expectations concerning workplace behavior than Romano did, he said. The restaurateur was sued for $1 million by an EatZi's waitress in 2016 after allegedly grabbing her buttocks, and settled the suit with her two years later for terms that were not disclosed. 

Though Romano believes women are right to want workplace equality, he questioned whether the #MeToo movement has undermined that goal.

"Men aren't going to want to have women on their team because of the liability of women causing a problem. When you're in a group of men, men act like men," he said. "So why take that chance?"

One young entrepreneur Romano has taught has been his son, Sam, who went to work for his father after graduating from Syracuse University and playing lacrosse there. Romano also comes back to the area to see friends, he said. He moved away with his family when he was 15, his entrepreneurial spirit already stoked by delivering papers for The Citizen and setting pins in a local bowling alley. 

It was in Skaneateles, too, that Romano experienced firsthand the difference he has made in his life. About 10 years ago, he was jogging up a hill when he started having trouble breathing.

By 1 p.m. the next day, Romano had two stents in his heart. They saved his life, he said. And they wouldn't have if, 26 years prior, he hadn't invested $250,000 into bringing the Palmaz-Schatz coronary stent to the market. The investment would make Romano and the two doctors who invented the device $600 million, he wrote in Forbes in 2015.

But that day in Skaneateles, Romano's work became worth even more to him.

"It makes me feel good because I'm doing good things," he said. "I want to make sure the world's a better place because I was here."

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Lake Life Editor David Wilcox can be reached at (315) 282-2245 or david.wilcox@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter @drwilcox.

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I'm the features editor for The Citizen and auburnpub.com, and have been here since 2006. I also cover local arts and culture, business, food and drink, and more.