Lou Malnati’s Pizzeria

EricS.

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Started by a natural promoter with big dreams, this still-burgeoning brand found its sweet spot by bringing deep-dish pizza to the northern suburbs of Chicago.

When Lou Malnati decided to open the doors on his eponymous pizzeria in Lincolnwood, Illinois, in 1971, he had experience that most aspiring owners could only dream of. After 22 years working at a legendary Chicago deep-dish slinger, he decided to strike out on his own—and enjoyed success from day one. “My dad was a great promoter with a big personality—the day we opened, people were lined up out the door and around the block,” recalls Marc Malnati, son of Lou and current chairman of Lou Malnati’s Pizzeria, based in Northbrook, Illinois. “Deep-dish hadn’t made it to the northern suburbs yet, and he thought he’d be the next Ray Kroc in the pizza business.”

After Lou succumbed to cancer in 1978, his wife, Jean, and son Marc, a new college grad, stepped in to raise the company to even greater heights, alongside the dedicated and talented team that Lou himself had handpicked for his pizzeria. His son Rick later joined the family business. That lesson—about the importance of hiring great people—still reverberates today. “My dad taught us you’re only as good as the people around you, so look for those with a good work ethic who can play as a team, who are willing to learn and get better,” Marc says. “Our people have become our family—that’s the only way you can grow.”

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Another key ingredient, Marc says, is location. Lou Malnati’s Pizzeria thrives through a hub-and-spoke model, opening one store in an area and following with others around it (some restaurants, some carryout-focused). Now with 62 company-owned locations—and several more planned to open this year—it serves markets far beyond its suburban Illinois home base, including Milwaukee, Indianapolis and Phoenix. Finally, a fine-tuned attention to detail keeps quality and consistency on point across its dozens of locations. That means a Malnati’s crew will fly out to California to personally taste tomatoes plucked from the field, or visit Wisconsin dairy farms to discuss the details of bovine diets.

But the Lou Malnati’s brand doesn’t just work quietly behind the scenes. From a 2013 national-TV pizza truce on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart to raising more than $6 million over the years through its Lou Malnati Cancer Research Foundation, this pizzeria has made many splashes worthy of its big-dreaming founder. But, for the Malnati family, it all comes back to personal connection, among customers and employees alike. “You have to create a place where people want to stay,” Marc says. “It’s a key lesson everyone needs to learn, in any business: It’s so much more than the pizza or food. The secret sauce is the people.”  

Tracy Morin is PMQ’s senior copy editor.

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