Living in a wonderful city like Chicago has always afforded me the luxury of being surrounded by phenomenal eateries and a variety of taverns. With her amazing array of neighborhoods, the Windy City easily has something for everyone. So it’s no wonder that many Chicagoans usually choose to stay close to home when it comes time for, say, a beer. That’s me, I’m one of those. I live in Lakeview and I’m lucky to have great food and beverage options steps from my door. And I consider myself picky too. While the corner tap might excite the historian in me, I usually find that the beer brat in me takes precedence – Miller Lite isn’t going to cut it. Heck, Fat Tire isn’t going to cut it (yes, beer brat). So I’m pretty fortunate to have good beer emporiums that are reachable via foot. Places like Downtown, Wicker Park, and Edgewater are, well, far. Yes, technically they are relatively close distance wise – Wicker Park for example isn’t even four miles away, but there’s no easy way to get there, so why go? It’s freakin’ far!
But there’s one reason I do go to Wicker Park, and one reason alone. Although Piece Pizzeria & Brewery opened in 2001, I discovered Piece in 2003 after I moved back home to Chicago from Boston. A pizza hound friend had been raving about the place and their Connecticut style pies. “Connecticut has pizza?” thought this Chicago pizza snob. But then I quickly zipped back to the times I had spent in New Haven and remembered that, yes, that town did have some tasty stuff. But I was more curious about the brewery part of this locale. Regardless, it was pizza and beer so it had to be a win-win. And it was. And over ten years later, it still is.
After the Fire of 1871, the area of Chicago now known as Wicker Park was inhabited by wealthy European immigrants, most hailing from Germany and parts of Scandinavia. When Charles and Joel Wicker purchased the land, they created a lovely little park that was surrounded by monstrous mansions that were built by the beer barons who resided in the neighborhood. Stroll down some of the side streets for prime examples of Victorian style architecture that dotted Chicago’s landscape during the late 1800s. For miles and miles this now popular part of town was also home to vast amounts of farmland that eventually became homes and apartments, industrial spaces, art studios, or random businesses. The history of the location where Piece now stands is no exception. The bow-truss building that houses Piece is a left over from the 1920s. Both the exterior and interior offer a glimpse into the area’s history – large spaces that could have served as stables, warehouses, and in this case, a car garage. That garage remained in place up until the pizzeria and brewery opened its doors. Throughout the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, the area became somewhat rundown, dirty, and untouched. The neighborhood also saw a variety of ethnic groups, bohemians, artists, and musicians come and go. It wasn’t until the early 1990s that Wicker Park (and Bucktown) saw some positive change, much of which was made possible by those aforementioned artists and musicians that helped pump money back into the district. Literary fans flock here to see the streets that writer Nelson Algren once roamed (Piece’s Golden Arm is a tribute to the scribe). Hometown favorites like Liz Phair wrote Exile in Guyville about Wicker Park and John Cusack co-wrote the adapted screenplay and filmed High Fidelity in the neighborhood because of the booming alternative Wicker Park music scene. New investors and businesses, like Piece, continued to help this part of West Town grow and have made it a hoppin’ place to be.
The more and more I learned about the history of the locale, the more and more I’ve come to really appreciate both Wicker Park and Bucktown. And while I slowly venture into other pubs here and there, Piece is always the target. Clearly they do beer well. Just take a sip of staples like Top Heavy Hefeweizen or Full-Frontal Pale Ale. Throw back a few seasonal favorites like Festivus or The Weight. Sheer awesomeness. Those are brought to you by brewer Jonathan Cutler. Step into Piece and you’ll see it’s walls covered by medals and trophies galore – all have been won at the epitome of beer competitions like the World Beer Cup and the Great American Beer Festival. Piece was even the Champion Small Brewpub at the 2006 World Beer Cup. Amazing. If all that prize-winning brew weren’t enough (which usually is for me), they have this pizza too. Impeccable. But there’s more to Piece, besides the phenomenal food and beverage offerings, that draws me there. Is it the hungry and happy vibe? Is it the diversity of the crowd…beer geeks, families, or the smatterings of what my friend Paul calls Brohemia? Is it the fact that there’s some rock ‘n’ roll history also connected to the place? What is it?
While sitting in Piece one afternoon I met a group of gentlemen who were well-traveled beer aficionados. I soon learned that one of those fellas was a man named Dick Cutler, Jonathan’s dad, who clearly is a big fan of the establishment. Dick soon introduced me to his son and later to Bill Jacobs, the mastermind behind Piece. As I’ve come to know Bill and learn more about his efforts, ideas, values, and approaches to making Piece what it is, I soon realized that one of the main reasons that makes Piece so great is the people behind it. And for that reason, I decided that the best way to provide insights into Piece would be to let Billy Jacobs tell us about his place.
TTT: Tell us a bit about yourself. How did you get from XYZ to owning the best damn pizza brewpub in the City?
BJ: I was always entrepreneurial as a kid, loved food, and to make a long story short, headed to Chicago after graduating college with a loan from our parents–from a second mortgage they took out on their home–with my brothers Andy and Pete. Chicago was the perfect market, without bagels downtown. We built a chain of bagel stores, Jacobs Bros. Bagels that operated from 1983-1999, when we were bought out by Big Apple Bagels. Like bringing great bagels to Chicago, a city bagel bereft in 1983, I had always thought about bringing a great thin-crust pizza, like that which I enjoyed when I grew up in New Haven, CT. There was plenty of deep dish pizza to be found here, but no great thin-crust pizza.
