As the general manager at Santullo’s Eatery in Chicago, Ill., Jeremy Kniola tosses pizza pies, schmoozes with customers, and figures out how to rake in more dough (we don’t mean the flour-y kind).
Santullo’s serves up slices of New York-style thin-crust pizza to set itself apart from the crowd of deep-dish eateries that line the streets of Chicago’s Wicker Park. And if customers complain about that, the staff simply recommends they go elsewhere. Below, Kniola talks about the mystery behind the pizzeria’s name, his scarring experience with Domino’s, and his unabiding love for omelettes and Arrested Development.
Graduated from: Didn’t attend college
In the pizza business for: 2 ½ years; many years in the restaurant business
Previous jobs: Table waiter; coffee shop manager
Growing up in the restaurant business, did you feel as though a career in the food industry was inevitable? As a kid, I wanted to be a rock star; I played bass. But my dad ran a restaurant in the early 60s, and I worked there through high school, waiting tables and cooking. Then I got into the management side of things and stepped my way up, which I really enjoyed.
What do you do all day at Santullo’s? I take care of finances, inventories, and marketing – but I don’t just sit in my office. I’m also on the floor, talking to customers to see what they want, and working shifts and making pizzas. I’m also working on a new menu to attract more customers while still keeping the musical, artsy feel of the place.
What will the new menu include? Vegan and vegetarian pizza options and a pasta menu, which our regulars have been asking for.
How would you describe a slice from Santullo’s? It’s New York-style instead of the traditional Chicago deep-dish. Our thin crust has a cracker feel, so it can’t hold a lot of weight, but we’re always trying new things that make us different from our competitors.
Like what? Our Hawaiian pizza isn’t just pineapple and ham – we also mix in barbecue sauce and bacon. A lot of our creations are generated by customer feedback.
Do you get backlash for serving New York-style slices in Chicago? On occasion, but in those cases, we suggest [other pizzerias] to those people. You can’t satisfy everyone.
Besides the crust thickness factor, how does New York-style differ from Chicago-style pizza? With New York-style, the ingredients are spread evenly across the top. With Chicago-style, the ingredients are in the middle of the pizza, and it has a lot more bread.
Something people don’t know about your job: Making pizza doesn’t take long to learn, but it does take a long time to perfect. People think we just toss out pizzas, but we need to make sure the weight is distributed equally on the dough with a nice circular edge. It can get thin and tear very easily.
Do you spin the dough on your fingertips? That would rip it. It should land on your knuckles after tossing it in the air.
Best part of your job: Working with my friends. We’re all musicians or artists who also enjoy food – and we don’t dread coming to work. I actually come in on my days off.
Most challenging part of your job: With food prices rising, we have to figure out where to spend money that will be most effective for bringing in customers.
Do you ever get sick of pizza? No. I don’t eat it every day – I also try different things on our menu, like sandwiches and salads.
Most popular pizza: Margherita, which includes fresh mozzarella, tomato, and basil.
Your favorite pizza: Great White, which includes provolone and mozzarella cheese, red onions, sun-dried tomatoes, roasted garlic, and olive oil.
Type of oven used: Two older-model electric stoves.
Where does the name “Santullo” come from? It’s a mystery! It’s supposed to be a family thing, but there’s nobody named Santullo here. We have more fun coming up with concepts and telling people stories than knowing where it really came from.
Are you Italian? No. There are Italian people here, but not me.
Most despised corporate pizza chain: Domino’s. I had a bad childhood experience – let’s just say [the pizza] came back up.
What is it about pizza that unites all Americans? It’s traditional, like the cheeseburger or hot dog. You can have it as a quick lunch, a snack at a game, or over a movie with your family on a Friday night.
Your comfort food: Omelettes. I was raised to eat something right away in the morning.
Have you tried making a breakfast pizza? We’ve done a few as specials, with eggs and tomato sauce.
Where do you see yourself in five years? Opening more Santullo’s locations in the Chicago area and beyond.
If you could star in any TV show, it would be: Arrested Development.
LAUNCHING YOUR CAREER>>
1. Start from the bottom: take a job waiting tables or shadowing a chef. I washed dishes and waited tables to understand as much as possible about the business.
2. Look to see what your competitors are doing to get ideas, but be as original as possible. Do things your own way to separate yourself from the crowd.
3. Keep an open mind and find people you can work with. The last thing you want to do is fight at work.
Follow Santullo’s Eatery on Twitter at @SantullosPizza.