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Zachary's Chicago PizzaKevin Suto is the CEO of Zachary’s Chicago Pizza, which currently operates five locations in Northern California. He began working at Zachary’s as a dishwasher and has been with the company for 38 years. Kevin has assumed many roles, including president and CFO.

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Here’s a Glimpse of What You’ll Hear:

  • Kevin Suto’s progression from dishwasher to CEO at Zachary’s Chicago Pizza
  • Zachary’s early history and how the company has developed
  • Kevin describes Zachary’s local and national awards
  • How to establish and maintain a positive company culture
  • The pandemic’s effect on Zachary’s business processes

In this episode…

In this episode of the SpotOn Series, Chad Franzen sits down with Kevin Suto, CEO of Zachary’s Chicago Pizza, to discuss how the company maintains a positive culture and impeccable reputation. Kevin shares Zachary’s early history and the company’s development, its local and national awards, and how the business supports its employees’ growth.

Resources mentioned in this episode:

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Episode Transcript

Intro  0:04  

Welcome to the Top Business Leaders Show. Powered by Rise25 media. We featured top founders, executives and business leaders from all over the world

Chad Franzen  0:20  

Chad Franzen here co host for the show where we feature top restaurant tours, investors and business leaders. This is part of our SpotOn Series SpotOn has the best in class payment platform for retail and they have a flagship solution called spot on restaurant, where they combine marketing software and payments all in one. They’ve served everyone from larger chains like Dairy Queen and subway to small mom and pop restaurants. To learn more, go to This episode is brought to you by Rise25. We help b2b businesses to get ROI clients referrals and strategic partnerships are done for you podcast. If you have a b2b business and want to build great relationships with clients, referral partners and thought leaders in your space there’s no better way to do it than through podcasts and content marketing. To learn more, go to or email us at support at Kevin Suto is CEO of Zachary Chicago Pizza with five locations in Northern California. Kevin started working at Zachary’s washing dishes as a high school student in 1984, and has now been an employee since almost day one. He’s worked in every capacity from dishwasher to President and CFO in his spare time. He’s a part time professional musician. Kevin, thanks so much for joining me today. How are you?

Kevin Suto  1:29  

It’s my pleasure chatting. Well, you.

Chad Franzen  1:32  

Good thanks. Hey, before we start talking about Zachary’s, tell me about your work as a part time musician.

Kevin Suto  1:38  

Okay, yeah. So, I mean, this goes back to the high school days, right? Early 80s. You know, guitar was a thing, I started playing guitar and, you know, hooked up, I got was fortunate enough to be in Berkeley, California at the time and had a great guitar teacher by the name of Joe Satriani. And yeah, and just, you know, that’s kind of been my hobby. You know, since then, since those days, it’s been fantastic, you know, something I still do to this day.

Chad Franzen  2:07  

So, so what in what ways are you do you have gigs or something like that he had a band

Kevin Suto  2:13  

playing several bands, I played in a few country rock outfits, one called the bell brothers and the one Jules Hansen and company and a few other, you know, side projects with friends. So, you know, it’s something to do and at nighttime and the occasional occasional fun social fun stuff. Great. Yeah, we do real well,

Chad Franzen  2:31  

and you do you perform performing events and like, or places in Northern California?

Kevin Suto  2:36  

Oh, yeah, we’ll play you know, anything from your local bar or Honky Tonk to contrast in the park will even sometimes open for some touring acts will confer joy. Some other some other acts. So I’ve been

Chad Franzen  2:51  

Wow, very nice. Very nice. So tell me about Zachary, Chicago pizza, what can a customer expect when they go there?

Kevin Suto  2:58  

Well, what we’re what we’ve been serving, award winning Chicago sales stuffed deep dish pizza, since 1983. So we are 100% employee owned, we have a lot of long term employees. So what you can really expect is is consistent product, you know, warm, friendly service. And a good time, you know, when when things are rolling 100% It can be a real fun place with the a lot a lot of action and, you know, noise and you know, we have an open kitchen so you can see people making our pizzas and you know, we stick pretty much to simple menu of pizza and salads and beer, there’s full bar at a couple of our locations. But you know, it really is about keeping things simple and doing what we do. Really well.

