You wouldn’t think a successful Subway franchise owner would ever really be concerned with how the steakhouse industry was doing. Yet sitting on the board for the fast casual sandwich chain, Indiana native Bill Humphries traveled-a lot-and ate at just as many fine-dining restaurants along the way.

"I saw an opportunity in the market. I knew the demographic was going to start shifting, and I wanted to create a project that was unique and different," says Humphries. In 2001, the first Eddie Merlot’s opened its doors; today, there are three locations in Illinois alone (Lincolnshire, Warrenville and Burr Ridge), with another on the way in downtown Chicago. Here’s how Humphries went from mastering one franchise to opening another:

ILM+E: How did you first get started in the restaurant industry?

BH: "After graduating from Indiana University and working in market research in Chicago and New York, I came across a Subway shop on a business trip to Florida. I was curious about opening up a location in Indiana and three months later, I became the first Subway franchisee in the state. Today we have roughly 740 locations in our portfolio. In the late ‘90s is when I started to conceive the idea for Eddie Merlot’s."

ILM+E: Why did marketing to women and group business appear lucrative to you in the new project?

BH: "Today, 65 percent of women make the decision on where to eat, so we wanted to design a restaurant that had a comfort level for them. As well, we knew our competitors did not have the large banquet space for 60-80 people at one time, so we wanted to fill that gap. In each restaurant, there are about three spaces that can be acquired for private functions. Each comes equipped with technology and a banquet manager to help facilitate each group with packaged menus, which can range from breakfast and luncheons to appetizers or five-course meals paired with wines."

ILM+E: So how is Eddie Merlot’s different?

BH: "There are a few differentiators. First, we wanted to get away from the cigar and martini bar to a wine bar. We offer 75 wines by the glass. We also have chairs designed for comfort and special lighting that make people want to stay for a while. On our menus, while we have the big hearty steaks, we also have smaller portion sizes, especially for shared sides."

ILM+E: Can you tell us how the restaurant was named?

BH: "A good friend of mine from Texas, Ed Lively, and I were on the board at Subway, and one night, after a meeting, we went out for a wine tasting with a group of people. I was elected to pay the bill and Ed said, ‘Bill, you can order my merlot anytime,’ thus the name was born. When it came time to pick a name for the steakhouse, this was the only one that we were able to get trademarked because, like the restaurant, it’s unique."

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