Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Nick's Pizza & Pub, Crystal Lake, IL

The Nick's Special
This is a bit of a long post, but stick with it! It's definitely a feel-good story (and who doesn't like those this time of year?), with a couple of fun videos...and it features pizza - what more could you want?

It's a little after 2pm on a Saturday and we've just caught the tail-end of the lunch crowd at Nick's Pizza & Pub in Crystal Lake, IL.  Though it's still pretty busy inside - the day's nonstop drizzle is doing little to keep loyal patrons away - the late-afternoon lull is good news for me, because it means a chance to tour the kitchen of this unique local eatery. We're here to celebrate my cousin Ethan's birthday, but the visit also gives me a chance to check out a restaurant that has won a place in local - and national - lore.

On a local scale, Nick's is famous for the crispy, thin crust pizzas it's been serving since 1995, and for juicy Italian Beef cooked on site, from scratch, and according to a 35-plus year-old recipe that the owner, Nick Sarillo, inherited from his father's Chicago beef stand. Nationally, Sarillo's two-of-a-kind restaurant (there's a sister location in nearby Elgin, IL) has garnered positive press for his uniquely successful business model.

In an industry plagued by up to 200 percent annual employee turnover, Nick's has a retention rate of 80 percent. Each location is operated by around 100 employees. For those not impressed by numbers, that's a whole lot of happy workers - one of whom is my cousin, Ethan. I don't know too many other employees who'd be excited to take their family to their workplace on their day off - especially when that day is their birthday -  but that, it seems, is part of what makes Nick's so special.

According to Inc. com, the popularity and success of Nick's is largely due to Sarillo's 'strikingly effective' management strategy, which encourages employees to take an active and personal interest in the well-being of the company. But it's not just the employees who are invested in the future of Nick's; after years of supporting the community with fundraisers and charitable donations (their menu puts actual dollar amount at over $72,000 last year alone), this year Nick's turned to the community for a little support of its own.

Plagued by financial woes as a result of overbuilding, the state of economy, and nearby road construction, Sarillo made a risky move in September, sending an e-mail to all 1,600 members of his Frequent Guest Program.  He used the message to highlight the shaky financial situation of the company and to ask, not for handouts, but for increased business. What could have been the nail in the coffin for a less community-minded organization turned out to be Nick's saving grace; the customers turned up in droves, doubling the expected revenue in the first week.

Their enthusiasm bought Nick's some time, but the restaurant isn't entirely free and clear, yet - in fact, they're still 25% short of their end-of-year goal (you can track their progress here, on the official Nick's Pizza & Pub website). Of course, the community is still responding - it's one of the reasons Ethan decided to celebrate his birthday there...which brings me to the real 'heart' of this post: my tour of Nick's at Crystal Lake and, of course, the food. Enough about the business, let's talk pizza!

The Nick's experience starts as soon as you walk through their 9-foot-fall, heavy-as-lead wooden doors. Aside from the electric signs outside, the place looks like it's been here for much longer than 16 years - and that's because parts of it have. The cobblestones outside the building come from the streets of old Chicago, and the massive building itself is made from a reclaimed, Crystal Lake dairy barn. Inside, it has all the rugged charm of a hunting lodge or mountain retreat. Antler chandeliers hang from the exposed beams of a vaulted ceiling and animal busts adorn the walls. A huge stone fireplace provides a focal point in the center of the room and, decked out for Christmas, the place is surprisingly cozy and festive.

Our party is large, so while everyone is getting settled, Ethan arranges for my tour with manager, James Corsiglia. After a brief introduction, James takes me on a quick tour of the restaurant floor before taking me into the kitchen. At Nick's, the kitchen is the 'Heart of the House' - a sentiment to which I can certainly relate, even if my kitchen isn't nearly as clean and efficient.

