With the new restaurant incubator, he expects to receive a real-time education in customers' tastes. Trinity Groves is owned by West Dallas Investments, a company Romano, Fitts and another man, Butch McGregor, formed in 2005 to begin buying up land in West Dallas. Cut off from downtown by the Trinity River, this part of the city is impoverished and has historically been neglected by developers. Settled decades ago by the workers of nearby cement factories and oil refineries and poor farming families attempting to escape the Great Depression, West Dallas is the place where the outlaws Bonnie and Clyde met and fell in love, and from which they dreamed of escaping.
In buying land here, Romano and his partners were placing a long bet on the future of Dallas development. By the time the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge opened last March, connecting West Dallas to the rest of the city, that bet was starting to look like a smart one.
"We're doing it a little bit bass-ackwards," Fitts says of the partners' decision to start development with a 15-acre restaurant project. But the partners believe that turning West Dallas into a hot dining destination could be the first step toward a neighborhood turnaround.
Each Trinity Groves restaurant gets up to $500,000 in funding and 2,500 square feet of interior space, rent-free, plus a patio. In return, West Dallas Investments gets six percent of its gross revenue and 50 percent ownership. As to annual revenue, the partners have set a floor at $1.2 million; anything less is unacceptable. And while Fitts says they won't let any existing chains open locations in Trinity Groves, every restaurant that comes in should have the potential to become a chain, either regional or national, in its own right.
Babb Brothers BBQ & Blues, the first Trinity Groves restaurant, opened last November. The initial vetting process consisted in part of Mike Babb, one of three brothers who run the barbecue joint, bringing in food and homemade barbecue sauce for Romano and his partners to sample.
"We loved his food," Fitts says. Finally, during the third interview, Romano sat Babb down to break the good news: they had decided to fund the restaurant. They would provide $500,000 and direction on how to spend the money. "Are you wearing old pants?" he asked Babb as a precaution. And then, delivering the punchline, his blue streak showed itself: "Because when we tell you what we're gonna tell you, you're gonna shit in these."
When not designing restaurants or funding others' ideas, Romano puts his energy into painting, a pursuit he took up more than 30 years ago. He paints large vibrant works -- two of which hang in Fitts's home -- inspired by Gerhard Richter, Jackson Pollock and other Abstract Expressionists.
"I want to do things that never existed before," Romano says. His plans for the incubator spring from the same impulse: to leave a lasting mark on the world while there's still time. "I'm motivated by fear," he says. "The whole thing could collapse at any moment. That's an everyday thing. You got to realize that you're not invincible."
Romano's Recipe for Success
Take risks, then reap the rewards.
Whether it's a piece of undeveloped land or a new invention, you should take risks when necessary to seize opportunities. Romano once provided $250,000 in funding -- against the counsel of his accountant and his lawyer -- for a heart stent that became the industry standard and netted him about $180 million. What's more, two of these stents now reside in his own chest.
Invest in 'new people.'
Because he wants every business he starts to have a future, Romano focuses on appealing to what he calls "new people" -- young people between 16 and 32 years old who have a taste for new trends and new experiences.
Don't get ahead of yourself.
Many new restaurateurs overbuild and run out of capital. To avoid this mistake, study how major businesses grew so large, and then run yours the way those operated in their early days. Also, seek advice from successful restaurant owners. Buy them lunch in order to pick their brains if you have to, Romano says.