Interview: Scott Siegel of Fat Lorenzo's

Fat Lorenzo's, open since 1987 and owned by Scott and Laura Siegel since 1995, is a Nokomis neighborhood institution. Scott Siegel sat down with City Pages to talk about how to make good pizza, the staggering cost of getting a gelato machine up and running, and giving back to the neighborhood.

CITY PAGES: What's the origin of the name?

SCOTT SIEGEL: Larry (Neck) was Lorenzo. In '85, he took over 5-8 Club. The business was nothing. My wife's brother was working there—they were partners. About nine months later, my wife (Laura) became their only employee. She lost her job in the textile business. My brother in law quit, he wasn't making any money, so he said: "To heck with it."

The very next year, I was on the first softball team they ever sponsored, which was a good idea. Business boomed. This place (Fat Lorenzo's) came up two years later, and Lorenzo—he thought, "Ah, I don't want any competition," so he leased it.

CP: What's the story behind the pizza at Fat Lorenzo's? It's terrific.

SS: (Larry) was from New York, and he said, "There's no good pizza around here, so that's what I'm going to do." The best at the time was Cossetta(s Italian Market and Pizzeria). So he spent a month making dough.

Doug (Rix) was the "Fat" part. He was a one-man crew—make your food, wash your dishes, serve ya—sounds complicated unless you realize there might have been twenty tables a day.

Doug got sick, Larry closed it. The next week, it won the Twin City Reader's best pizza. He opened it back up. Closed it again. Won it again. Now it was Cafe Lorenzo or something. Went off and on for a couple of years, in the late '80s, '87 through '90.

CP: How did you come into the business?

SS: In '95, Larry came to me and said, "I'm selling everything. What do you want to buy?" I went home and I told my wife and she goes: "Ah, I don't want to do that." I went, "Jeez, I kind of need a job." I'd worked for Ford, in the Ford Tractor diversion, which they sold. I was out of work from the auto plant and I was 40. So I came back and made an offer on this, and about a month later he said, "You got it."

CP: Where are Doug and Larry these days?

SS: Doug is dead. Lost all the weight, moved to Florida, died of a heart attack. I knew Doug pretty well. Nice guy. Lorenzo lives in Costa Rica. He owned the 5-8, he owned this, he owned... now it's called the Groveland Tap. He also owned Whitey's, and he sold everything off.

CP: Is the pizza you make now pretty close to what he was making? Where was it from?

SS: It's unchanged. When he was a kid, he grew up in the Bronx. He remembered the pizza you'd get from the small shops. The strange thing about him is that the 5-8 was doing nothing when he took it over.

CP: Tell me about the cheese you guys use on your pizzas.

SS: It's whole milk—it costs a little more. And we don't blend it. Some people do. It's a good brand, and it's got a high fat content—I won't switch. I know a lot of people in the business are cutting, cutting their costs. "What can I do to save money?" But we've done this for 13 years now, and we've been pretty successful—I don't care that much anymore. I'm not going to change.

I changed my tomato products this last year for the first time ever, and I didn't do it to save money. I did it because the company I was buying thousands and thousands of cases a year from didn't know I existed. I'm a person of principle. My whole life is connected.

With the cheese, once you find one... the market's pretty volatile these days. What some people will do is say, "Well, how much is it? I'll take the cheap one." Keeping a customer is worth far more than saving 10 cents on a pound of cheese.

CP: What's the story with switching to a new tomato product?

The tomato product, I used Stanislaus before. It has a certain cachet, it costs more, it's not readily available to the consumer, but neither is our new one. They're packed 8 miles apart. Can't tell the difference—they're both premium tomato packers. I paid exactly the same thing I paid for the others, but the new guys appreciate my business. When I do business with people, I say "Thank you." They didn't. And they didn't think I was going to do it.

CP: Is there much of a difference between the old and the new tomatoes?

