As a young man eager to make money for college, Jim Stoecker worked at a local restaurant and bar, where he manned the door, did some bartending and made pizzas. Thirty-five years later, after a successful career as president and founder of several multimillion-dollar firms in the world of finance, business development and aerospace, Stoecker is back in the pizza biz. The 56-year-old Long Grove man came out of retirement to buy the legendary Alex's Washington Gardens in Highwood, which feeds his love of business and pizza.
"I've eaten a pizza almost every day since we bought the restaurant," Stoecker says, explaining how he's missed a few pizza meals due to weddings and such. "So, it's been about seven years or, let's see, about 2,400 days."
Stoecker joins in the daily staff meal before his restaurant opens at 5 p.m. "They make pizza because they know I want it," he says.
Even in their home kitchen, he and his wife, Michele, cook a variety of pizzas, including experimental versions not yet available at their restaurant.
"She makes gluten-free pizza crust, believe it or not, out of cauliflower," Stoecker says of his wife's newest effort. "And it's phenomenal."
In the debate fueled by TV host Jon Stewart of "The Daily Show" about whether Chicago's deep-dish pizza is better than New York's thin style, Stoecker offers what he says is clearly the tastiest: Chicago-style thin pizza.
He uses the same family recipe that former owners Tony and Ellen Scornavacco used when they introduced pizzas to the North Shore in 1944.
"Our crust really is the star," Stoecker says, explaining how the "cracker-thin" dough is baked on a surface sprinkled with Italian bread crumbs. This makes the crust dry, crunchy and less fattening than greasy, chewy crusts, he says.
His restaurant will cut pizzas into pie-shaped slices if a customer requests it, but Stoecker favors the "box cut," which results in square pieces and a few tiny corner pieces that are mostly crust.
Tony and Ellen Scornavacco were continuing a family business started by Grandma Angelina Scornavacco in 1932.
They passed the restaurant on to their son, Alex, in 1982.
He ran it with a partner until their retirement in 2007. That's when Stoecker feared the restaurant would be sold to a corporation or simply closed.
"I'm like, 'What? My favorite thin-crust pizza?' It was one of the places my wife and I went for 'date nights,'" Stoecker says. "We'd get pizza, salad and split a bottle of wine."
Just as a New Year's self-evaluation often gives people the impetus to take on new projects, the fear of losing his favorite pizza jolted Stoecker into action.
"So I said, 'I'll do it,'" Stoecker says. "I felt compelled to save it."
Pizza feeds his appetite but also his entrepreneurial needs.
"First and foremost, I'm a student of business," Stoecker says, explaining that he's still learning how to market his restaurant in the world of social media.
He says that he's enjoyed the challenge of hard work ever since his childhood in East Peoria.
"I grew up unloading railroad cars and trucks," he says, explaining how everyone joined in the family garden center business. After graduating from Illinois State University with degrees in accounting and business, Stoecker got his MBA at the University of Illinois at Chicago and jumped onto the corporate track with jobs in systems analysis, information systems and consulting around the globe.
"I literally went to O'Hare every Sunday or Monday for 25 years," he says.
In 1994, he founded his own airplane parts trading business in Claremore, Okla., not far from the birthplace of Vaudeville performer and national humorist Will Rogers.
His future wife, who grew up there, applied for a job.
"We met in the warehouse of the parts-trading facility," Michele Stoecker says.
The Stoeckers are now partners in the restaurant. Jim Stoecker's business card identifies him as "Keeper of The Flame," while his wife's reads, "Director of Happiness."
"I eat pizza probably four times a week," she says, noting she gets the staff to load hers with so many extra veggies that her husband claims it is more of a broccoli flatbread than a pizza. "Now I have customers who come in and ask for the 'Michele Special,' so I have my fans."
The upscale restaurant, at 256 Green Bay Road in Highwood, offers plenty of traditional Italian dishes with chicken, veal and seafood, but the thin-crust pizza has remained a staple.
Stoecker says the pizza contains less fat than most pizza.
"My wife is a fitness instructor, and she does keep after me," Stoecker says.
In addition to working at the Lake Forest Health & Fitness Center and at the Foglia YMCA in Lake Zurich, Michele Stoecker makes the carrot cake served at their restaurant.
The couple also are avid bicyclists.
Mostly German with a helping of English, Swiss and a pinch of French, Jim Stoecker says taking over his favorite restaurant and eating a pizza every day has given him a new identity.
"You are what you eat," Stoecker says. "And, after seven years, I'm Italian."