UPDATE: Burt's Place reopened in early November. Click here to read more.
Burt Katz has always been a one-man operation, mostly because he wants customers to get high-quality pizza each and every time they visit his Morton Grove-based pizzeria.
Customers of Burt’s Place, however, have been missing out ever since Katz was taken to the hospital about six weeks ago.
“I’m not going to rush back because I want to offer the same quality of service as before, but I promise we will be back in business within a few weeks,” Katz said from his hospital bed in Evanston.
Katz, 76, declined to elaborate on his injury, but did say he underwent surgery and is now in physical therapy.
The well-traveled pizza maker first gained fame when he opened The Inferno in Evanston and later opened Gulliver’s in Chicago’s Rogers Park.
Katz took a “hiatus” to experiment in corporate oilrigs, but said the higher pay wasn’t worth the restrictive working conditions. He hasn’t shaved his beard since he quit his corporate job on March 12, 1971 and decided to open Pequod’s in Morton Grove.
“I figured I would take a chance, and if I failed it would be by my own hand, and if I succeeded it would be by my own hand,” Katz said.
After growing bored of Pequod’s, Katz sold it and opened Burt’s Place down the street in 1989. Traditionally, the only person who helps in his restaurants has been his wife Sharon, who takes orders and serves tables.
Likewise, investors have approached Katz about franchising Burt’s Place, to which Katz has declined.
“I’ve run my own store for 40 years,” Katz said. “I do all the buying, all the organizing, pay all the bills and do all the cooking. Nobody has ever cooked for me. I make sure every pizza is acceptable to sell. When you start substituting people, the standards vary and your quality promise loses value.”
A typical day for Katz starts at 5 a.m., when he buys his fresh produce and starts his dough. After that, he works out at the Morton Grove Park District for an hour, before working until Burt’s Place closes at 9 or 10 p.m.
“I am going to keep working until I’m not healthy enough to work,” Katz said. “I miss my customers and I want to keep up with their lives. I’ve been fortunate to have such loyal customers. I don’t ever take them for granted.”
Katz said he still has customers who first visited Pequod’s in the 1970s.
Debbie Juris of the Morton Grove Chamber of Commerce said she’s received a considerable number of calls in recent weeks asking why Burt’s Place is closed.
“He obviously has a big following and is a prime example of small business building strong relationships in the community,” Juris said. “We hope he returns soon.”
A considerable amount of personal letters have also reportedly been stuffed under the restaurant’s front door, though Sharon Katz said she hasn’t been able to make her weekly visits lately.
Carol Anzelone was a long-time patron of Burt’s Place and does part-time waitressing when Sharon Katz is unavailable.
“We have some customers who come in every week on the same day, and they’ve grown worried about Burt,” Anzelone said. “I live near the restaurant and people walking by will recognize me and stop to ask questions.”
Anzelone said college students and young professionals who live in Chicago often call Burt’s Place with plans of visiting and Katz always tells them to take the train because it’s cheaper.
“His heart is in his work,” Anzelone said. “He loves what he does and he loves the people who come into his little shop, and that shows.”
For those who are awaiting his return, Katz said he plans to post an informational flier on his shop window a week before he returns.