A Deep Dive Into Deep Dish

Having spread from its home in Chicago throughout the Midwest, Giordano’s Famous Deep Dish Stuffed Pizza expands westward

Portrait by Caleb Fox

When Andy Baker joined Giordano’s Famous Deep Dish Stuffed Pizza in 2012, the company had just been acquired by Victory Park Capital Advisors, which immediately set new quality and growth standards for the restaurant. The change empowered Baker to lead efforts to update the décor, signage, equipment, and continue the ongoing maintenance program for the company’s 13 existing restaurants. Although the individual restaurants had remained profitable, the previous owners had differed in their approach to general maintenance and upkeep.

To reflect the new tactics of the company, Baker immediately began tackling outstanding issues in both general design and maintenance. He also invested considerable time and effort in learning about the company and its processes from the inside out. He learned how to make pizzas and gained hands-on experience in all positions—from kitchen prep and line cook to delivery driver—before becoming involved as part of a broader team initiative to design and build the next generation of Giordano’s restaurants that had been envisioned by Victory Park.

“I wanted to fully understand what has been at the core of Giordano’s success since 1974, as well as earn the respect of the existing team,” he says. “As a result, I can now do a better job working with the kitchen design team because I know where our pizza dough comes from and the workflows that pull all the essential processes together.”

Another objective was to improve restaurant consistency throughout operations. Baker helped implement uniform standards for sourcing and purchasing glassware, tablecloths, signage, and other key restaurant details. The discipline applied in these areas also extended to more critical areas, such as portion sizes and food costs.

In the time since, Baker has become an important member of an extended team that includes culinary, reliability and maintenance, and IT professionals. Also in the group are vendor partners such as Picard for oven servicing, and Great Lakes Service Co. for preventive maintenance for refrigeration, HVAC, and all other cooking equipment. He views all of this support as essential for successful operations, as comprehensive facilities coordination allows managers to focus more on the restaurants’ customers and employees.

The efforts of Baker and his team helped Giordano’s more than double in size during the past five years. The company now opens up to 10 new sites annually and currently operates restaurants in 61 sites in Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, Florida, Nevada, and Arizona. Plans are currently underway to expand further in 2017, this time into Ohio.

Giordano’s currently operates 61 locations, including this one in uptown Minneapolis. The Chicago-based company recently expanded its reach into Arizona and Nevada, and plans to enter Ohio in 2017.

One of the challenges to growth has been maintaining the quality of Giordano’s pizza dough recipe, which is highly dependent on water from Lake Michigan, and takes up to 36 hours to prepare—including a “proofing” stage in 1,000-square-foot storage coolers. Currently, all locations are served by a Chicago-based commissary that prepares freshly made pizza dough, sauces, and salad dressings that are shipped and delivered daily in company-owned refrigerated trucks.

Giordano’s latest plans to open a new restaurant on the Las Vegas Strip and another in Phoenix made it necessary to open a second commissary facility in Henderson, Nevada. Just 10 miles from the Las Vegas location, the new commissary eliminates the need to devote high-cost real estate on the Strip to prepare the dough, sauces, and dressings. It provides easy access to ground transportation for deliveries to the Las Vegas and Phoenix markets. It’s also large and flexible enough to accommodate future plans—which might include expansion to Southern California.

As water for the dough is so critical, and could not reasonably or cost-effectively be shipped from Chicago, the team discussed solutions as soon as the new western locations began to be considered. Extensive research was conducted, which included laboratory analysis of the local water in Las Vegas. Ultimately, the desired water quality was achieved thanks to a sophisticated filtration system in the new commissary to match the quality of the Chicago water. Baker says the company’s legacy is based on this commitment to quality.

“It’s our fresh, pure ingredients that differentiate us from competitors, and customers expect nothing less from us,” he says. “So onsite and local preparation of all key ingredients is the only real option.”

Giordano’s continues to work with long-term partners B3 Construction and kitchen-design company Edward Don for the development of its new restaurants in the western United States. It’s also working with new partner Team Construction on the development and construction of its newest location in Las Vegas.

Part of Baker’s responsibility is to ensure that all new locations are “over-prepared” before opening. To illustrate, he recalls a restaurant outside of Indianapolis several years ago that received extensive local news coverage from up to 400 miles away. This resulted in a huge customer response that doubled the location’s projected revenue. Although he says he’s focused on protecting the Giordano’s brand and its reputation for quality, Baker says growth projections aren’t as important as meeting customers’ expectations.

“If we opened one fewer restaurant than planned in a given period, I wouldn’t consider that a failure as long as the restaurants that did open are excellent,” he says. “If we met the numbers but customers were unhappy—that would be very disappointing.”