Chad Franzen  3:51  

We’ll get to the ownership situation in just a second. That’s that’s very interesting. But you’ve been there since almost day one. What was it like back in the time when you first started as a dishwasher? Okay,

Kevin Suto  4:01  

well, when I when I first started Zachary’s had opened a few months prior, but a friend of mine was an original employee. And as a matter of fact, we still have one original play left. He was there when I started but was a little 800 square foot location, which is our College Avenue locations, which has since expanded a couple of times, but it was like 800 square feet really small, not very many tables very crowded. And as a really, it was a the crew was very much like a family because of a small tight tight knit unit. But we really brought in this it was the first real quality, you know, stuff Chicago, deep dish pizza in the Bay Area. And, you know, I feel it’s still that way. But yeah, it’s been it was a lot of fun. So, I started out as dishes and you know, being overwhelmed as a dishwasher. You know, you know, it’d be cut on my finger and my first night and fell way behind and everybody’s gone and the owners closed swinging up the restaurant and here I am behind on dishes just like everybody else when they started out, you know? And yeah, you catch on after a while and you know, a few months later, I remember you know, that struggle trying to make the pizzas being taught how to make the pizzas and took a little while, but in about three months time, you know, I remember somebody saying, Wow, you’re really good at this point. So, you know, it’s, uh, I have fond memories of those days.

Chad Franzen  5:22  

Was there ever a time you know, you’re young during those maybe initial struggles where you, you thought you might want to quit?

Kevin Suto  5:28  

No, no, not at all. I enjoyed the work. I enjoyed the work a lot and, you know, physical work. But the people were finding the customers are fine. Just the vibe was fine. You know, I still enjoy actually being in the restaurant and, you know, working with the staff and, and the customers when I do get a chance to do that.

Chad Franzen  5:52  

That original location, correct me if I’m wrong was in Rock Ridge. Yeah. Rakesh, how long did you work at that location? And what other kinds of jobs that you have there?

Kevin Suto  6:01  

Well, I still am working at that location. Okay. Yeah. I mean, it’s, uh, you know, I work at all of our locations, but Okay, so as far as all the positions been in the company, I mean, to start off dishwasher, pizza maker, oven worker, morning prep person, you know, counter hosts, occasional server and or cedar, I didn’t do much seating. And, you know, then I moved up to, you know, Assistant Manager, and then the manager, and then an operations manager. And, you know, all up, up, up and up, you know, is more, the longer I’ve been here, the more I’ve taken on,

Chad Franzen  6:35  

would you say that your education has mainly been through real life experience? Or do you have other other education as well?

Kevin Suto  6:43  

practical business acumen is definitely through real life experience.

Chad Franzen  6:47  

Sure. What was that about working exactly as that you found so enjoyable that you’re, you’ve been there and you’ve worked your way all the way up? You stay there through through thick and thin?

Kevin Suto  6:56  

Yeah. Well, you know, the people have always been fun. You know, we, we were rewarded well compensated well for our work. And it’s just, it was a place you didn’t want to leave, you know, because every you know, you know, I’d have friends that would leave to do other things. And I, you know, it’s not without a sacrifices, you know, for sure. You know, try you know, if you’re working on a night times, that can be tough on a family and things like that, but it was a lot of fun. We worked hard and we played hard.

Chad Franzen  7:34  

Can you tell me about the ownership history? You kind of mentioned it a little bit before? How did they start out? How did Zachary start out and who owns it now?

