By Charlie Pogacar

Lou Malnati’s is one of the most iconic brands in the pizza segment, having served up deep-dish goodness for over 50 years. The family-owned, Chicago-based brand says it has achieved success by largely sticking to a familiar playbook: It wants to serve up the best possible deep-dish pizza and offer a side of excellent customer service. 

But how is this accomplished? For one thing, it’s important to keep in mind that the company has been owned by the same family since it was founded in 1971. It was opened by Lou Malnati and his wife, Jean, and then passed along to the couple’s two sons, Marc and Rick Malnati, when Lou passed away from cancer in 1978. 

A statistic that the family is especially proud of is the fact that more than 15% of Lou Malnati’s employees have worked for the brand for 10-plus years. That’s a number a lot of restaurant brands can only dream of. 

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“We put a lot of effort into making sure we understand how people feel, and we give them an opportunity to share what’s on their mind,” Lou Malnati’s CEO Mike Archer said. “We’ve all been a part of organizations where the real things get accomplished in the meeting after the meeting. We try to say the quiet part out loud during the initial meeting, and it makes what we are trying to do that much more effective.” 

As the brand continues to expand—it currently has 80 restaurants, 23 of which are the original full-service model, while the rest are DELCO—Archer is largely responsible for the day-to-day decisions that help Lou Malnati’s grow into new markets. Archer is an industry veteran, with time spent in leadership roles at Del Frisco’s, TGI Friday’s and Applebee’s and as president of Morton’s the Steakhouse, another legendary Chicago institution. 

PMQ recently caught up with Archer to discuss Lou Malnati’s and where the brand is going. The conversation touched on a little bit of everything, from a recent collaboration with Mike’s Hot Honey to Lou Malanti’s booming frozen-pizza business, Tastes of Chicago.

The conversation has been lightly edited for clarity. 

PMQ: What does the day-to-day look like for somebody running a brand like Lou Malnati’s? 

Archer: There is no such thing as a normal day. I have a great team that I work with that helps run 80 pizzerias in and around Chicago, as well as Arizona, Indianapolis and Milwaukee. We have about 3,600 team members that work with us. So it’s really all of the things that go with that.

It’s also really a unique brand because 23 of our restaurants are full-service while the rest are carryout and delivery and fit somewhere between 1,200 and 1,800 square feet or so. Our sit-down restaurants range from 11,000 square feet on the high end down to about 5,000 square feet. 

interior architecture of Oak Park Lou Malnati’s Pizzeria

When we think about what we’re trying to do, one of the biggest opportunities for us is trying to deliver the best quality pizza we can on a consistent basis. And we really think about throughput a lot. So whether that’s on a Friday night, where you’re picturing a family pizza night and thinking, “How can we make sure, when somebody wants a pizza, that we are ready to respond to doing so that’s still based in an artisan, hand-crafted manner?” 

Other times, we are dealing with the marketing side of things, the operations team or the development of other places where we can grow the business. That’s not to mention the very significant direct-to-consumer e-commerce business, Tastes of Chicago, where we ship over 2 million pizzas per year. So, safe to say, my time fluctuates a lot and no two days are the same.

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PMQ: What has always made Lou Malnati’s a special brand? 

Archer: Malnati’s has stayed true to its roots since 1971. We have maintained quality and consistency in the recipe. We still work with the same dairy producer for our mozzarella, the same vendors for our tomatoes and flour. We protect the quality of the product and are still making pizza the way we did when the brand first started, and that means making dough fresh in-store every day and each pizza by hand. 

Another thing that we do that is really unique is our original water source: Lake Michigan. We have a reverse osmosis system in place in our stores that are not near Lake Michigan that helps replicate the water qualities to ensure pizza tastes the same in Phoenix as it does in Chicago. 

That attention to detail and level of attention to something that is truly a unique product means our pizza is built very differently. This is the iconic Chicago deep-dish pizza. What we are is an authentic brand. 

PMQ: What does the innovation process look like at Lou Malnati’s, and how did the latest collab with Mike’s Hot Honey come to be? 

Archer: Internally, we begin by discussing what we see as trends that are happening and what type of flavor opportunities we have: what we hear from customers, things of that nature. So for this Mike’s Hot Honey collaboration, we knew we wanted to have something that delivered on the promise of a spicier product. 

Part of what we look for in a brand partner is somebody that has its own following and presence in the market. From there, we work with them to deliver and develop a product that highlights the best of all worlds. 

Mike’s Hot Honey obviously has a great following. From our research, it didn’t seem like anybody was doing a deep-dish product, and so we went from there. The Mike’s team was really great—they helped us develop a recipe and it’s found a really willing audience. 

The Lou’s x Mike’s Hot Honey Collab features mozzarella, sausage, giardiniera and pepperoni and is topped with a drizzle of Mike’s Hot Honey.

PMQ: What are some of the complexities of rolling out a menu item like this across 80 different locations? 

Archer: You definitely have to have a process in place. Our processes involve bringing all of our multi-unit managers in and giving them a chance to have that hands-on experience. We cascade that learning down to what we call our kitchen ops team. Those are our experts in the kitchen and they help drive our in-store training. 

Over the course of about three weeks, we start to teach our managers, and then they teach the staff, and the whole staff is trying it. Then, we’ll invite guests in to get some early feedback in something of a soft launch. Usually those are our loyalty members, whom we are letting know, hey, something exciting is coming up. Overall, this is a three-to-four-week process where everyone in the organization is being taught how to make, sell and message the product. So by the time it actually rolls out, everyone who is involved has experience with it.

PMQ: Does it make it easier when so much of your staff has been with Lou Malnati’s for such a long time? 

Archer: There are two pieces there. When you have a tenured staff, you actually have a higher burden of getting them to buy in. But, once they do buy in, they really, really know how to execute. 

Here’s what I mean by that: You have people who feel like, hey, we’ve been successful for 50-plus years. Why change now? So for us, the burden there is helping them understand the why and to remind them that the brand has been constantly evolving over the years. Usually when they taste the product, though, they get excited. 

And because they have that skillset that comes with working here for as long as they have, it is a lot easier when you get to the execution side of things. Once they are bought in, that part is relatively seamless. 

PMQ: Would you ever consider franchising? 

Archer: Franchising is not on our radar. We really believe that the nature of what we do, and the quality by which we do it, is better in an environment where we control all of that. Personally, I’ve been in the franchising business before, and I don’t think it’s the right answer for us and the way we do our processes. I don’t see that as a good vehicle going forward. 

PMQ: How do you plan to grow? 

Archer: We have a great growing market in the Phoenix-Scottsdale area. We’ve been really successful there and plan to continue growing there. As we look forward, we are considering markets like Dallas-Fort Worth, parts of Florida. Our shipping data from the Tastes of Chicago business gives us some really good insights into where we have brand awareness. 

PMQ: That’s really interesting. I hadn’t considered that the frozen side of the business helps unlock opportunities on the restaurant side of things. 

Archer: We feel very bullish on the frozen side of things. Let me be clear, though: We believe the best way to experience our product is in one of our restaurants, eating it. We believe the next-best way to experience it is via carryout or delivery. And we believe, for those not fortunate enough to have a Lou Malnati’s in their area, Tastes of Chicago is still a really great option. 

We actually control that process, too, baking our own frozen pies. We don’t push that off to another company. Even our shopping, we control all of that. So that’s still a really good way of introducing people into what authentic deep dish really tastes like. As we continue to grow this brand, one of the things that’s most important to us is, how do we get pizza into people’s mouths? And that’s one of the ways we are accomplishing that.

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