THE ORIGINAL DEEP DISH PIZZA (A 73-Year Overnight Success)
Does your small business have what it takes to stand the test of time? This pizza does.
Last year a HUGE pizza brand made its way to Detroit. News stations talked about it non-stop for a month.
This brand’s participation in the commitment to Detroit’s revitalization was just another notch in the proverbial belt. Millions were spent on advertising and PR.
The brand chose one of the most desirable spots in Detroit, smack dab in the middle of the sports arenas, walking distance from Campus Martius, and at the helm of historic Greektown.
Nine months later, it's closed.
No warning. No statement. No forwarding address. Just papers on the windows.
ADVERTISING CAN’T TANTALIZE THE TASTE BUDS…Especially in Detroit
All pizzas are not created equal. An immigrant from San Marino, the world’s smallest republic, which also is located within Italy's borders, knew this and kept it in the family.
Gus Guerra took the first Detroit Deep Dish pizza out of the oven in 1946 at a place called Buddy’s Rendezvous. It’s been noted that Detroiters tried this pizza for the first time and history was made.
Marie Guerra-Easterby should know. She's heard the stories countless times, being Gus' daughter and co-owner.
Guerra bought Buddy’s Rendezvous for $2,300 in 1944. The funding was borrowed from his brother-in-law Frank. In 1953, Gus decided to sell the restaurant to "Big Jimmy" Bonacorsi and "Little Jimmy" Valenti.
“'Little Jimmy' had a niece who was marrying a French guy named Louie," Guerra-Easterby shared. "Louie needed a job. My dad taught Louie how to make this secret pizza. Years later, Louie opened a restaurant in (nearby) Hazel Park. It's still a destination in this area.”
After the sale of Buddy’s Rendezvous, Gus and Anna Guerra bought a small bar in East Detroit they called "Cloverleaf Bar" (now known as Cloverleaf Pizza, or just Cloverleaf). It's where they continued to create pizza that went from "humble pie" to a culinary icon.
"I like to call us the original Detroit-style pizza that's a 73-year overnight success," Guerra-Easterby said with a laugh.
GUS DIDN’T SET OUT TO MAKE PIZZA, HE NEEDED MONEY TO GROW THE BAR
“My dad was taught the super-secret pizza recipe by his Sicilian mother-in-law, Crucifissa Passalacqua," Guerra-Easterby said. "My grandma told my dad to add the pizza to the menu because a bar alone was not enough to support a young family.
"Thankfully, he listened."
GROWING UP IN THE FAMILY BUSINESS
While Cloverleaf pizza was gaining in popularity, Gus and his wife Anna were also growing their family. They had a son, Frank, and twins Jack and Marie were born a few years later.
“When we were little we would have to assemble pizza boxes before we could go out and play," Guerra Easterby remembered. "We hated it!
"We'd often hide unfolded boxes and tell my dad he was shorted on the bundles,” Guerra-Easterby said laughing. "He never believed us.”
Gus knew the boxes were important to the business. In fact, he made them a competitive advantage of sorts. He was determined that every guest left with a pizza that tasted as if it just came out of the oven.
“My dad would punch holes in the top of each box, so the steam could escape,” Guerra-Easterby shared. "That way, the pizza never gets soggy."
THE GUERRAS MADE SACRIFICES
“My mom Anna wasn’t able to be a stay-at-home mom, which was very unusual in the 50’s and 60’s," Guerra-Easterby said. "I missed her so much. I remember writing her letters, telling her how much I needed her at home with me, not working.
"She saved all those letters. She knew it was a sacrifice, but one that needed to be made to support the family. Our grandma raised us because mom and dad were busy building the business.”
WHO IS GUS?
Cloverleaf Pizza embarked on a branding campaign a few years ago with Gus Guerra’s photo on the logo, with a caption underneath that asked, "Who is Gus?” The new brand was an homage to the restaurant and the Detroit Deep Dish creator’s legacy.
The brilliance of the campaign is that the question (or any answers) can be absorbed and individualized by anyone encountering the message - much like great song lyrics.
To some, Gus was the great pizza creator. To others, he was a friendly neighbor. And for people like Guerra-Easterby, he was family.
“Gus was a kind and generous man who worked hard to support his family. He taught us to be loyal and honest," Guerra-Easterby shared. "In fact, he often said, 'Always give a man an honest days work for an honest days pay.'"
CARRYING ON THE FAMILY BUSINESS
“I loved working with my mom, dad and brothers," Guerra-Easterby said. "It was the best.