SS: When we cook 'em up, it's the same. When we make our sauce, it's like your grandmother made it, 20 quarts at a time. Nowadays, it means we have to make 8-10 batches a day. When Doug was doing it, he probably had to do one. But the quality of the food... I always give this example. My favorite place in the Twin Cities is Mancini's. When you walk in, they just about wrap their arms around you. If that isn't hospitality, what is? And then they back it up with really good steaks for pretty cheap. And you walk in there on a Friday night...and it's crazy. The family is walking around the place. They're not changing what they do now that dad died. They're walking around the place... "Bring him a cocktail! Hi, how ya doin'!"

They're bigger than us, but I perceive what we've evolved we are absolutely a neighborhood joint. I love that part. And Lorenzo would tell you, that's perfect. He made joints. Whitey's was a saloon. This is the same.

CP: You don't seem to be really into advertising or getting the name out there beyond word of mouth.

SS: I don't advertise. I'm not even in the phonebook.

(A departing employee reaches over the table, shakes Scott's hand, says, "See you on Wednesday.")

SS: The guy who just shook my hand... he lives two doors down. He's worked here five years. The girl on the other side [of some booths], rustling paper—lives five houses down. Two more of 'em live within a block. I only hire people who live close or come with a recommendation from the staff. The focus is to give back to the neighborhood, in compensation for what they've done for us.

CP: If you don't advertise, how do you get the name out there?

SS: Instead of advertising, I took my advertising budget, and five years ago, Our Lady of the Peace Church, four blocks away, they asked for some gift certificates for their fall fundraiser/carnival. I went over there and gave them some gift certificates, and I got to know the ladies there. The next year I went over there and asked, "What do you do? How do you make money?" She said, well, we do cake raffles and I make spaghetti...and I go: "Make spaghetti?'"

And she said, "Yeah, last year I made $400." So a couple weeks later I come back and say: "You know what, I'll donate my people and the food. Let's advertise it as 'Fat Lorenzo's Spaghetti Dinner.'"That first year: 800 people at $8 a head. This last year, we were at 1,500.

It's gotten to the point where other churches have found out about it, and ask if we can do spaghetti dinners for them... I try and keep it in our geographic delivery area.

Does it cost us money? Sure, but it's a good way to give back. Our food, our presence, and they make money.

CP: When did you start making gelato?

SS: Three years ago, I was at the Pizza Show at Vegas. It's a great show. The chains don't come. So it's 5-10 thousand independent operators. It was weird, because there was a company from Italy that had just moved their operations to broker in the United States. And they were there, and they had gelato. And I walked up...and I was telling my wife how cool it would be [to offer gelato], because this half of the building was built in 1921 and it was built as an ice cream parlor.

The tile in that room, it was all hand-set. It's indestructible. You take a drill to it, and it'll burn the bit up. And so it was a soda fountain at the end of a wooden bridge on a dirt road. And I had just told her a couple weeks before, if I go to the show and just find one thing, it was worth it. So I walked up to that booth and tried lemon, and...I told my wife, "I'm buying it." She said, "How much does it cost?" I said, "I don't care.'"

So I bought it. Unfortunately I bought and didn't think about the system. I thought it would be, "Plug it in and off you go."

The gelato machine cost about 45 grand, with the equipment and everything...The construction was about 150.

CP: Wow.

SS: My plumbing needed to be updated, my electrical... I have more power than a school. I have 800 amps of pre-phase power. And Excel didn't want to bring it in. It was an environmentally sensitive area. We had to bring it in underground. I brought it in, I thought was getting that little box you get in your yard...No, I got the (gestures to demonstrate a large, large box). They put the box up, and the guy goes: "You'd better put some concrete posts up around this, because if somebody hits it, it blows up." So, thank you for that advice.

