Still Strong After 48 Years
DeLuca’s, arguably Lansing’s most famous pizzeria, if not restaurant in general, began life as the Willow Bar in 1960. Started by Pat DeLuca and his brother, it became Pat’s sons’ (Chuck, Tom and John) first and last jobs in their early teens, even though their father tried to dissuade them from coming to work there, let alone buying the restaurant (in 1981).
“He wanted us to go to school and get a good education, but I was stupid,” Chuck said with a dry chuckle. “I went to school, but my heart just wasn’t in school, so I started working here and then all of us did.”
“It just kind of happened,” John broke in. “It just kind of consumed us.”
Since the DeLucas finish each others’ sentences so often, it quickly becomes an exercise in futility to attribute any certain pearls of wisdom to any of them. And so, with that disclaimer out of the way, let’s get to the good stuff; i.e., the pizza, which, according to the brothers, hasn’t changed since shortly after the restaurant opened 48 years ago. They said their father and uncle “started out with something and experimented with it until people liked it. They talked to the people and listened to what they said, and eventually got it.”
The DeLucas know better than to mess with success, which is why “the house special has been here from day one.
“We try to use the same items all the time, but even items are not consistent. Sometimes the cheese will be moist, sometimes it will be dry. You can buy the exact cheese from the same manufacturer and it will vary. We only have one dough. We never change that. We have a pan pizza which is cooked in a pan, and then there’s the regular pizza, but it’s the same dough.”
The somewhat thicker crust of the pan pizza continues to be popular, although their regular pizza is very hearty. Their menu changes infrequently (the last time was in 2006) and even then, only slightly. They added a taco pizza, spinach salad and Caesar salad and took off their tomato salad.
Not a big deal, right?
They didn’t think so either until people started wondering where the tomato salad went.
And as restaurateurs who put their customers on a pedestal (although occasionally they may feel like putting one on a pizza brick), the brothers said their chefs will prepare pretty much whatever people ask for.
“There are a lot of things [the customers] customize on their pizzas—the way they want it cooked, the thickness of the crust. People eat here for so long over and over, and they [have to] have it just how they want it, so we get a lot of special requests. A lot. It makes a lot more work. It gets hard, and if it’s the least bit different when it comes out because they’ve been eating it like that for 20 years, it can be ugly.”
“People like consistency. They want it the same every time, and that’s not easy. Baking especially. When you’re dealing with dough, it cooks differently according to the weather, the water. It’s just crazy. The cheese makes a big difference in how pizza cooks.
There’s more to it than people realize.”
However, knowing that if they don’t do it, their competition will, they and their approximately 52 employees “just come to work and work hard and it just happens.”
They said the vegetarian pizza “craze” is picking up speed all the time, so they’re concentrating on that; but their top-selling pizzas are the house special and the meat special. Calzones and other Italian fare sell well at lunch; but when people in Lansing hear DeLuca’s, the first thing that comes to mind is pizza.
When interviewing potential pizza chefs, they said the number one thing they look for is, “Interest. If they’re interested, they can do it. If they’re not interested, if they just need a job, they’re not going to be good,” adding that even experience isn’t all that important, since every pizza restaurant does it differently.
One of the good things about having three co-owners is that it gives them all a chance to have a life outside the restaurant. “We don’t have to stay here morning until night, so we do have some away time. We’re able to take vacations which [is] lucky… a lot of people who own businesses can’t.”
As long as they’ve been in business, the DeLucas said they still get a lot of first-time customers, especially from out of town. Many of them have heard of DeLuca’s and have to try it for themselves. “A lot of people that are passing through, when they’re on a destination vacation and are going by, they’ll stop.” They said that in the summer, when they walk through the parking at night, they are amazed by how many out-of-state license plates they see. “People move away, and in the summer when they vacation, they come back to visit relatives.”
Stories such as that of a former Fox 47 news anchor, who, when asked what she would miss most about Lansing, answered, “going to DeLuca’s,” make the brothers feel good about the long hours they put in.
Other stories make them feel even better. Not long ago, “A lady came in. She came here right from the airport. Just got back from Iraq. Fellow passengers were on the plane, and they started talking about where they were going to go when they got back, and she said, ‘I’m going to DeLuca’s for pizza.’ And they were all [chanting] ‘DeLuca’s, DeLuca’s. We’re going to go there tonight.’ Then one person said, ‘No, I like somebody else’s pizza better,’ and they all got into an argument about it. ‘But we won out,’ the lady said.”
In fact, the brothers said they get quite a few people that come back from Iraq that can’t wait to come back in. Why? “It’s like comfort.”
Speaking of their longevity, the DeLucas feel fortunate at how steady business has been over the years. “We don’t pay much attention to competition,” they said. “We just roll with it.” While the chains’ advantage may be convenience, “ours is product, [and] we’ve been blessed with it.”
They said they’re too old to think about opening another restaurant, and have no succession plans for when it comes time to put away their pizza cutters. As for internal expansion, “We’re running out of room in the kitchen to be able to have all this stuff. We’re kind of stuck.”
The secret of their success? “Nothing fancy. Just work, and that’s it.”
While DeLuca’s doesn’t cater, they do prepare large trays that people order for take-out, as well as large pizzas. However, they have “no coupons, no gimmicks. You have to charge someone else for gimmicks.” However, they do give out a lot of gift certificates for schools and parishes, and give leftover pizzas to the needy or to the dispatchers in the police department.
Chuck: “If it wasn’t for our customers we wouldn’t be here.”
John: “… our customers AND our loyal employees.”
Tom: “We really try to make Lansing look good. It really makes me upset when I hear this stuff” [about how bad things are].
Overheard recently in the restaurant: “I love coming here, because everybody’s happy. Everywhere you go, there’s something bad; but when you come here, you feel happy.”
Eat at DeLuca’s and no doubt you’ll feel happy, too.
Tom, Chuck and John DeLuca, Owners
2006 W. Willow Highway