by Ashley Gilday
This year marks the 44th year in business for Chicago-based deep dish pizzeria, Lou Malnati’s. I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Lou Manati’s owner (and son), Marc Malnati, for a delicious (dairy and meat-free) pizza lunch at their newest Chicago location in Lincoln Square. We chatted about what it was like growing up in the restaurant industry, got into great depth about what his father, Lou Malnati, was like at home and how Marc took Lou Malnati’s from just 4 Chicagoland locations in the late 70’s to 41 locations today.
Marc started our discussion off by trying to interview me; which I found charming. After bantering back and forth for several minutes we got into the details of his life and Lou Malnati’s steadfast growth over the past 44 years. I found our lunch to be extremely insightful and walked away with a new-found respect for Lou Malnati’s; both as a resilient institution of Chicago and for the Malnati family themselves. Our conversation was edited for space and clarity.
Ashley Gilday: Your father is Lou Malnati; a household name in Chicago. What was Lou like at home?
Marc Malnati: (laughs) He was a real treat. My father grew up in Italy and was raised by both of his grandmothers, as his mother died young and his father moved to the states to live the “American Dream;” sending money back to Italy for the family. My father eventually came over to the states at age 17 and joined the Marines. He was tough, gregarious, funny and was 6 ft. 240 lb. My father didn’t have experience growing up in a family unit, so he wasn’t clear on what it was like to be the head of a household. He would work until the middle of the night, six days a week and would come home and demand a freshly prepared pasta dinner – and we are talking “from scratch” pasta. My mother would cook for him in the wee hours of the morning and I always knew when he walked through the door.
AG: Your father worked in Chicago’s first deep dish pizzeria in the 40’, 50’s and 60’s, correct? Was that Pizzeria Uno?
Marc Malnati: Yes, he worked at Unos for 22 years, from 47′ to 69′. Pizzeria Uno initially opened in 1943 and gave away pizza to sell drinks to the soldiers returning from the war. The pizza was an afterthought. However, the concept was so successful that they opened Pizzeria Due and soon after Su Casa. My father managed all three locations and had a pivotal roll in the menu development over the course of the years. He actually went to Texas to train with a great Mexican Chef and created the menu for Su Casa.
AG: Would you say Pizzeria Uno invented Chicago-style deep dish?
Marc Malnati: Yes. They took a Northern Italian rendition and made it their own. Unfortunately the recipe that is served today at Pizzeria Uno (and Due) has drastically changed over the course of the years and is no longer anything like the original Chicago-style deep dish pizza they introduced in the late 40’s. However, my father, Lou, took that recipe and with him to Lou Malnati’s and that is exactly what we serve today; authentic Chicago-style deep dish pizza.
AG: What was it like growing up in the restaurant industry?
Marc Malnati: It was crazy at home. With my dad working 6 nights a week at the restaurants, I didn’t get to spend a lot of time with him during my young years; so I didn’t get to know him very well.
AG: Tell me about the start of Lou Malnati’s.
Marc Malnati: Unos partners, Ike Sewell (though Ike was not actually on any of the legal papers, due to working at a liquor distributor, his wife, Florence, was) and Ric Riccardo would not agree to have my father as an owner in the company so he wanted out. After working there tirelessly for 22 years he took 14 months off to figure out what he wanted to do. This time with my father was precious as I never got to spend a lot of time together with him. I really enjoyed those 14 months. It was great. My father and mother, Jean, decided to open Lou Manatis in Chicago suburb, Lincolnwood, in 1971. My father took Pizzeria Unos original deep dish recipe with him and that is how Lou Malnati’s began.
AG: Did you get involved in day-to-day operations at Lou Malnati’s? How old were you?
Marc Malnati: I was just 15 at the time of the opening but I started working right away. I would do odd jobs such as bus, host and manage the phones.
AG: After the loss of your father in 1978, you graduated from college and immediately took over the business with your mother. Was this something you always planned to do?
Marc Malnati: Yes and no. I felt obligated but also wanted to at the same time.
AG: Did Lou want you to take over the business?
Marc Malnati: No, he wanted me to become a dentist, which is definitely not something I am cut out to do.
AG: Where did you go to college?
Marc Malnati: Indiana
AG: Oh no – we are going to have to stop the interview. I went to Purdue.
Marc Malnati: (chuckles) We have a few Senior Managers that went to Purdue.
AG: What was your most memorable moment over the past 44 years at Lou Malnati’s?
Marc Malnati: When my father passed after battling cancer, there were just four Lou Malnati’s and one of them was underperforming. The location was in Flossmoor, and was not near any of our other stores. This is where I learned about site location. Location. Location. Location. We owed our vendors over $500,000 and had 3 other very successful locations. Strategically, I knew that I had to shut that location down, but it was one of the toughest things I’ve ever had to do. I felt like I was betraying my dad. It was one of the best lessons I’ve learned in life and most memorable experiences over the past 44 years.
