It was 1996 and Bill Humphries was on to something.
“As a development agent for Subway restaurants in Indiana and Ohio, I was on the long-range planning committee for Subway worldwide,” says Humphries. “I saw data that said the steak house and restaurant industry was going to have to change. The research indicated the steak house business needed to cater to women and get rid of the ‘clubby’ atmosphere of dark wood and cigar smoking.”
Humphries took that message to heart and started creating business models that would take the steak house industry to a whole new level for the coming decade.
“In the ‘90s, steak houses typically appealed to the 50-plus age category. So, I started playing with models and asked myself, ‘How would I want to create a steak house with the demographics that would apply to the next ten years?’ I built a model that still catered to the Baby Boomer age group, but to others as well: the 30-something age group, women and business. The research showed that women make the majority of evening dinner arrangements for both business and personal reasons.”
Humphries took those three demographics and put them into computer models and painstakingly designed the first-of-its-kind Eddie Merlot’s steak house that opened in October of 2001 in the Jefferson Pointe Shopping Center on Fort Wayne’s near southwest side.
“We wanted people to walk in and say ‘Wow!’ and we wanted the experience to be wow!”
Finding the perfect name for the upscale restaurant started out as a tedious chore, but ended in a chuckle-worthy account.
“I went through about one hundred different names with the trademark attorney and I couldn’t come up with anything that wasn’t already taken. So, after hitting a lot of road blocks, I said, ‘Put in the name Eddie Merlot’s.’ The attorney’s response was an emphatic ‘What’s that?’ “
Humphries explains that it stems from an evening of wine tasting while on a Manhattan business trip with a group of fellow Subway board members.
“We ordered seven different merlots for the tasting and I asked the server to wrap the bottles in paper to hide the labels. The winner was the Nickel & Nickel merlot. On the way back to our hotel, one of my dear friends on the board, named Ed, jokingly told me, ‘From now on, you have to order the merlot.’ I responded by nicknaming him Eddie Merlot. So, the restaurant name comes from drinking some merlot with a good friend one night in Manhattan.”
There are now 13 Eddie Merlot’s restaurants around the country serving prime-aged steaks, seafood and an impressive wine list in opulent settings.
“We just opened the thirteenth one this past March in Boston,” says Humphries. “I picked Fort Wayne for the first one because it was home for me and I thought, ‘If I can make it here in Fort Wayne, Indiana, I can make it anywhere.’ ”
By 2018, the restaurants were well-established, but enough time had passed to warrant research on the marketplace and again, changes were needed.
“We did our homework and in 2019, started implementing a new demographic segment that we were going to go after. And then COVID hit.”
The plans to revitalize the brand were put on hold and the focus shifted to surviving the storm through smart, innovative moves.
“We offered online ordering with contactless, curbside delivery as well as pickup,” says Humphries. “We called it ‘Merlot to Go.’ Last summer, we came up with ‘Eddie’s Butcher Block’ and sold filets and ribeyes to people that they could grill at home. We hand cut all of our filets and we ground the trimmings into hamburgers, and they’re great. We also sold Wagyu hotdogs. I can’t even tell you how much of that product we sold – it just flies out of here. We offered those items again this summer.”
All of the restaurants are open now, but the pandemic still weighs heavily on Humphries’ mind.
“It has to, because we’re still in the middle of it,” he says. “We continue taking lots of precautions and have suspended our valet parking, but plan to bring that back in the future. We just want to proceed very carefully.”
The crowds are returning and Humphries says it’s been reassuring to see larger groups of 20 or more making reservations.
Pre-pandemic, the Eddie Merlot’s menu carried more than 85 items.
“We reduced that by 40 percent, but we’re still offering the top sellers at each location,” says Humphries. “Our steaks are some of the finest beef that we can find in the country. We source it from a 100-mile radius of Omaha, Nebraska. We know the farms where it comes from and we know how it’s humanely raised and how it’s produced. Our Wagyu beef comes from a supplier in Australia and they will not sell their brand to any other competitor. We sell a tremendous amount of bison in filets and a ribeye. It’s very low in fat and calories, high in protein and full of flavor.”
Humphries says food quality is one of five key areas of focus based on the results of a survey of more than 1,200 guests.
“The other four areas are hospitality, atmosphere, a great place to dine with friends and attentiveness to our guests. That research is part of a comprehensive program that we break down by age group and it shows us what we have to deliver inside of the restaurant. Our biggest challenge in the restaurant industry today is people – getting the people who want to represent the hospitality industry. We look for people who will exceed our competitors, which is a huge challenge in the marketplace.”
Nonetheless, Humphries never settles for second best and is always persevering as he looks forward.
“Our focus as we look toward 2022 will be to implement the brand revitalization we were working on before COVID. This fall, we are commemorating the 20th anniversary of the first restaurant in Fort Wayne with a huge celebration Oct. 2 through 9 at all of our locations. We’re trying to find some wines that are 20 years old and are going to bring back some items from the original menu in 2001 and hopefully offer them at that price point. And our world-famous carrot cake will be free for every guest that week.”
Also this fall, Humphries says he is looking forward to giving back to the community through the local Make-A-Wish foundation.
“Eddie Merlot’s is the primary sponsor of the Make-A-Wish gala that my wife and I started two years ago. Giving back to a community that has been so good to us is a high priority. Last year, we raised more than $115,000 and this year, we hope to exceed $200,000.”
Another approaching milestone for Humphries: 2022 will mark his 40th anniversary in the restaurant industry.
“This industry is always changing and we’re looking for ways to meet the demands of the marketplace. But one factor that never changes is our dedication to our guests to ensure a memorable experience with every visit.”
Address: 5646 Coventry Lane Fort Wayne, Indiana 46804
Phone: (260) 434-0055
Years in Business: 20
Number of Employees: 640 at 13 restaurants in
Products & Services: Eddie Merlot’s is a premium chain serving prime-aged steaks, seafood and a lengthy wine list in plush surroundings.