By Patty Gelb
Seaweed, sauerkraut and corned beef on pizza? Not many of us would think of these as typical pizza toppings.
“I am always playing around, testing and trying something new,” said Kreutz. “Sometimes things are horrible and sometimes they are really good.”
It was this innovative spirit that Kruetz brought to what is now the oldest pizza establishment in Toledo. His company serves up almost 30 specialty pizzas — some of which you can’t get anywhere else.
For nearly 60 years, Gino’s Pizza has been a University of Toledo tradition. It was founded in 1955 on Monroe Street near Central Avenue by Steve (Sparks) Sparagowski alongside his brothers, Eddie, Leo and Bill. They all worked full-time jobs and took turns working at the restaurant that was helping introduce pizza to the Toledo area.
“Back then, there were only a handful of pizzerias around town,” said Kreutz. “Pizza just wasn’t as big back then. I remember coming here when a small pizza was 70 cents and the large was 90 cents. It’s a little different than today.”
Kreutz remembered going to Gino’s as a young man with his parents. Growing up as a Toledo native, he attended St. Clement Grade School, then Whitmer High School. Gino’s Pizza was a regular stop for his family.
“I grew up on Gino’s Pizza,” he said. “My parents used to bring me here. Then in college, this was our stop all of the time.”
He began his college career at Bowling Green State University and transferred to The University of Toledo in the middle of his freshman year during the oil embargo. He is very happy that he made that move.
“I ended up falling in love with UT,” he said. “There was so much going on and I made some great friends. In my business today, most of my associates are people that I knew from college.”
He joined Alpha Sigma Phi fraternity and was very involved on campus. He had many great times during school, including homecoming events, building floats with his fraternity brothers and attending MAC championship games. He loved his time at UT and is still very involved. To this day he tries to never miss a Rockets’ football game at the Glass Bowl (where Gino’s is served) and is currently working to help re-establish the alumni chapter of his fraternity.
While at UT, Kreutz worked at UPS and during his senior year, he was offered a full-time manager position. After eight years at UPS, he was offered the job of plant manager for J. Richards Industries. He worked there for five years and while he enjoyed what he was doing, he always had a very entrepreneurial spirit. Kreutz knew that he wanted his own business — and not just any business. He wanted to own Gino’s.
Kreutz got that call in 1985.
“We made an agreement that I would buy it in 1986,” he said. “But part of the agreement was that I had to work for them for a year, without pay, to learn the business. I agreed.”
During that year, Kreutz learned operations, the recipes, the history and what it took to run the restaurant. Three of the Sparagowski brothers stayed with Kreutz for the first couple of years while he got his feet under him. Although he had plans to eventually expand the restaurant, he spent those early years learning the business and experimenting with different pizzas.
“When I first started I just wanted to survive,” Kreutz said with a laugh.
Kreutz knows what makes a great pizza is its core. He inherited The Original Gino’s Pizza recipes for sauce, dough and cheese blend. It was a pizza known and loved across the Toledo community and was the basis of his future plans to expand the company.
“Our sauce is our recipe and that is something that we have always done ourself,” said Kreutz. “We still make our own dough every day and we use different cheese than most other places in town. I have always said that a good pizza is a marriage between those three products. Those products have to match. It is not just a matter of buying a crust and throwing some cheese on it. You’ve got to get the right combination.”
Kreutz’s first goal when he took over Gino’s was to develop consistency and create procedures. He shared that each of the brothers did things slightly different and “handfuls” of cheese or sauce were interpreted depending on who was in the kitchen that night. Nothing was measured out, which did not lend toward expanding to other locations with uniformity.
“The biggest challenge that I had when I took it over was probably the consistency because there were four brothers in the business and they kind of operated as different companies,” he said. “There was a pizza on the menu called the deluxe and each one of the guys made the deluxe pizza a little different. That would confuse the customers even though they were all excellent.”
The other thing that Kreutz worked on was expanding the pizza menu. He was constantly trying new things on pizzas.
“I am a foodie at heart and I like to play with food so I kept adding new things to the pizza,” he shared. “There are so many toppings that we have on our pizza that others are taking credit for all over the country. Like BBQ chicken pizza. We have had it on the menu for years but yet there are other people saying that they invented it.”
Although he experiments, he doesn’t change the original Gino’s pizza sauce or their signature dough. Kreutz tries unusual combinations and today’s Gino’s is known for their excellent food, particularly their specialty pizzas.
An example was Gino’s Asian style pizza that included seaweed. Kreutz tests his creations as samples in the dining room and had some skeptical tasters on that one.
“It was actually a very good pizza,” he said. “But to some people it sounded crazy. It was like sauerkraut, we couldn’t get people to even try that. When they did, they would be surprised and say, ‘Wow, that didn’t even taste like sauerkraut.’”
His specialty pizzas range from Toledo’s Famous Chili Dog pizza that features Tony Packo’s hot dog sauce and Hungarian sausage and Stanley’s Kickin’ Kielbasa pizza using locally made kielbasa, to Jiggs pizza which includes white sauce, sauerkraut and corned beef. Kreutz likes incorporating local companies into the food at Gino’s wherever he can.
Although they offer inimitable pizzas, Gino’s carryout, delivery and dine-in also offers a variety of subs, salads and appetizers. The menu is not the only thing that has grown over the years. Gino’s has expanded from the first location that opened in 1955 on the corner of Monroe and Central to now having six corporate owned locations with plans to franchise soon. The store that is on Alexis Road has been closed for the last several months for remodeling but is scheduled to reopen in March. Gino’s now employs almost 100 people in the Toledo area across its locations.
More exciting changes for Gino’s are coming this year.
“This year is going to be incredible,” said Kreutz. “We’ve got a lot of things in the mix coming up. What we are coming out with this year has been in the process for the last couple of years. It will be a totally new menu and there will be a big advertising launch – so look for it coming out in 2015. We are keeping what we have but changing a few things. I can’t say too much, because, believe me if I say it, 15 other places in town will have it.”
Kreutz entrepreneurial spirit and love of trying new things with food has even intruded on the little downtime that is available to a restaurateur. He owns a cottage up on Devil’s Lake in Michigan. He enjoys boating, fishing, riding his motorcycle and relaxing lakeside. These pleasures have all been put aside in recent years when he opened his second restaurant called Captain Chuck’s.
“We were a little disappointed in what was available at that time,” he said. “We found this old dilapidated bar, bought it and redid it. As a foodie, it is a lot of fun up there because there is a wide variety of items and we change the menu constantly.”
Captain Chuck’s offers a diverse menu, including a variety of fish, steaks, even Mexican style food — Taco Tuesday is often their biggest night of the week. Of course a staple on the menu is Gino’s pizza. Although they do not offer all of the specialty pizzas, the Toledo-based pizza now has a foothold in Michigan. As soon as Kreutz heads up north, he ends up at the restaurant.
“Yeah, that restaurant blew the relaxing idea – that was a bad call on my part,” said Kreutz laughing. “We use to have nice quiet weekends, which no longer happens.”
With the expansion to franchising of Gino’s, the addition of his new restaurant in Michigan and the entirely new menu being launched in 2015, relaxing doesn’t seem to be on the horizon for Kreutz anytime soon. But for those who grew up loving Gino’s pizza near campus, or those who enjoy it at the Glass Bowl or Savage Arena, this is probably a very good thing.