AG: How has Lou Malnati’s kept up with consumers changing preferences over the years i.e.) 90’s Atkins/low carb diet, now gluten-free, Paleo etc.
Marc Malnati: When the Atkins diet came out, we developed a pizza made with sausage as the base. So, there was no crust, just meat. We still have this on our menu today.
AG: That is probably good for today’s customers who eat Paleo, but still want a pizza.
Marc Malnati: Exactly. We also developed a gluten-free dough with a local bakery. It is a good seller for us.
AG: Will you continue to evolve your offerings to adapt with trends or stick to your roots?
Marc Malnati: We are sensitive to making sure that we meet the needs of the public; while sticking with quality and offering our guests consistency. We work direct with California tomato farmers for our tomato sauce and we have a custom sausage blend from a local meat packer and all of our vegetables are fresh, never frozen.
AG: Fast casual pizza operators are one of the fastest growing segments in the restaurant industry today. How has this impacted your business?
Marc Malnati: It hasn’t. It’s a different customer coming to Lou Malnati’s. We are not fast food. We are slow food. We are baking bread. We offer guests a family style experience and maintain the integrity of our product. We tried the “fast casual” model at Monroe and Clinton years ago when we offered pizza by the slice. It was great around lunchtime since guests want a fresh and hot pizza, but in the afternoon it didn’t go so well since the pizzas needed to be reheated and weren’t fresh. Customers wanted it fresh and fast.
AG: You just opened your 41st location in Lincoln Square – congratulations – what are Lou Malanati’s growth plans for the upcoming years? Are all stores corporately ran? If so, will you franchise?
Marc Malnati: We are not a corporation. We are family run business. We are planning on expanding outside of Chicago towards the middle of 2016 to the Scottsdale/Phoenix Arizona area.
AG: One of your friendly competitors (Giordano’s) recently opened in Indianapolis (with another in the works). I hear it is going extremely well; so well they cannot keep up with demand. Do you have the Indianapolis market on the radar?
Marc Malnati: We are looking at Northwest Indiana first. I’m not sure if they would appreciate me saying this, but Northwest Indiana is pretty much an extension of Chicago, so we feel we would do very well there. We are not looking at Indianapolis at this time.
AG: Where about in Northwest Indiana?
Marc Malnati: Likely near Schererville.
AG: Why do guests choose Lou Malnati’s over Giordano’s, Gino’s East or other Chicago-style deep dish pizza?
Marc Malnati: Chicago can relate to another Chicago family. Have you heard of Mr. Giordano?
AG: I have not.
Marc Malnati: That is because there is no Giordano family. A private equity firm owns them. They are a corporation with franchised stores, while we are an authentic Chicago-based family run business.
AG: What makes Lou Malnati’s ” The best pizza in Chicago”?
Marc Malnati: What makes someone good is being able to replicate their craft again and again. Our product is consistent. We also create and nurture our culture. We’ve had a lot of the same people making your pizza and running our operations for years. We do the best job at keeping great people on our team. Our management turnover has been 4% for the past 15 years. This is low for the industry; and over 250 of our employees have been with us for over 10 years. This is what keeps us consistent and good.
AG: How does Lou Malnati’s Pay it Forward to the great city of Chicago?
Marc Malnati: We’ve been raising money for cancer research for 44 years- since my dad was diagnosed. In 2014 we raised $275,000. We also host a lot of fundraising events at our restaurants and sell pizzas close to cost for fundraising. A charity can purchase our pizzas for $8 and sell them for $13. Another way that we have given back in the past was expanding to the North Lawndale neighborhood of Chicago back in 1995. This was our 10th store and I was hesitant to open in this neighborhood, but a Pastor convinced me to do so and went as far as telling me that since it was our 10th store, that I could consider it “tithing”. Seeing that it would be great for the community, we went ahead and opened. It took 15 years to break even and we are now turning a profit. God does bless!
AG: How does Marc Malnati Pay it Forward in life?
Marc Malnati: By continuing to be curious and contribute in life. I take a genuine interest in developing younger people, especially our newest managers. I make an effort to understand what they want in life and help develop them to reach their goals.
AG: When not at Lou Malnati’s, where are some of your favorite spots to eat out in the city?
Marc Malnati: I love sushi. Kamehachi on wells in Old Town is one of my favorites. I also just ate at Parachute. It was really good.
Lou Malnati’s has generously offered 1 of our Chicago reader’s a $50.00 gift card to any of their restaurants and 1 remote reader (outside of the Chicagoland area) a free 4- pizza pack shipped right to your door.
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