Max Restaurant Group Founder Rich Rosenthal Retires, Sells Ownership to Operating Partners

New awnings highlight the exterior of Max Downtown following a 2017 renovation. Photo credit: Ronni Newton (we-ha.com file photo)

Scott Smith, formerly chief operating officer of Max Restaurant Group, takes over as CEO.

Max Restaurant Group managing partners, Max Cares Foundation directors, managers, and chefs hand out groceries in April 2020 at Max Burger in West Hartford in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Each unemployed hospitality industry workers received a bag of staples and groceries. Photo credit: Ronni Newton (we-ha.com file photo)

By Ronni Newton

Nearly 36 years after launching the first “Max” restaurant – Max-on-Main – founder and CEO Rich Rosenthal has retired and has sold his ownership stake in the successful Max Restaurant Group operation.

Scott Smith, who joined the organization when Max A Mia opened in Avon in 1991 and has been the longtime chief operating officer of Max Restaurant Group, has taken over as CEO, and said the announcement of Rosenthal’s retirement, and change in ownership, both took place at the same time.

“Rich is retired,” Smith told We-Ha.com Monday. “We’ve been working on the deal for close to a year.”

Smith, along with Hunter Morton and the operating partners from the restaurants, have purchased Rosenthal’s shares in the business. “We are sharing in Rich’s equity,” he said, but everyone will continue to manage their restaurants and changes in operations are not expected.

The holding company, however, is now called Max Hospitality LLC.

Steve Abrams, a West Hartford resident and operating partner of Max Downtown, will take over for Smith as COO of the organization, but will also remain in his role at Max Downtown, Smith said.

Max Downtown Managing Partner Steven Abrams stands in front of the new carrara marble bar installed when the restaurant was renovated in 2017. Photo credit: Ronni Newton (we-ha.com file photo)

“We’ve always run this as a family business, and it’s going to continue to operate the way it has for at least 35 years,” Smith said, including the Max dining cards. “It will all be the same – except for Rich.”

“Our business really is a family business – except no one is related,” Rosenthal said Monday. The managing partners have been looking to have a larger stake in the business, and Rosenthal said he was looking to step back and do something different.

“I’ve been doing this since 1986, doing it even before I opened my first restaurant,” he said.

“The thing we’ve worked really hard at is to have each restaurant run by individuals,” Rosenthal said, and because of that the impact of his departure should be minimal.

“Scott [Smith], Steven [Abrams], and all the other partners, what they do is amazing. They are all extremely dedicated,” said Rosenthal. With the new Max Hospitality organization, the company will get even better.

“I’m very excited for them, for their families – and for my family to be out of the business,” Rosenthal said.

“The last couple of years have ben very hard, but much harder for my partners,” Rosenthal said. “Those guys were so creative, so agile. What COVID taught me was how good they were.”

Rosenthal said he just didn’t have the “same fire in my belly,” and he knew it was time to move on. He recently had a buyer looking to purchase Max Restaurant Group, and while that particular deal wasn’t something he was interested in, it got him thinking about his exit strategy.

Rosenthal said he doesn’t yet have a specific plan for his future, but plans to return to Connecticut – where he has a home in Old Saybrook – for the summer, and spend the cold weather months at his Florida home. “There’s plenty left in me, but I’m just not sure what,” he said. He’s also committed to being a consultant for Max Hospitality for the next three years.

“I’m still concerned with the success, and want them to do great,” Rosenthal said. And of course he still plans to eat at the Max restaurants when he’s in town.

The “Max” name is a nod to Rosenthal’s grandfather. He said when he opened Max on Main his mother lent him some money from the sale of his grandfather’s business – a wholesale candy and tobacco company in Hartford that was originally located in the area where Constitution Plaza is today, and then was on Wethersfield Avenue – and he named his first restaurant in his grandfather’s honor.

Max on Main became Max Downtown when it relocated to CityPlace in 1996, and although that location has remained the flagship restaurant, Rosenthal, a West Hartford native and graduate of Hall High School, has had an enormous impact on the dining scene in his hometown with three restaurants – Max’s Oyster Bar, Max Burger, and Savoy.

Other Max restaurants include Max Fish in Glastonbury, Trumbull Kitchen in Hartford, Max’s Tavern in Springfield, MA, Max Burger in Longmeadow, MA, and The Cooper in Palm Beach Gardens, FL.

Outdoor dining at Max’s Oyster Bar on Farmington Avenue in 2021. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

West Hartford Mayor Shari Cantor (left) and Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz (right) speak with Max’s Oyster Bar Managing Partner Bob Cooke (second from left) and Max Restaurant Group founder and President Rich Rosenthal in May 2020. Photo credit: Ronni Newton (we-ha.com file photo)

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