The burger business is a way of life for these former McDonald’s executives, who’ve launched their own gourmet burger restaurant as a retirement project.
Tom Dentice picked up the phone one day and was surprised to hear the voice of his longtime friend, Ed Rensi. The two worked together for 33 years as executives at McDonald’s, before retiring in the 1990s and going their separate business ways.
Rensi called his good friend to discuss the idea of the two of them starting a new gourmet burger restaurant. Rensi had done some research and came away convinced that the idea could work. “The baby boomers want their hamburgers, but they want a different kind of hamburger,” he says. “They want Gouda or blue cheese on their burger, and they want to be able to have a glass of wine with their hamburger.”
Both men had dabbled in other business ventures following retirement. Rensi bought a NASCAR race team that he operated for 12 years. “I loved the competition,” he says. Dentice went to work for a franchise photo developing company, before taking a year off.
Dentice wasn’t so sure about Rensi’s idea, at first. “I thought he was crazy,” he says. Still, it didn’t take much convincing to get him on board. After all, he wasn’t ready to retire full-time. “I love to fly fish, but I can’t fly fish every day.”
In August 2010, after months of preparation and plenty of spirited discussion, Rensi, 67, and Dentice, 72, opened up their first Tom & Eddie’s, in Lombard, at 348 Yorktown Center. Since then, other locations have sprung up in Geneva at 1042 Commons Drive, Deerfield at 740 N. Waukegan Road, and Vernon Hills, 1260 S. Milwaukee Ave. There are plans to open a fifth restaurant next spring, in Naperville.
“We wanted to open a family-friendly restaurant that gives customers three essentials: delicious food, exemplary hospitality, and an overall extraordinary dining experience,” says Dentice. “We tried very hard to think of everything.”
That they did. Tom & Eddie’s has quickly gained a reputation not only for its food, but for providing a fun and relaxed atmosphere for guests, whether they’re celebrating an anniversary or just meeting friends for lunch. “It’s not home, it’s not work, it’s the third place in your life, where you can go for great social opportunities and great-tasting food, because our staff really does care about service and the food we provide,” Rensi says. With a wide grin, he adds: “Plus, it’s entertaining, because Tom and Ed work there.”
We Just Clicked Right Away
Their names are displayed together prominently above the front door, but Dentice and Rensi couldn’t be any more different from each other. Rensi’s the serious one; he’s direct and to the point. Even during his own lunch, he barks orders to the server about busing tables and making sure the window blinds are properly adjusted. “Ed is always thinking,” Dentice says of his partner. “He’s a strategic thinker who spews out 100 ideas a day. He’s the guy who best articulates who we are.”
Dentice is the mellow one; he likes to work the room, greeting customers as they come and go throughout the day. “Tom is thorough, detail-oriented, has a good sense of style, and he doesn’t hesitate to tell me when I’m right and wrong,” Rensi says. “While I’m more interested in strategy, Tom’s more interested in people.”
The business partners concede that they disagree on almost everything, except what it takes to make the best burger. “We argue about stupid stuff, like whether the wood should be walnut or cherry,” Rensi says.
“And business card designs,” adds Dentice. That dispute was settled when they decided to design their own cards.
“We debate things hard,” Rensi says. “There are no easy answers in business. The margin of error is so small today, that you can’t make mistakes anymore. There’s too much competition; I don’t care if it’s a hardware store or a restaurant.”
Even beyond philosophical differences, Dentice and Rensi have an Odd Couple quality to their friendship and working relationship. They love to tease each other, whether it’s about the business or pheasant hunting, a hobby they enjoy doing together during their free time.
While they didn’t know each other at the time, Dentice and Rensi began flipping burgers in the mid 1960s at McDonald’s restaurants that were just miles apart in Columbus, Ohio. Dentice needed a job after serving in the Air Force; Rensi, with a wife and baby to support, responded to a “help wanted” sign for a job that paid 85 cents an hour.
The pair quickly moved up the McDonald’s corporate ladder. Rensi was 27 and Dentice was 31 when they were promoted to executive positions. “I got lucky when I went to work for McDonald’s,” says Rensi. “They put a lot of trust in young people and let us learn from our mistakes. You’d never have that experience in business today.”
Dentice retired in 1997 as executive vice president. His wife, Aggie, continues to serve as chair of the Friends of Ronald McDonald House Charities, and on the board of trustees for Ronald McDonald House Charities.
Rensi retired as CEO of McDonald’s USA in 1998. He was instrumental in starting the Ronald McDonald House Charities, an accomplishment he calls “the most important thing I did in my life.”
While they agree that their past careers were invaluable, and taught them about teamwork, commitment and attention to detail, Dentice and Rensi know their new business venture is no threat to the Golden Arches. “We’re not competing with McDonald’s,” Dentice says. “The only thing we have in common with them is that we both have burgers on the menu.”
The owners did their due diligence before opening Tom & Eddie’s. They put together a small team to develop the menu. The team quickly settled on a mission: to put “good taste in everything we do.” Next, they began scouring the Chicago region for high-quality ingredients.
