Business & Real Estate

Chicago Fire pizzeria chain sails along with Windy City flavor

A glass skyline of Chicago separates the dining area from the bar of the Chicago Fire pizza restaurant at the Palladio at Broadstone in Folsom.
A glass skyline of Chicago separates the dining area from the bar of the Chicago Fire pizza restaurant at the Palladio at Broadstone in Folsom.

Eric Schnetz’s journey to local pizza mogul was taken over a long and winding road.

Schnetz is the 48-year-old CEO and corporate chef of West of Chicago Restaurants Inc. In 2003, he opened his first Chicago Fire pizzeria on Folsom’s Sutter Street. Today, his company also oversees Chicago Fire restaurants in midtown Sacramento, Roseville and in the Palladio at Broadstone shopping complex south of downtown Folsom. Combined, the eateries employ about 230.

In February, Schnetz plans to open a fifth Chicago Fire outlet in Elk Grove. Beyond that, he’s contemplating pizzerias in the Bay Area, Los Angeles and outside California.

“I’m not in a rush,” Schnetz says. “It takes time to open a restaurant and get all the details just right. I’m talking about maybe two or three (pizzerias) over five years.”

Taking his time has worked for Schnetz so far. He was not born to the pizza game, but he spent countless hours studying it and the art of pizza-making, Chicago-style.

I wanted to know everything. I was dumpster diving to see what kind of cheeses they were using.

Chicago Fire owner Eric Schnetz, describing his early efforts to learn from Chicago pizzerias

Born in Carmichael, Schnetz was raised in Palatine, Ill., a suburb northwest of Chicago. He had a keen interest in cars, and yes, he liked pizza. But he recalls that he didn’t think Chicago-style pizza was anything special … yet.

“I thought all pizza was made that way. I didn’t know how special it was until later,” he said.

At age 19, he was back in the Sacramento area. He soon landed a job as a car salesman at Turner Subaru. At 20, he started wholesaling cars, a venture that found him buying clunkers for a few hundred dollars, fixing them up and selling them for a profit of a few hundred dollars.

In 1990, he parlayed that knowledge and his automotive expertise, including a stint working as a mechanic at a gas station, by starting a Sacramento-based business called Clutch Mart, specializing in clutch sales and installations. It grew to become a multimillion-dollar business with more than a dozen locations.

His life might have stayed on a steady course from there, but Schnetz had other things on his mind. Pizza, for one.

Schnetz said his sister, Kristi, bought him a cookbook and a deep-dish pan, and Schnetz started experimenting. Eventually, he became obsessed. By this time, he had a full appreciation of Chicago-style pizza, and he wanted to know more.

He started making trips to Chicago, visiting pizzerias, asking questions, getting tips, gathering intel: “I wanted to know everything. I was dumpster diving to see what kind of cheeses they were using.”

The more Schnetz learned, the more he pondered a career change. Selling off his Clutch Mart assets gave him the resources to start that first Chicago Fire in Folsom. Schnetz made it clear to consumers that his restaurants would have a decidedly Windy City ambiance, with this label: “Chicago Fire: The Tribute to Chicago Pizza.”

Schnetz’s desire to make truly authentic Chicago-style pizzas was so exacting that, at first, he did not offer all the well-known options. He wanted every Chicago-style variation to be authentic and perfect. Today, Chicago Fire restaurants offer thin crust, deep dish and stuffed Chicago-style pizzas. Each has its own charms.

Thin crust is sliced in squares, with a wafer-thin crust and no rolled edge. Cheese goes down first in the deep dish offering, sealing the crust, followed by toppings and a sauce made from premium plum tomatoes. Stuffed is “the big brother” of deep dish, with two crusts and a lumberjack’s share of toppings and cheese.

To this day, Schnetz sticks with the far-flung ingredients that he considers the best and truly representative of Midwest-style pizza: premium mozzarella cheese from Wisconsin, sausage from a longtime purveyor in Chicago, and of course, tomatoes from California. Naturally, Chicago Fire restaurants make their own dough, an extraordinarily exacting process.

“I do get caught up in the tradition and the history of (food) preparation,” Schnetz said. And he’s also a stickler for appearances.

The interior of the 7,200-square-foot Chicago Fire pizzeria in Folsom’s Palladio shopping complex has a carefully planned visual design: red and dark woods, black surfaces, brick walls and an ornate tin roof combine for a decidedly Midwest hangout look. If you didn’t know any better, you could stand at the bar on a given evening and believe you’ve found a warm spot away from the icy winds blowing off Lake Michigan.

“We definitely wanted it to look a certain way, warm and inviting,” said Schnetz, who personally crafted interior fixtures for his first restaurant more than a decade ago.

Today, with four local Chicago Fire pizzerias, Schnetz said the chain serves 10,000 customers a week. That’s a fairly large number in the competitive pizza restaurant niche, specializing in the most-delivered food item in the nation.

Statistics provided by the Sacramento-based California Restaurant Association show that there are 333 eateries in Sacramento County classified as “pizzerias” or “pizza and pasta” locations. Statewide, there are more than 9,100.

CRA spokeswoman Janna Haynes characterized the current level of competition in the pizza niche as extremely high.

“The market for pizza concepts is really hot right now. Any new and innovative ideas such as ‘build your own personal’ styles or eateries that use whole wheat or gluten-free crusts and fresh, locally sourced ingredients are very popular,” Haynes said.

Haynes added that “consumers love a new spin on an old classic, and the pizza market has only grown in the last few years. We are also seeing long-standing companies rebrand themselves in order to stay relevant with ever-changing customer demands.”

In one of the more highly publicized changeovers, Domino’s Pizza changed its name in 2012 to simply Domino’s to help emphasize its non-pizza offerings. At the same time, the Michigan-based company introduced a new logo.

Chicago Fire menus likewise include varied food offerings, but pizza remains the signature dish.

Looking back on his long-ago transition from clutches to pizzas, Schnetz said it was “a notoriously risky” thing to do, but “starting a business is the biggest rush you can get. Next to that, expansion is the most gratifying thing you can do.”

Schnetz said he has been fortunate to have employees who have stuck with him for a long time in a historically transient business.

“Having the employees we have, that’s probably the most gratifying thing,” Schnetz says.

Mark Glover: 916-321-1184, @markhglover