Purdue Memorial Union Inspired Houston-Based Restaurateur

Story by Marti LaChance, photos courtesy of Paul Miller

Above: The Union Kitchen restaurant.

Spend just a few minutes with Houston-based restaurateur Paul Miller (HTM ’96), and you sense he was born for the industry. “Our business is hospitality,” he says. “I want to introduce something new to somebody every day.”

It was at Purdue that Miller recognized his natural passion for the industry.

The idea for his Union Kitchen restaurant came to Miller when he was a student at Purdue, where friends and teammates would meet up at the Purdue Memorial Union. “To me, ‘union’ means the place where friends and family come together,” he says.

Paul Miller Paul Miller (HTM ’96) and his wife, Doris Miller

Since 2010, Miller has opened seven restaurants and a 450-seat banquet hall. He also runs a food truck called The Rollin’ Kitchen, and for catering events, he has a 35-foot smoker, tricked out with a crawfish boiler and a full-blown stereo system. “It’s a lot of fun,” he says.

Ask his mom, and she’ll say it’s no surprise. Paul was always the kid arranging the fun. Whether it was a trip to the beach or a party at home, he was the organizer. He’d collect the money, buy the burgers and beverages and set up the grill. “I’ve always been that guy,” he says.

An athlete, Miller came to Purdue with a pro football career in mind. He played noseguard for the Boilermakers. “But in a very short period of time, I figured out I had really better focus on studies,” he says with a laugh.

By his junior year, he was focused on business and the restaurant industry. He learned from professors like Richard Vine, Purdue’s first enologist. “Taking Dr. Vine’s class on wine taught me how, at a fine restaurant, wine complements a meal. His class was an eye-opening experience.” Today, Miller is a Wine & Spirit Education Trust, or WSET, Level 2 sommelier, a notable qualification for professionals in the hospitality industry.

“I like introducing people to things they haven’t experienced before. If somebody hasn’t tasted caviar or oyster mushrooms or a particular type of wine — that motivates me more than anything.

“Seeing the response from someone, feeling that energy,” he says. “I want to experience that every day. Whether it’s a staff member or a guest. It doesn’t matter. That’s what really drives me.”

As a businessman hoping to introduce Houston’s some 6 million denizens to new dining experiences, Miller has developed a scattergun approach to concepts. His restaurants serve what he calls “Texas-American” cuisine — from étoufée and carnitas to chicken-fried chicken and rib-eye steaks — at diverse venues and price points. His Union Kitchen is somewhat upscale, at $35 to $40 per dinner, whereas his Jax Grill is a counter-service restaurant with a $10-to-$12 average ticket. And the Merrill House banquet hall serves a completely different hospitality niche.

“There are a lot of moving parts,” Miller says of his business, called GR8 Plates Hospitality.

He depends heavily on his trusted management team. As part of his hospitable mindset, he wants to take care of all the individuals working for him. “I try to create a great work environment, to make sure everybody’s enjoying what they’re doing, to treat everybody with the same hospitality I’d like,” he says, adding, “I try to model hospitality in everything I do.”

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