But because it had been there before, there was this connection there. We didn't have a lot of desserts at the time... And it worked. We do phenomenal business in gelato, and the surprising place that it goes is delivery. We never would have thought it. People call up and go, "What kinds you got?" And they'll order four pints. For delivery! Nothing else. And put it on the credit card. So it costs them $35, my driver takes it to them, they tip him $5 on a credit card—I'm happy, he's happy, they're happy... and I never saw it coming. It's a great product. I don't eat the milk-based ones... I'm 53 and I've got to watch every calories. I gave up ice cream so I could drink beer. Something had to give.

When people come here, it's funny—I didn't realize people associated gelato with Europe, and I'd never compared them. But the people who come in, that's what they say.

CP: What's the story with the murals on the wall?

BB Dixon's—My wife headed up BB Dixon's for Lorenzo. After a year, one of the cooks they had—his name was Ed, he was a great cook and we liked him a lot. He was a kid, 17, 18. We bought this place, and we said, "Come over and work for us!" Too far to travel, he was a St. Paul kid. He went off to college. The next year, he came in and our walls were white. People were drawing (on the butcher paper on the tables) and we'd pin 'em on the wall. He said, "I just took this art class." And he had done some larger, cartoonish sort of murals. And he said, "Could I try to paint a mural in this room?" And we said, "Sure, Ed—If we don't like it, we can just paint over it."

The best story is about that hand (gestures to a large hand painted on the wall.) I'd come in for over a month, and there'd be an X over that hand.

He'd never drawn his own hand before. He was looking at his hand, drawing it left-handed, and for over a month, it wasn't good enough. And finally, the room got done, after six months. We closed for that night, and we had all Ed's family and friends come in for a party.

Ed's 36 now. It's the beautiful part of owning a restaurant is everything becomes connected. I don't know if people understand that or not, when the customers become your friends, and the friends become your customers, and the line goes away... I've play softball by Nokomis for 30 years. Who did we play against last week? My neighbors. They brought their grill down, "Want something to eat...?" Everything is absolutely connected.

CP: So you've got pretty good employee loyalty, I'd guess.

SS: We have no turnover. None. When [employees] go away, it's like, whoa, what happened? If they leave, it's because they got a job in the field they went to college for. But they'll often still come back and work one night a week. Kristie is the best example. Her sister Katie worked here, then Kristie worked here, and her brother Matt. They all live on 55th and 14th. I know mom and dad, I know everybody in the family, I know the babies, Katie's babies... Kristie is a doctor! She'll call up here and take a shift from somebody every third or fourth month. And I'll say: "Kristie, you're not on the payroll! I can't just put you on the payroll for one night!" And she says, "Oh, you don't have to pay me." If everybody would do this, it'd be a really good model.

You get to know your community. And at some point, because there's no turnover, the food gets pretty easy. My first employee still works here. Pablo's made like 1,000,000 pizzas—we tried to add it up, and it's a lot! He's a manager here now, but he'll still toss a pie once in a while. The kids who are at the front counter? They've never worked anywhere else. They came in at 15, washing dishes, and now they're managing, they're waiting, they're driving, they're making gelato...

CP: Has the menu changed much over the years?

SS: I have added four things to the menu, and gelato, so five total. And one was a garlic chicken hoagie. It's phenomenal. I thought I wanted to have chicken on my pizza, and I went to my food company for samples, and they brought me dark meat mostly, saying, "It's going to dry out." And I go: "I don't like dark meat. I like breast meat." I was at that pizza show again, and I met a guy offering five pound bags of breast meat. I told the guys to try making some pizza with it. A couple of months go by and I've probably spent three, four hundred bucks on the product, and I wasn't really happy with it, and I forgot about it. Then one day, my day cooks were going on break, and they all had these hoagies with chicken in them. And I looked at it, and I said, "What do you got there?" And kind of sheepishly they said: "It's that chicken you wanted us to use on the pizza.' I said, "That looks pretty good, let me try one!"

Next week, it was on the menu. Now it's the top seller. We've kicked it up a notch with the 12-pepper blend we're using now.

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