"When my kids, Liana and Eddie, worked here during high school and college, I had that same proud feeling as my parents did when we all grew up working here. At the end of the day, family is everything."
FANS FOR GENERATIONS
For more than 70 years, Cloverleaf Pizza has been creating iconic Detroit Deep Dish pizza. But if it weren’t for the customers' dedication to supporting the Guerras, Cloverleaf wouldn't hold its lofty place in pizza history.
“One of my favorite parts of growing up in this industry is our truly great customers," Guerra-Easterby beamed. "I LOVE hearing the stories they share about bringing their children, then grandchildren to eat at Cloverleaf. It really fills my heart with so much joy.”
FOR SOME, LIFE’S BIGGEST MOMENTS HAPPENED AT CLOVERLEAF
People have met their future spouses at Cloverleaf.
Couples have gotten engaged. One couple even got married.
Guests have celebrated baby and wedding showers with their loved ones. They've also held memorials for loved ones who passed.
Author Bob Moats even referenced Cloverleaf Pizza in his mystery novels.
“I’m so grateful that Cloverleaf has been a staple in so many different people’s history," Guerra-Easterby said.
"In fact, we used to have baseball teams that would hang out at the bar after their games. One rowdy guy by the name of Carl married our sweet bartender Diane. Life eventually came full-circle when Carl had Diane’s wake luncheon here when she passed. It meant a lot to him to come up north from where they lived at the time, to have it here. It's where their story began.
“There’s also a man who comes in once a year with his wife. They sit at the same booth where he proposed to her.
"I’m sure my dad didn’t know he was creating so many of life’s moments for so many people when he opened up the restaurant. But I know he’s smiling down from Heaven with joy.”
AND THEN…SOMEONE STREAKED THROUGH THE RESTAURANT NAKED
In every good story, someone always does something memorable.
“I think his name was Larry, "Guerra-Easterby said laughing. "When streaking was popular, Larry ran through the restaurant wearing only little bunny ears on his head.
"A nude guy in a pizza place is not something you see every day. I don’t think Larry has been in since.”
GREAT PRODUCT + GOOD MANAGERS + DEDICATED EMPLOYEES = SUCCESS
Some employees have been with Cloverleaf for decades.
“Granny has been with us since I can remember," Guerra-Easterby said. "She was once our daytime bartender, but now she preps food for us twice a week.
"Did I mention Granny is 89 years old? She still shows up for every shift, ready to work.”
Some employees have retired from Cloverleaf after 30 years of service and gone on to become great brand ambassadors.
"I don’t know if we’d still have the same fan base if we didn’t have these special people in our business," Guerra-Easterby said. "I often think how blessed we are that these people have found their way into our restaurant.”
LET’S TALK TOPPINGS
I always wondered if there is a science or a pattern as to how people order the toppings on their pizza. Guerra-Easterby would know.
“No. It’s just what people like on their pizza. And the same people can change their toppings often," she said.
"My dad told us he just made the basic cheese pizza when he started. Then customers would come in with items like green peppers and onions, and they'd ask him to chop them up and put them on their pizza, which he did.”
SO, WHAT’S THE RECIPE FOR THIS ICONIC PIZZA?
When I first met Guerra-Easterby more than a decade ago, I used to call her my Momma Leone.
Remember, Momma Leone? She was the matriarch character in famous 80’s flick “Mystic Pizza.” Throughout the movie, her employees and restaurant critics would ask, “What’s in the sauce?” She would never tell.
Guerra-Easterby subscribes to the same theory.
“The only people who know the recipe are my brothers, my nephews, and my son. The mystery of the recipe is what keeps people coming back for more.”
SMALL BUSINESS DOMINATION
In the beginning of this post, I talked about the corporate giants waltzing into a prime location and falling short nine months into the business journey.
So, what is it about this small pizza place that has kept people and pizza aficionados coming from around the country to just get a taste of pizza heaven?
“We’ve heard this phrase time and time again, but it’s true – you have to love what you do, as it becomes your life," Guerra-Easterby said. "You have to have an understanding spouse who knows you will work long hours. You have to have a special product, with a unique menu that makes your place stand out above others. You have to have a lot of capital when you start out now as there is so much competition in any area.”
And although Guerra-Easterby didn’t say it, I know she feels you need a Gus at the helm. Someone with a dream. Someone who wants more for them and their family.
You have to want to keep a dream as powerful as Gus’s alive. Because, as Guerra-Easterby said, “In the end, family is EVERYTHING.”
Cloverleaf Restaurant is located at 24443 Gratiot Avenue, Eastpointe, MI 48021 and online at cloverleaf-pizza.com.