Kevin Suto  7:41  

Okay, so Zachary started out there founded by, you know, Rob, Zack and Barbara. Okay. Barbara gables extra kowski. And they lived in Chicago for a while and they wanted to open a Chicago pizza place somewhere in the country. And they settled on the Bay Area in Rockford. This was our original store was the College Avenue store. So they open the store. And it was very successful from day one place was very small, so there was demand for a second location. So they open a second location across town. So that was true, we still have that location to this day and Solano Avenue. And and we just worked like gangbusters with those two stores for for many years and want to say about 9493 94 they were thinking of their exit strategy. And decided that the way to that they wanted to exit the company was to sell it to the employees in the form of an ESOP. They felt that they just sold somebody they wouldn’t somebody come in and they, you know, fire people and you know, they so they really were their family to them. So, you know, they sold the business to us in the form of an ESOP. So, we are now 100% employee owned via an ESOP an employee stock ownership plan, so the profit of the company goes into retirement accounts for the employees.

Chad Franzen  9:04  

Okay. Wow, that’s that’s pretty cool. So you guys Zachary’s has been honored with over 250 best pizza awards locally and nationally. Yeah. Can you can you tell me some of the awards your most of the awards you’re most proud of? And what’s so good about it?

Kevin Suto  9:19  

Yeah. Well, I would I’m trying to think of the national there’s been some some some websites where we’ve been voted best pizza over the years, you nationally. We have been in the summer things are slipping my mind. We’ve been featured on like, television shows that show nationally we’ve been on like, Gosh, what’s the Food Channel? I’m sorry, I’m trying blank on the name of the company. But pizza paradises. We’ve been on that with local news things. All the readers polls where people vote for best pizza and you know, the Bay Area. The San Francisco Chronicle we would get best pizza or it’s just a lot of the local Diablo magazine, Oakland Tribune, things like that. So there’s been there’s every year there’s, you know, readers polls and things like that to go around for where people vote for best pizza. And we’re fortunate enough to, to win a lot of those. And we’ve been around for a while. So we have a pretty long list of those accomplishments were very proud of,

Chad Franzen  10:20  

as somebody who’s been there since almost day one and has done everything, including cook, you said, what’s your what’s your favorite pizza to make and your favorite pizza to eat?

Kevin Suto  10:30  

Okay, so as far as making pizza, I’ll make, you know, any type of pizza at home, you know, I can pretty much do anything. So it just depends on what I’m in the mood for, you know, but it’s kind of that’s kind of fun, just to the home pizza thing. But yeah, at work. I think my favorite pizza which I recommend to people, our flagship pizza is a spinach and mushroom deep dish. Some blend of three cheese’s special spices, fresh spinach mushrooms, you know, in our sassy tomato sauce and all that. But I like to add Italian sausage to it. And our pesto sauce. So you cover all the bases you cover the sweet and the savory and it’s just delicious. That combination, I feel you can’t go wrong.

Chad Franzen  11:22  

What what what makes spinach and mushroom your your flagship pizza? That’s kind of a maybe an unusual one to have as your flagship.

Kevin Suto  11:29  

Yeah, so you know, back in 83, you know, in the Bay Area anyway. I mean, people, you know, think you put on pizza, or pepperoni or sausage, maybe some salami, maybe some, you know, green peppers, onions, mushrooms, you know, very standard things. Zach was one of the first ones to bring in kind of other other things. You know, they’ve always had spinach on pizzas in Chicago from the deep dish pizzas, but back in those days, it was frozen spinach that they would put on their pizza. So they would, you know, so Zach took advantage of kind of California’s access to year round produce and things like that, and would get pretty creative with with what different but now it’s off the charts where people do creativity, we were very limited what we can do, because we’re at capacity in our kitchens. Well, things that we have, you know, but it’s really neat to kind of see what people have done for pizzas and other areas going crazy. But yeah, but so the fresh spinach was something that was very much a Zachary’s thing and the way we do it, and the way we, you know, mixing our spices and things like that it just has a really unique flavor profile. It’s just, you know, nobody else has a flavor profile like it is there are other great pizzas out there that have spinach and mushrooms and things like that ours is just our own thing. It’s very unique.

