Two brothers barely out of high school tried their hand at the pizza business. In 2021, that teenage dream celebrated 50 years of success in small-town Indiana.
Brothers Stan and Steve Cook were lucky to have an aunt and uncle in the food biz—they owned an ice cream manufacturing plant and a soda fountain sit-down restaurant where the boys learned the ropes throughout high school, washing dishes, manning the grill and running short wholesale routes. “It gave me the confidence to think, ‘Maybe we could do this,’” Stan recalls. “There was an ice cream delivery place in Wakarusa, the building we’re in now, and I saw how much business they were doing. One day, on a delivery, I said, ‘If you ever want to sell this, call me,’ and they called a week later.”
The teen brothers (Stan was 19; Steve, 17) started small in 1971, with their aunt and uncle contributing financial help and coolers for the 1,200-square-foot space where they remain today. After starting with ice cream, milkshakes and a soda fountain, plus a jukebox and video games, they added pizza a couple of years later. “We were raised in an Italian neighborhood in Elkhart, and it got in our blood—plus, we realized selling ice cream in February wasn’t going to work,” Stan says. “We didn’t have the money initially, but then we got an oven to experiment with recipes.”
Though Stan admits the first decade in business was a feeling-out process, Steve credits an early employee for getting people in the door. “The first lady we hired was 42 years old and knew everyone in town,” he says. “So, when she ran the store in the daytime, people always came in to see her. She really drummed up business in the beginning.”
Today, Cook’s Pizza, with only seven tables, still thrives on carryout and delivery, as well as close community ties in a tight-knit small town 100 miles east of Chicago. Stan, now 70, notes that they’ve hired three generations of kids to learn the value of hard work at the pizzeria, and he still loves seeing youngsters walk over from the nearby middle school, clutching a few bucks to eat or drink before a local ball game. Steve adds that the pizzeria prioritizes supporting those efforts, such as youth basketball and football. “Our biggest problem now is handing off the baton to the next generation,” Stan says. “Our kids make more money and work less hours!”
For now, though, the brothers are still going strong at Cook’s, a true community touchstone. “It worked out much better than we could have expected,” Steve admits. “We had a lot of trial and error and a lot of sleepless nights. We still lived at home when we started, but we had to figure it out fast. And I’m still learning today!”
Tracy Morin is PMQ’s senior copy editor and the editor of PizzaVegan.com.