Burt's Place

“I’ve always been independent,” laughsBurt Katz, owner of Burt’s Place in suburbanChicago. “I’m like a salmon—I swimupstream.” And any customer who hasbeen to Burt’s Place, an offbeat pizzeria inMorton Grove, Illinois, knows the man’snot lying. Everything about the placespeaks to the owner’s personality, fromits unusual location at the end of a sleepyresidential block to its hodgepodge decorwith vintage radios and other variousnostalgic pieces. But nowhere is Burt’ssignature more apparent—or beloved—than in his pizza, a stylized riff on classicChicago deep dish that’s been 40 years in
the making.

A Slice of Chicago History

In addition to drawing pizza touristsfrom around the world, winning the approvalof noted deep-dish disparager AnthonyBourdain, and being a cherishedstalwart in his community, Katz hasmade a huge footprint on the Chicagopizza landscape. Although he later soldboth brands, he pioneered unique piesat Chicagoland pizzerias that continueto thrive today: Gullivers Pizza & Pub(gulliverspizza.com) in Chicago’s RogersPark neighborhood and Pequod’s Pizza,with locations in Chicago and MortonGrove. However, since 1989, Katz hasbeen dishing up pies at Burt’s Place withhis wife, Sharon. And the pizza itself?Imagine a Chicago-style deep dish witha restrained layer of cheese that won’t knock the wind out of you. Top it withhigh-quality meats from a local butcherand produce that is hand-selected, purchasedand prepped that morning. But,most distinctively, picture a thick yetincredibly airy crust with a crisp, deeplycaramelized outer ring. When askedabout the genesis of his product, Katzshrugs it off to years of playing aroundin the kitchen, gradually perfecting theunique pizzas he serves today.

Reservations Only

From the outside, Burt’s Place isn’t thesort of pizzeria you’d expect to drawtourists from Europe and South America,or to have families from states awayplacing an order a month in advance,but Katz has these stories—and more.A 2009 feature on Anthony Bourdain’sNo Reservations certainly increasedthe restaurant’s profile and led to aninflux of customers, but Katz was nevera stranger to high demand for hispizza. Consequently, Burt’s Place hasa unique ordering and reservation systemto deal with the constraints of the35-seat capacity and the relatively longprep and cook time of its pizzas. Katzsimply asks his customers to call ahead,place their orders, and reserve a time tocome in. When they arrive—10 minutesahead to get seating and drink orderssituated—they can set their watches tothe pizza coming out of the oven.

Aside from the deep-dish pragmatics,Katz points out several other advantagesof his system. “People have things to doin the evening. This way, they can comein, eat, and have the rest of the nightwithout having to wait around for anhour or more,” he says. In a nod to hissuburban customer base, Katz adds afamily-friendly explanation for the policy:“People bring in kids, and if they’rewaiting around forever, they’re up out oftheir seats and running around. The wayI’ve got things set up, the pizza is readywhen they get here and the whole problemis avoided.” Although a quick readof Yelp reviews will attest to the factthat the ordering policy at Burt’s Placecan be baffling and even frustrating tothe uninitiated—particularly those whoshow up and see a bevy of empty tablesin the restaurant—for every miffed Yelper,there are at least two people who arehappy to help out by explaining the orderingpolicy—and why the pizza justifies the trouble.

Keeping It Simple

Other unique features of Burt’s Placeare the menu and pricing. Gridded likea statistical table, the menu reveals thatevery single-topping large pizza is thesame price, and every additional ingredientcosts the same. Katz favors thisapproach because it keeps things simplefor him and his wife, as well as the customers.“I don’t want some kid comingin here with a date and $15 in his pocketand getting embarrassed because hedoesn’t know how much his pizza is goingto cost,” he chuckles. And the pricesthemselves? Katz says customers routinelyapproach him at the end of a mealand say there’s a problem with the bill—they’ve been undercharged.You might think such precise, low-costpricing could only be the result of carefullystructured and calculated orderingfrom a mass distributor. Instead, long beforeit became fashionable, Katz workedout personal relationships with localcommunity providers, sourcing sausagefrom a still-secret supplier and drivingeach morning to a local distributor tohand-pick his produce. Asked about seasonalvariation in price and quality, Katzinsists that he gets the best he can eachmorning, and trusts that the price variabilitywill even out over the year.

Perhaps one reason Katz can keep pricesso low is the fact that he maintains alean advertising and marketing budget:$0. He says that instead of fishing for ahandful of new customers with costly ads,he prefers to put that money back into theproduct and low pricing instead. “My philosophyis simple: You don’t ask your customerfor money; you give people a goodproduct, a fair price and good service, andthey’re happy to pay you for it.”

Althoughit’s hard to deny that his local legacy andnational media attention help the cause,Katz says he has always focused on productand never worried about marketing,while maintaining low operational costsby keeping a tight payroll. By doing allof the back-of-the-house work himself—from stocking to prep to dishes—Katz andhis wife run Burt’s Place by themselves,with help from only one additional serverduring peak hours.Although its location can make a tripto Burt’s Place a bit daunting for out-of-towners,Katz is happy to help onthat front, too. Rather than cabbing allthe way up from downtown Chicago (around trip likely to set you back upwardsof $80), Katz urges visitors to catch theMetra train from Union Station downtownto the Morton Grove stop. For$3.50 and a ⅓-mile walk, many customershave found it’s the way to go. And, ofcourse, Katz welcomes those who come
hungry—as long as they don’t forget tocall ahead!

Patrick Riordan is a freelance writer basedin Chicago.