And efficiency seems to be a watchword at Nick's; pizza makers are trained to top pies with exactly 60 pieces of sausage in under a minute, and the stone shelved ovens cook each pizza to crispy, golden perfection in only 15 minutes. Such speedy baking requires high temperatures (around 550°F) so even on a chilly November day, the kitchen is sweltering. Amazingly, the employees seem more than able to handle the heat - I'm introduced to each one by name, and all of them are smiling!

The kitchen is set up in stages and each employee has a dedicated job to do. Tasks range from working in the salad prep area, or prepping trays of dough, to topping the pizzas, or pulling them out of the huge ovens. Later, Ethan explains that each task requires extensive and specific training, leading to a certification. After an employee passes a certain number of certifications, they trade in their tan hat for a red one (which comes with a pay raise) and, eventually, after every certification is passed, the red one is exchanged for the black hat of a 'Pizza Pro'.

On our tour, James shows me the trays of dough balls, standing ready for the dinner rush. They'll empty 32 trays, of 15 balls each, in a single day. He points out the ingredients, which are ordered frequently, and in small batches to ensure freshness. The sausage used on pizzas like the Nick's Special (a signature pie loaded with cheese, sausage, onion, mushrooms and green peppers) is custom blended for Nick's.

By the time we finish in the kitchen, I've exhausted my supply of questions and worked up quite an appetite, so it's a good thing that Nick's provides plenty of Virginia peanuts for snacking. Back at the table, everyone is cracking the nuts and tossing the shells on the floor - it's all part of the fun at Nick's and adds to the general atmosphere. We order drinks (their pitcher of cherry Pepsi comes with actual maraschino cherries!) and wait for our pizzas.

The Nick's Special

When the pies arrive, piping hot and smelling like heaven, we descend on them almost before I can get any photos! I manage to snatch a few of the Nick's Special, as well as the Double Decker version (two layers of crust and toppings layered over each other) and the Mexican pizza, but the Bacon pizza, a favorite with Ethan and his friends, disappears too rapidly for a Kodak Moment.

The Mexican Pizza

The crust on each pie is thin and crisp, and every pizza is deliciously saucy - a combination that reminds me of pies I've tasted on the streets of Italy. I prefer this kind of pie to deep dish, which is occasionally too dense and sloppy for my liking, and even the Double Decker is crisp and perfectly cooked.

Look at that baaaaaacon - and the beautifully braided crust on the Double Decker

Although I'm not a fan of peppers, I like the way Nick's slices theirs - long and very thin - so that I even end up leaving a few on my piece of Nick's Special, much to Matthew's disappointment. The Mexican is a great change of pace, and it really does taste like tacos on a pizza (which is a surprisingly good thing!), but my favorite is the bacon. It has the perfect ratio of toppings to cheese and, of course, it has bacon - how could anything else compete?

Yes folks, that's bacon pizza - served on one of Nick's biodegradable plates

We only order pizza on this visit, but I've heard great things about their Italian Beef and I plan to sample it for myself, next time we're in town. Their beer nuggets - fried balls of garlic and parmesan encrusted pizza dough - also garner rave reviews, and for those who like their sweets, there's the Moose Madness shake and even gelato, to further cement any comparisons to an Italian pizzeria.

Printed on the back of each menu is a clearly defined purpose, a summary of the 'Nick's Experience' which is to provide "this community [with] an unforgettable place; to connect with your family and friends, to have fun and to feel at home." Judging by our experience, I'd say they succeed, so if you find yourself in the Crystal Lake or Elgin area, take your family on over to Nick's. Of course, my endorsement isn't entirely altruistic - I want there to be a Nick's to come back to, next time I'm in town!

To learn more about Nick's, check out their website, YouTube channel, or this video feature from Chicago's Best TV! Sarillo's personal business and leadership blog offers some great insights (and more heart-warming stories, like this one) and you can read the detailed profile of the  business here.

Nick's Pizza & Pub on Urbanspoon


  1. Great review, Rachel; I was looking forward to what you could tell me about "Nick's". The pizza certainly was delicious and the atmosphere added to the fun of a family celebration.

  2. Nick's thin crust is delicious! But, of course, the kids all refer to it as "the peanut place" :).