Another important step was forming a partnership with the Culinary and Hospitality Center at the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn. In 2009, Tom & Eddie’s hosted an eight-week test restaurant at the college, serving more than 1,100 meals to friends, students and members of community organizations, for the purpose of gathering feedback about the food and service.
The feedback was analyzed and the menu tweaked accordingly. “We used their dining room to operate our restaurant two days a week for three months,” says Dentice. “We invited 200 people a day to come in and eat for free, which helped improve our recipes and concept.”
Perhaps the most enjoyable part of the research was traveling across the country to visit the biggest, best and latest burger joints. In addition to Chicago, the business partners ate their way through New York, Atlanta, Las Vegas and various cities in Florida. “We didn’t order a burger, we ordered burgers,” Dentice says. “We gained 25 pounds each.”
A Unique Dining Experience
The Tom & Eddie’s menu features nine signature burgers, along with chicken sandwiches and hot dogs. All burgers are fresh 100 percent all-natural Angus beef in hand-formed patties and the chicken is 100 percent all-natural skinless and boneless chicken breast. Ingredients are purchased locally whenever possible. The sauces are made in-house. “The key to any burger is high-quality, good-tasting meat,” says Dentice. “What’s the point of putting all the toppings on if you can’t taste the burger?”
The Ampersand burger includes applewood smoked bacon and Wisconsin smoked Gouda cheese, topped with a fried egg. If you’re hungry for an alternative to beef, there’s the Yin & Yang – a house-made edamame burger garnished with tomato, sliced red onion and eggplant spread. The Islander is a Sushi-grade ground Ahi tuna burger, topped with fried wontons, crushed wasabi peas and wasabi mayonnaise.
“We got the normal deluxe burgers out of the way,” Dentice says. “You have to have burgers like mushroom Swiss on your menu. Those are the things people want. But then we thought, ‘how can we make it different?’ We learned a lot from our chefs. Like the Bushel & A Peck burger. Granny Smith apple slices, walnut butter, melted Brie cheese and caramelized onions? I’m like, ‘you can’t put that on a burger.’ But you take that first bite and say ‘wow.’ We worked hard to try to think of everything.”
Other items on the menu include gourmet French fries, sweet potato fries, homemade chips, homemade onion straws and a variety of soups and salads. Those who save room for desserts enjoy milkshakes made with Haagen-Dazs ice cream, fresh-baked cookies, ice cream sandwiches and build-your-own floats. Tom & Eddie’s also offers an assortment of beer and wine.
The Tykes & Toddlers menu includes healthy and organic choices, such as all-natural Angus hot dogs, chicken strips, mini cheeseburgers and sides like baby carrots and apple slices. Instead of crayons, children are entertained with games such as cool bead maze and the Find It game, a tube of tiny recycled plastic pellets with hidden objects.
A typical meal costs between $10 and $12, and all children’s meals are $4.99. Tips are discouraged. “You shouldn’t have to pay for good service,” Dentice says.
A Comfortable Environment
The lime green and white booths at Tom & Eddie’s are large enough to seat six guests comfortably. There are larger tables, too, and plenty of seats at the front counter, which is called the Chef’s Table. It’s an ideal spot to linger over a meal and watch the kitchen staff at work, or chat with the servers. Photos line the walls, showcasing the restaurant’s use of fresh ingredients, such as vine-ripened tomatoes, Puckered Pickles and fresh brown eggs.
“We have two focuses – food and hospitality,” says Dentice. “We want customers to have a casual meal in a nice, comfortable environment, where they don’t feel like they’re in a burger joint. They can have a glass of wine or a beer, and then sit back and have dessert or just chat, before going to the movies. It’s a place to gather. People aren’t in a rush to get out of here.”
Meals are served on contemporary square white plates, with real silverware; no baskets or paper plates. You won’t find a garbage can, because staff walks around to pick up trash and refill drinks. In case of rain, there’s an umbrella stand at the front door. Just return the umbrella next time you come in. “Hospitality is just as important as the food,” Dentice says. “We only hire people who smile.”
The owners think their restaurant has been successful thus far, judging from the feedback they’ve received from customers.
Recently, Pam Yglesias from Lemont and Andrea Cottrell from Lombard met for lunch. The longtime friends came here based on a recommendation from Yglesias’ children. “The food and customer service is excellent,” says Yglesias. “Everything was high quality. It’s a different kind of burger place.”
“You don’t have all that commotion and hustle and bustle like you do at other restaurants,” says Cottrell. “We’ve been sitting here for two hours. You can’t do that at most restaurants.”
Dentice and Rensi have no plans to retire soon. “Retirement is an investment in death,” says Rensi, bluntly. In fact, they’re just getting started. They hope one day to franchise.
And they enjoy being back in the burger business, even if it means working 10- to 12-hour days. “I love the action. No two days are the same,” says Dentice. “I enjoy talking to the customers, and making sure they’re having a great time. Sure, it’s a lot of work, but it’s also a lot of fun.”
Tom & Eddie’s restaurants are open Sunday through Thursday from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Friday and Saturday 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. For more information, visit www.tomandeddies.com. The restaurants are closed on Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas. ❚