Small by Choice, Whether Clients Like It or Not

According to the New York Times, “Nick Lessins and Lydia Esparza pride themselves on meeting high standards for quality, but not necessarily for catering to the demands of their customers. They are co-owners of Great Lake, a small Chicago pizza shop that has seen the mixed blessing of great reviews.”

“The couple wanted to start a business that reflected their values: a neighborhood shop that purchases top-quality ingredients directly from farmers, makes every pizza by hand and serves great food at affordable prices. They also wanted to make sure their business did not take over their lives. The 14-seat shop is open only four days a week and does not take reservations. Deliveries? Yeah, right.”

“Mr. Lessins makes every pizza by hand. ‘No man is slower,’ wrote GQ’s food critic, Alan Richman. ‘He makes each as though it is his first, manipulating the dough until it appears flawless, putting on toppings one small bit after another. In the time he takes to create a pie, civilizations could rise and fall, not just crusts.’ Mr. Richman declared the Great Lake Mortadella pie one of the best pizzas in America — and that is when the trouble started. The shop was mobbed, with lines stretching down the block and long waits. A condensed version of a conversation with Mr. Lessins and Ms. Esparza follows:

Q. You got a great review from GQ and your business went crazy. Are you glad you got this attention?

Mr. Lessins: Yes and no. It’s nice that we got recognized for doing something we feel is good. The problem is GQ deals on a whole other scale than what our business is capable of handling. Everyone forgot we were this small operation and couldn’t serve everyone. We never intended to serve mass quantities and have our product available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We wanted to start a business so we could get some control in our lives.

Q. Do people get frustrated by the waits?

Mr. Lessins: We’ve had a few people get pretty flustered — “What do you mean we can’t be seated? We have to wait a couple of hours?” Like somehow we’ve violated their human rights. Why is it a crime that we’re not open seven days and we’re not seating 100 people?

Q. Many business owners would look at your sudden success with envy and say, “Seize the day, expand, add new locations, franchise.” Why not you?

Ms. Esparza: It would change our values. That is the American way — to expand without really thinking.

Mr. Lessins: We really enjoy the work that we’re doing and we don’t want to cheapen it. Consciously or unconsciously — probably both — we’re trying to create a manageable way to earn a living and still maintain our sanity. We value time as much, if not more so, than money.

Q. Are you making the kind of money you had hoped to?

Ms. Esparza: We just met with our accountant and we’re very happy, given the hours we have.”