The Next Generation: Marc and Will Malnati

By Kathleen Squires  |  October 11, 2013

If the last name Malnati seems familiar it’s because it’s synonymous with Chicago’s most famous deep dish pizza pie. Lou Malnati’s was founded in 1971 by its namesake. When Lou passed away from cancer in 1978, son Marc Malnati took over the business and continues to run it to this day. Marc’s son Will, 28, inherited the same predisposition toward the restaurant business: not only does he co-own three restaurants in New York - Willow Road, Toro and another forthcoming spot within the same Chelsea building - Will was one of our 2012 30 Under 30. Father and son chatted with us about four generations of Malnati eateries.

Marc Malnati:  My grandfather was involved in Pizzeria Uno and Due. He was a bartender and then became a manager in the late '40s. And then my dad, Lou, came over from Italy, probably about 1948. He worked with him in a pizzeria in Chicago, and then, eventually, went out on his own to start Lou Malnati’s. I still work for Lou Malnati’s, and my daughter just started working in the company doing recruiting. My mom is still active in the business, too. And then we have a son-in-law who's managing one of our stores.

Will Malnati: I don't think I was neither recruited nor discouraged from getting into the industry. I think I was just kind of raised in it, and my earliest memories were in the restaurant, whether I was just messing around or eating. I started working in events for Lou Malnati’s and answering phones from a very, very young age. So, it was more just that I was around it and I really didn't know anything else. But I feel like my parents are surprised that I'm in it, at this point.

MM: Well, I think our goal was to try to encourage all the kids to really find something that they really loved and then pursue that dream, and not necessarily to make it the restaurant business. This is a hard business and our kids had every opportunity to do anything they wanted. I think we both wanted them just to have that opportunity fully.

WM: I definitely felt that. I never felt like they were pushing me towards it or, 'Hey, look how big this company is or how great this company is. It's right here for you.' I always knew that, that if I was interested, it was there and it was a possibility. But I never felt too pushed into it. The first time that my dad encouraged me was probably right after I graduated college. There was a new huge Lou Malnati’s location opening. He said, 'Hey, I'd really love your help opening this restaurant. You just got done studying hospitality at Cornell and I'd love it if you got to really immerse yourself in the culture that is Malnati's and get to know the team and get your hands dirty.' And I was up for that. That seemed exciting to me. Everyone in that company was able to see, at that point, that I was not just like the owner's son, but that I was the guy who was mopping the floors and the guy who was getting burnt in the oven. It was an emotional thing for me.

When I moved to New York, however, I wasn't even necessarily going to go into the business. I was actually going to go into the music industry. When the bottom basically fell out of it in 2007, I decided to see what else was out there, and obviously, what I knew best was hospitality. And I got involved with the EMM Group. I was with them for almost six years. I watched them grow from one location, which is when I started with them, to this empire in New York nightlife and hospitality. My parents would encourage me to do my best, but it wasn't like, 'You're doing the right thing. Keep working in hospitality.'

MM: I think my father’s words, as early as I remember were, 'You know, I think you oughta be a dentist. This business is hard. ' I was pre-med for about 20 minutes in college. And then, I switched over to business. I had worked in Malnati's since I was 15, every week, every weekend, all the time. I immersed myself in the business when we opened. I think it was fortunate and the writing was on the wall, because my dad died six months after I graduated from college.

WM: Working with my dad, it was fun to see how he interacts with his main people. It was amazing to see how much they respect him and how much they love working at Malnati's. And I felt like I was working with my dad again when we opened Willow Road. I called him in like a ringer, basically. He would come in, and everyday, we were up at 7 AM, going through the punch list. He was pointing out everything that he saw wrong. I was pointing out everything that I saw wrong. And then we'd collaborate. It was the same thing with Toro. He came in with a week out and was that fresh energy that I needed.

MM: I'm not sure I would have lasted working with my dad too long, because I would have left. My dad was a Marine Corps staff sergeant. He was big and loud and gruff. His voice was louder than every other voice. He loved me, of course, but he was just about, 'We're going to do this my way.' We got along OK in the business. But he wanted to do things one way and I wanted to do things more systematically.  He was old school. He had never had a computer in his life, and computers were becoming fashionable. There was a real meeting of the cultures that was about to happen when he got really sick.

WM: I do think I have a similar approach to business as my father. I think that he really is so invested with his people, and he really showed me how that's the key. Yes, it is about how great your product is and it is about how great your location is and it is about all that stuff. But at the core of it, it's about your people, and it starts at the top, obviously.

MM: My own father taught me that it was all about the people you surrounded yourself with, because you couldn't be everywhere. And you needed to surround yourself with likeminded people who bought into your values and ideals, and people who took loyalty to the next level.

WM: My dad always taught me to not act like he owned the place. And so, in any of my experiences working – and I worked probably in like six or seven of the restaurants growing up – and in any of those experiences, I think that I just kind of had to walk that fine line of like, 'Hey, guys, I'm in it with you. I'm not anything more. I still get paid the same.' The hardest part of working with family was that everyone's watching you, just kind of watching you to see if you mess up, maybe. And that's why I had to work harder than everyone else.

MM: I think that there is so much energy in the business and it's such a 24/7 calling. And the fact that we're open so many hours a week that it creates a certain level of craziness in a very fun way. We get to meet thousands of people every year. It's a very public business. We're only as good as the next meal we put on the table. So, out of every hundred meals, I hope 98 or 99 are going to be perfect.

WM: Because it is so 24/7, I don't know if I’d want my future kids to get into this business. But I actually could never fully appreciate what my dad had done in creating his company until I really saw for myself what it took to do that. And I only have a couple places. He has—how many do you have, Dad?

MM: Thirty-seven.

WM: Thirty-seven. Yeah, it's a little bit different! I know I'm still kind of like newly opened with both of these places, neither of them are more than a year old – but everyday is kind of like a whirlwind of ups and downs. And so, it takes a very specific type of person to be able to kind of roll with those punches. I had to learn kind of how to do it. But it's not for the faint of heart. It's just not. So, if my future child is not interested in having a minor heart attack everyday, then I would probably not recommend this business.

MM: When Will had me out to look at the site of Willow Road, it was with the contingent that he had to rent two other spots in the building as well. I really didn’t know if he should do it. But one thing a father can’t pass on is vision. Will has incredible vision. He saw how these restaurants were going to work and operate way before anyone else. It is so satisfying for me to look and see what he has built. We are pretty amazed at how he envisioned it, raised the money and made it a reality. I would love to have those gifts in Chicago with me and I couldn’t be prouder of my son.

WM: Aw, thanks, Dad!