In ’97 I was approached by then Goose Island brewer, Matt Brynildson, encouraging me to keep him in mind if I ever consider creating a new concept. I remember the moment vividly. He and I were playing in an ultimate Frisbee tournament in Hyde Park. Matt walks over to me with a Goose Wit beer and hands it to me. I drink it and he says, “we can make this.” And that was where it all began. Matt was instrumental in developing the brewing component of Piece, the engineering of the brewhouse Bells, John Mallett, and the hiring of our award-winning brewer, Jonathan Cutler. Jonathan attended Siebel and worked for Matt at Goose.
TTT: Speaking of Jonathan, the beer at Piece is a pivotal component of the business and clearly adored – the medals speak to that. What’s the beer development process? Do you come in and say, “I’m really into mulberries and Oreos right now, how can we make that into a beer?” or do you just leave the creative genius up to Jonathan?
BJ: Jonathan has complete control over the beers produced. He’s brilliant with his beers and he’s also an awfully good marketer as you can see in the names of his beers. He’s won 22 medals at the World Beer Cup and GABF since 2002. Can’t argue with his success and our approach.
TTT: Given the popularity of Piece beer, will you ever bottle?
BJ: We cannot bottle or keg our beer on North Avenue. We do not have the capacity to. Will we ever? It’s possible, but nothing is imminent.
TTT: What’s your favorite brewery besides Piece?
BJ: Firestone Walker.
TTT: You guys are popular all around. The place is always packed. Will you ever expand?
BJ: One of the best things that we have done has been staying focused on our operation. Piece has evolved nicely over the years and sales have followed suit. Today Piece is the highest grossing independent pizzeria in the continental U.S. In 2011 Pizza Today Magazine honored us as its Top Independent Pizzeria. At the 2013 Pizza Expo, I am one of two keynote speakers, the other being Robert Irvine from the Food Network. Impressive honors for sure and flattering, but they are the result of staying focused and true to what we do. Opening another Piece would be a distraction, will pose significant challenges, and frankly will not necessarily be satisfying. Ego and money are not motivating factors. Staying in control, putting out great pizza and great beer, and having a happy staff and customers is our pursuit.
TTT: Now that you’ve won best new Pizzeria in the country, do you have a big head?
BJ: I can confidently say that my managers and I share a disdain for anything ego related. We are all flattered by this honor. This recognition is the result of years of hard work. Jonathan, our brewer, declines to be called a Master Brewer. He says, “I’m not a master of anything. I’m a brewer working to make great beer.” We all share his philosophy. We always strive to make Piece a better place, and we do it with a sense of humor and humility. From my yoga practice I’ve learned that perfection does not exist, and this certainly is true in the restaurant business. It’s all about the journey, working hard to improve, and staying true to our mission.
TTT: Most people know that Rick Nielsen, lead guitarist for the infamous Rockford based band, Cheap Trick, is an investor. How did that come to be?
BJ: After writing my business plan and putting together a private placement memorandum in 2000 to raise money, I spent a year shaking all trees, being rejected, and working hard to sell shares in Piece. That summer I made an announcement to my summer league ultimate Frisbee team that I was raising money for a new concept. A woman on the team told me that she had a friend in Rockford who might be interested. This was a friend of Rick’s, and the person responsible for getting the business plan in front of him. He and Rick came to Chicago, met me at the site on North Avenue – an empty dirty garage – and then met with me for a beer at the Northside.
TTT: What’s it like having a music legend and local hero as a partner?
BJ: I could not have imagined having a better rock star partner. Rick loves Piece, loves his place in it, and given his innate talent for marketing is an amazing promoter. He often wears a Piece T-shirt on stage and talks regularly with the media about the place.
TTT: I think the only way an experience for me at Piece could be any better is if Cheap Trick were there playing live music. What are the chances that will ever happen?
BJ: Rick and his sons, Daxx and Miles, have played together at Piece. Daxx is drumming for Cheap Trick. So if we are lucky to get Robin and Tom at Piece at the same time…you never know. So far we have not been that lucky!
TTT: I went to Boston University for graduate school. I was kind of shocked to see a BU hockey jersey hanging at Piece. What’s the deal?
BJ: I went to BU and Piece is where graduates in the Chicago area come for BU sponsored events including the Beanpot. I expect to see you!
TTT: Favorite bar besides Piece?
BJ: That’s a tough question. I love the Map Room, Paddy Longs, Sheffields, The Local Option, and the beer and burgers at the Bad Apple.
TTT: You’ve mentioned both yoga and ultimate frisbee. Clearly you’re a sporty guy. Cubs or Sox?
BJ: I grew up a Yankee fan in Connecticut, but I am a Chicago fan first across the board. I am a Cubs season ticket holder. I love going to the Cell, too, and want to see the Sox succeed. I suppose because I did not grow up here I never had to draw that line in the sand.
TTT: Via Facebook and Twitter, you always offer free beer and pizza to the Bulls or Bears or any other team when they pull off a big win. How do I get in on that action?
BJ: Just play for one of those teams and make a contribution to win a game. Easy!!!
TTT: What do you love about Chicago?
BJ: I love that Chicago is unpretentious. It has a world-class restaurant and beer community, great sports, and the lakefront. It’s a livable city with a wonderful Midwest sensibility. Chicago people are approachable, friendly, and proud.
Thanks, Billy. We love Chicago too. And Piece, of course.