It’s 5:00 a.m. on Saturday in downtown Wautoma. Most of the town is still dreaming and will be for several hours. But the lights flick on in the kitchen of Christianos Pizza, bringing it to life once again.
Flour begins to fly as the mixer hums. A mountain of pizza dough rises on the cool stainless-steel countertop. One stray fly bumps repetitively into the glass of the front door, longing for the freedom of the patio. Meanwhile, a steaming cup of fresh Colectivo coffee accompanies an open Bible on one of the corner dining room booths.
Like every morning for the past 20 years, Larry Wise sits in the solitude of the restaurant he labored to create, the only sounds being the whir of his mixer and his own voice echoing his faith in God. “He was behind this all.”
Larry is the owner and CEO of Christianos Pizza in Wautoma, Wisconsin. A successful business, Christianos is in its twenty-second year of operation and has expanded to four restaurant locations, thanks to Larry’s business philosophy and work ethic.
Food. Faith. Family.
Food, faith, and family. As a Christian father operating a family restaurant business, those three words sum up Larry’s motivations and priorities.
It takes a special kind of know-how and experience to open a family restaurant, but Larry certainly has it.
As an 11-year-old boy living in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Larry began working his first job in a deli owned by an Italian family. A few years later, his best friend’s family opened an Italian pizza restaurant. Leaving the deli to aid in the pizza start-up, Larry worked in the restaurant seven days a week.
Larry attributes his business-building knowledge to his first two jobs. “I was able to see at a very young age how [the owners] built their businesses—door-to-door handing out menus, treating customers as family, and appreciating and valuing every customer,” Larry said.
Larry carried his business interest with him throughout other jobs and knew that one day he wanted to start his own pizza restaurant.
“I’d always tell my wife, ‘This would make a good pizza place,’ –every town we moved to. ‘That would make a good pizza place.’ I saw Christianos, which was [then] a condemned building—and I mean condemned—and I said, ‘That would be the perfect place.’ The very next day, there was a ‘For Sale’ sign on it. So I said, ‘Lord, if you want this to come about, it’s going to be your making, not mine.’”
Doors began to open for Larry to move forward with the building purchase.
“[The owner] wanted $25,000 for [the building] and a dummy like me that would come in and rebuild it. And what bank would loan a guy with no money and five kids $100,000 to do that? No one in their right mind. But they did.”
Even amidst faith and providence, Larry still faced daunting obstacles such as debt risk and the immensity of the building project.
“It was very risky to go into that kind of debt, not only to open a pizza restaurant but to build a pizza restaurant,” said Larry. “When we first started, I would check my bank account every day. There were a lot of worries—a lot of sleepless nights that went along with it.”
But Larry didn’t allow himself to be overcome by obstacles and worries, and his four thriving restaurants are proof of his determination. So how did Larry go from checking his bank account daily to prospering as a CEO?
Larry’s daughter, Megan Werch, who is highly active in the restaurant, ascribes Larry’s success partially to his involvement in every aspect of the business. “Every Saturday night, he’s bussing tables,” she said. Personal interaction with the customers allows Larry to gain real customer feedback and relate to those he serves.
This business practice fits perfectly into Larry’s overall business philosophy, which he states this way: “To be a blessing to customers, employees, and everyone we come in contact with, in regards to food quality and their experience. We want our customers to be glad they came here. And we want our employees to have that same blessing—to be happy they work here. I believe that’s God’s will: we bless others, and in return, we are blessed.”
The flourishing restaurants show that Christianos is indeed providing a great experience to its always-returning customers, but Larry has also ensured that his employees derive the same benefit.
“I think my favorite part about working there is the whole family atmosphere that Larry and his family create for the restaurant, both for the employees and customers that come through,” said Wautoma server Lauren McCartney. “[He] makes sure to create the best experience for my coworkers and me.”
Young adults and aspiring leaders can learn from Larry’s example.
Megan has observed a growing trend of today’s young business entrepreneurs simply wanting to become bosses or overseers without having to get their hands dirty.
“As a young entrepreneur, [you have to] know every aspect of your business, and do every aspect of your business, from payroll to delivering pizzas to making pasta,” said Megan.
Twenty-two years into Christianos’ operation, and Larry still lives by that, although the day-to-day operations have become smoother than they used to be. Larry knows he can’t take all the credit and attributes much of the success to his children who have worked alongside him to create a quality brand.
“I do whatever is needed, but the restaurants are staffed very well and managed very well so I’m not the ‘go-to-guy’ like I was 20 years ago,” said Larry.
Larry continues to adapt to changing times in the way he conducts his business. His plan moving forward is to expand his carry-out and delivery services to meet the demand for in-home dining without the hassle of in-home cooking. Customers can expect to see innovative “to-go” dining options in the coming months. He also plans to open a fifth Christianos location in Appleton, Wisconsin, next year.
Regardless of Larry’s goals for the future and his long-term plans, he will never forget his humble beginnings and the origin of his success. He didn’t start at the top, and he hasn’t so soon forgotten.
You can bet that tomorrow morning he will be in the Christianos kitchen bright and early, mixing dough, sipping his cup of joe, and pouring out gratitude.