Chad Franzen  12:45  

What is the you talked about the the employee ownership? What is the most important part about establishing and kind of maintaining a culture that people want to go? Well, I mean, you know, employee benefits will take you so far. But what’s important, what’s the most important thing about establishing and maintaining a culture and a place where people stay for 1020 30 years?

Kevin Suto  13:03  

Yeah, that can definitely be a challenge. We’re very employee centric, you know, we, we try to one of our sayings is, you know, do the right thing the right way for the right reasons. You know, we want our employees to have a voice, we hope they feel that they have a voice, you know, we have an open door policy that come talk to us anytime they want. We try to be as respectful and professional as we possibly can. You know, it’s always a challenge, you know, you know, motivating people that have been enjoying the same thing for a long time can definitely be challenging, and we believe it takes a special type of person to be able to do it on a day in and day out basis and maintain an even keel. So, typically speaking, folks that have been there a while they’re the type of person that they’re usually pretty easy to manage, you know, because they’re, they’re self sufficient and they go about their job professionally and we try to pay them as best we can. You know, Zachary’s is making money employees are making money and they’re benefiting in the, in the ESOP retirement account as well. But just overall workplace, you know, motivation. In management, it’s no really different than anywhere else, you know, that’s the same type of type of deal. You know, it, I was feel that if, while the employee ownership is a great thing, you know, a lot of the restaurant employee demographic, it’s not necessarily something that that is on the front of their mind, you know, what I mean? Because it’s, you know, the retirement accounts or, you know, years down the road for them. So, they’re, you know, so using the employee ownership as a motivational technique and tactic in our demographic. There, there are limits to what you can do there but we’ve been employee on for long enough time now where there’s there’s a lot of employees that have pretty large retirement account numbers and Starting to approach the day where they’re gonna be leaving the company. So you start to feel that appreciation at that point for sure.

Chad Franzen  15:05  

So you’ve been president CFO CEO, are there some milestones that you’re particularly proud of I know you, we’ve talked about the awards somewhat about some milestones, maybe some evolution of Zachary’s that you’re particularly proud of.

Kevin Suto  15:17  

I am. Well, firstly, I’m very proud of, you know, whenever we win a best pizza award, that’s something that just is, you know, a lot of places would just, you know, they would love to be honored like that. And we’ve been very fortunate there. There have been, you know, we’ve grown, you know, we went from our two locations to a third location in 2006. And have learned having that whole experience, you know, was was something that I look back on, exhaustively, but also proudly, and assuming pretty much the CEO role, and in 2011 12, we were able to open up a fourth location, you know, that was pretty much under my watch without the help of the original owners. And, and my team said, that’s very, I’m very proud of that. And we’ve become a really, really strong presence in that community. So I’m very proud of that. I just love to see just kind of the the vault how the company is evolving, and how the individuals that I’ve worked with for so long, have evolved and how my team has evolved. I mean, they’re, they’re really strong. You know, they take things on every day. And they’re, you know, we’re, we’re always looking for ways to be better. That’s another one of our things, you know, but, you know, when I look back on what are managers, especially the past couple of years, have really had to deal with the challenges that they’ve added the staff for that matter. And the way that they’ve been able to handle that and respond and keep our company strong. Like I’m really proud of

Chad Franzen  17:03  

that. When you talk about the last couple of years, I was just going to ask you about that. How has How did COVID kind of affect you affect Zachary’s or even changed the way Zachary’s does business?

