By Samantha Miller
Updated October 22, 2001 12:00 PM

Food has been very good to Phil Romano. Every day more than 200,000 people flock to the restaurants he has created, making him a millionaire many times over. Back home at his 9,000-sq.-ft. mansion with the Bentley in the garage, he even has a personal chef to prepare his dinner. His latest success is hardly as glamorous, but it is no less dear to him. “I realized,” he says while doling lentil soup out of the back of a truck in a glass-strewn Dallas parking lot, “that there was still one customer I hadn’t served—probably the most important one.”

Romano is best known as the creator of such whimsical nationwide restaurant chains as Fudd-ruckers, Romano’s Macaroni Grill and eatZi’s. But a year ago he launched his most surprising venture yet: a rolling restaurant called Hunger Busters that serves freshly prepared gourmet soups, sandwiches and other treats once a week to hundreds of Dallas’s homeless. “It’s my way of giving back,” says Romano, 62, whose net worth is more than $100 million.

The operation’s lead ladler is Romano himself. From 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. every Wednesday, his 15-ft. truck—staffed by the magnate, wife Lillie, 39, son Sam, 5, and up to four helpers—stops at three locations in Dallas, bringing food to those who shun the city’s shelters. The soups, featuring such recipes as sweet-potato corn chowder, are whipped up at the local eatZi’s, an upscale takeout chain. The sandwiches are made by the executive chef at Nick & Sam’s, a Romano-owned Dallas restaurant where entrees can top $30. “Phil found this niche of homeless people that were not being taken care of,” says local homeless advocate Clora Hogan. Adds a Hunger Busters regular who gives his name as Sundance: “It makes my soul feel good knowing that there is someone out there who cares for me. Having them here gives me the will to keep trying in life.”

Romano’s own will has propelled him through decades of restaurant hits and flops. But it was in 1990, while undergoing chemotherapy after doctors removed a malignant tumor from his appendix, that the hard-driving entrepreneur decided to focus on more than making money. “I thought about things that I should’ve done but hadn’t,” he says.

His troubled marriage to his wife of 26 years, Libby, had just ended, and in 1993 he wed Lillie, a former Fuddruckers regional manager he had met on the job. Sam’s 1996 birth “made me want to be a better person,” says Romano. Indeed, parenthood ultimately inspired him to feed the homeless. “These people at one time had mothers and fathers that loved them as much as I do my son,” he says. Volunteers come from his restaurants as well as his family. Sam’s job is handing out spoons. Says Lillie: “We wanted him to see that the lifestyle he was living wasn’t how all the world lived.”

It wasn’t how Romano grew up either. The son of Italian immigrants Samuel, an electrician, and Rose, a homemaker, both deceased (his younger sister Rosalie died in 1998), he demonstrated business savvy early on. Working a paper route in Auburn, N.Y., the sixth grader extracted an extra fee from clients for placing their papers inside their screen doors on frigid winter mornings. Later he studied business at Florida Atlantic University and worked as a semipro linebacker and private detective. In 1968 he opened a gladiator-themed Italian restaurant in Palm Beach, Fla., then a pub where customers could call ahead to have their personal mugs prechilled.

After moving to Texas in 1976—it was an “unconquered frontier” for restaurant chains, he says—Romano launched more eateries with unique twists. “My philosophy would be to come up with the idea, build it and ride its success,” he says. “Then I’d get bored, sell it and start another idea.” He sold several chains—including Fuddruckers, Romano’s Macaroni Grill (the one with the singing waiters) and Rudy’s “Country Store” and Bar-B-Q—to national restaurant companies for millions.

Working as a consultant to restaurant giant Brinker International, he also developed eatZi’s and Cozymel’s, a Mexican-food chain. Last year Romano-designed eateries raked in $1 billion in sales. He has also reaped nearly $160 million from his 1986 investment in a friend’s medical invention, a stent for holding open an artery. Last year the device helped save the life of his friend and former Dallas neighbor Vice President Dick Cheney. “I have great respect for Phil’s talents,” says Cheney. “He’s a good man.”

These days, while he cooks up new restaurant concepts, Romano is working to expand Hunger Busters to Houston, and he hopes eventually to take the idea nationwide. “He could have easily written a check to a homeless shelter and not be in the middle of the city doing this work,” says Dallas mayor Ron Kirk. “But he’s chosen to be here.”

Samantha Miller

Chris Coats in Dallas