Mark Sellers’ new ghost kitchen, Loretta’s Deep Dish, opens Friday at 3 p.m.
Sellers added a pizza oven to Max’s and took a six-day trip to Chicago with chef Rich Williams to learn how to pull off top-notch Chicago-style pizzas.
“We trained with a world-renowned pizza master who’s considered one, if not the most knowledgeable and experienced person cooking Chicago deep dish pizza. And he taught us how to do it in a way that is similar to the deep dish that you get in Chicago, but we have our own unique take on it,” explained Sellers.
He says Loretta’s uses a unique blend of cheeses to create its multilayered masterpiece.
“One slice is almost a full meal. Two slices is a lot of deep-dish pizza,” said Sellers.
Loretta’s also offers thin crust pizzas, subs, lasagna and salad.
Sellers says nearly everything is made in-house from scratch, including the spicy arrabbiata, white and house red sauces, meatballs and pizza dough. What isn’t made on site is locally sourced from companies like Beer City Bread and Pebble Creek Farm.
Located in the basement of Max’s at 58 Ionia Ave. SW, Loretta’s is Sellers’ seventh restaurant, but the first to include pizza on the menu.
“It just struck me one day a few months ago that I couldn’t find a good deep-dish Chicago-style pizza in Grand Rapids. And I’ve never started a pizza place before, but I’ve always loved pizza. Why not start a pizza place? It’s really just something that I love and that’s why I did it,” he said.
Sellers says the restaurant is named after a childhood friend’s aunt – a Chicago native who introduced him to Chicago-style deep dish pizza she baked in her Grand Rapids kitchen.
“That just blew my mind as a kid, ‘cause I never had anything like that before,” said Sellers.
Loretta’s is Sellers’ second ghost kitchen. He shut down his first one, Annika’s Gourmet Grilled Cheese Laboratory, because of limited grill space when Max’s indoor dining area temporarily reopened in June.
RESTAURANTS ‘IN SURVIVAL MODE’
Since a traditional soft opening isn’t possible with COVID-19, Sellers decided to give his employees a shot at perfecting its pizzas while feeding frontline workers. This week, Loretta’s Deep Dish delivered 100 free pizzas to staff at Metro Health – University of Michigan Hospital in Cascade Township, Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital’s Intensive Care Unit, and Grand Rapids fire stations.
“I have read a lot about how the frontline health care workers are just exhausted and working long hours, and that’s a really tough job,” he said.
“They’ve been on the frontlines of this pandemic for 10 months now,” he added. “This was just a perfect opportunity to help ourselves learn the recipes better and to give free food to people that help us out all year round.”
The pandemic has also been tough on Sellers’ restaurants. His original venture, HopCat, went through bankruptcy, was repossessed by the bank and sold to another company. Meanwhile Max’s business is down about 85% from a year ago, according to Sellers.
“We’re known as a dine-in kind of atmospheric experience. We’re not really known as a takeout delivery type of operation,” Sellers said of the tiki restaurant, which is also moving through Chapter 11 bankruptcy restructuring.
Revue Magazine readers named Max’s the “Best New Restaurant in West Michigan” in July.
“That was really nice… but nobody could come out to enjoy the restaurant when we got that award,” said Sellers.
The interest is still there, according to Sellers. He says Max’s gets calls every day from people who want to save a spot for a large group in the coming months. But with no certain end to dining restrictions, the restaurant must turn down their request.
“It feels like somebody’s dangling money in front of my face and I can’t get it. But it’s nice that people still remember that we exist and they’re still excited about the concept,” said Sellers.
Despite it all, this restaurant owner doesn’t blame Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
“It’s not her that caused the virus. She’s trying to prevent the virus. Now you can make an argument that she’s clamped down too hard, maybe harder than a lot of other states, but the virus is the problem. She’s just reacting to that,” he said.
Sellers says the shutdown led to more leniency by landlords and vendors and eased worker worries about being exposed to COVID-19. He says dining numbers were declining before the restrictions took hold because customers were already avoiding public places.
“Obviously I’d rather be open, but if our business is going to be down 60% anyway because people don’t want to go out, what’s the point of being open anyway?” Sellers said, adding that health and safety are more important.
He says Max’s has enough money left to make it at least six more months. He thinks circumstances will improve for restaurants before then.
“I think we’ll be OK, but we’re definitely watching every penny right now. It’s a rough time,” he said.
Like other restaurant owners, Sellers says his goal for 2021 is the same as last year: staying in business.
“We’re all in survival mode right now, doing whatever we can to get to the other side of this terrible time,” he explained.
But Sellers has no plans to leave the industry.
“I don’t have anything else I’d rather do. I love what I do. It’s been a very, very challenging last year, but the thought of just giving up and going on to some other type of career, um, just doesn’t, it doesn’t work for me. It’s not who I am,” he said.
MASTERING DEEP DISH DELIVERY
When Max’s reopens for dining, Sellers says Loretta’s will stick to takeout and delivery only.
Sellers says he no longer uses Door Dash and GrubHub to deliver because they take 30% to 40% in restaurant sales.
“So when people order through Loretta’s, they’re going to get the pizza delivered by a Loretta’s employee and the money stays in the Grand Rapids economy. It doesn’t go to a Silicon Valley firm out in California,” he said.
Since deep dish pizza takes longer to cook than its thinner counterparts, Sellers recommends customers order an hour in advance to ensure their pizza arrives hot and gooey. People can order up to a day in advance and pick their delivery time at https://www.lorettasgr.com/.
And if you can’t make it through the entire pizza, reheating instructions are printed on each box.
“We’ve worked really hard on it. We put a lot of effort into creating this concept and it’s just great pizza,” said Sellers.