Kevin Suto  17:13  

Yeah, I mean, that’s still a thing, you know, we’re just kind of learning how to how to live with it. But it’s been a real challenge. I mean, if at first, you know, there was fear, you know, around it, and, and you know, what it means for the restaurant industry. And, you know, we’re gonna build one of those businesses that was, you know, severely impacted, impacted right away. And not knowing what that was going to mean, we were fortunate enough to that, you know, takeout only went in our area, it’s been the strictest area from day one, we were the first to shut down and we’re the last open up, you know, and so we went to it was takeout only for a significant period of time, which, for us, we’re very good at takeout. We’ve always been great at takeout. So you know, so operationally, you know, as far as the kitchen goes, it kind of was simplified, although they were, they were busy. Luckily, we’re busier than we thought we were going to be. But operationally with, with handling the public was really challenged, you know, keeping people space lines out the door, it’s, you know, and having a walk in one door and walk out the other door. And in controlling that, and having our managers and staff constantly evolving and figuring out ways to how we’re going to deal with this, this next mandate. And this next thing, where are we going to scramble to get this product or that product? It was just, it’s just a never, and we’re still going through it, you know, there’s just a never ending challenges, you know, now it’s the supply chain challenge, and things are looking like they might start, you know, shutting down again, as far as indoors and, and inconsistencies between, you know, OSHA guidelines and CDC guidelines. And, you know, trying to get that information to our crew and having to pivot constantly. It’s it’s fatiguing on people and, and, you know, the, they’ve shown, the folks that are still with us that have been with us through those last two years have an incredible amount of resiliency, which I’ve been really impressed with, you know, and frankly, don’t thank them enough for, you know, because we’re always so busy doing things and always have an agenda, but when you take back and reflect a little bit, you know, it’s it’s impressive what they’ve been able to do, and continue to do.

Chad Franzen  19:32  

Sure, sure. Hey, we are big fans of publicly acknowledging people who have been influential in our guests careers, who are some people in the industry I’m sure I could guess but that you respect and have looked to for advice.

Kevin Suto  19:46  

Well, obviously Zack, you know, and Barbara, for that matter. Our founders are the two you know, most influential our, you know, Zack for just his his kind of no nonsense approach to, you know, just being smart about about what we’re doing. And Barbara just had an incredible passion for for the job and really was the people person she was very motivating for people there, you know, was nice to get some outside perspective. We when we finally hired an HR person from the outside and Becky Gagnon was, she was a wonderful influence as well, because she brought a perspective from our experience in other places, you know, outside of Zachary’s world. And so that’s helpful. And, you know, as a gentleman, Bill coy, who’s HR specialist who we’ve had on our board, who’s been very sage advisor, counsel yeri, for us, and as we navigate through all the different challenges that we have to navigate through all the time, those are probably to me the most influential in that way.

Chad Franzen  21:17  

Are there any? Oh, sorry, go ahead.

Kevin Suto  21:20  

Yeah, no, we just, you know, what we focus on doing what we do is to the best that we can, you know, and that’s, that’s our focus now.

Chad Franzen  21:29  

Are there any books that you have relied on or are kind of felt like were valuable to you as your as you’ve kind of grown in your leadership responsibilities?

Kevin Suto  21:38  

Yeah. One of the books I read, which was great, was good to great. That’s a fantastic book. And there’s also one fish that we would put on a path that everybody to read just about, you know, kind of having fun at work, you know, and those, those are both very influential.

Chad Franzen  21:55  

Great. Hey, I appreciate your time today. Kevin, can you tell me where people can find out more about Zachary’s?

Kevin Suto  22:01  

Sure, well our website is on there, you can read our company bio, see our locations, take a look at our food and our pizza. And you know, it’s not an extensive huge website anymore. We kind of consolidated a little bit because, you know, we find that that’s kind of the way to go these days. But we’re very well known, you know, people wearing Zachary’s shirts, you know, overseas and things like that and people’s Zachary’s that been there. I love that. So we’re kind of an institution out here. So I’m very lucky and proud to be part of it.

Chad Franzen  22:34  

That’s great. Thanks so much, Kevin. I appreciate your time today. It was great talking to you.

Kevin Suto  22:37  

Yeah, you too. Thank you so much.

Chad Franzen  22:39  

It’s so unsettling everybody.

Outro  22:40  

Thanks for listening to the Top Business Leaders Show. Howard buy Rise25. Visit to check out more episodes of the show and to learn more about how you can start your own podcast