CINCINNATI -- When Andrew DeWitt opened Dewey’s Pizza 18 years ago, he was a young pizza cook on a mission: introduce Cincinnati to his brand of gourmet pizza and complement it with craft beer, wine and full-service dining.
What began as a single restaurant in Oakley in 1998 has grown into 23 restaurants in Cincinnati, Dayton, Cleveland, Columbus, St. Louis and Kansas City, Kansas.
Dewey’s fans have come to love the open kitchen where they can watch cooks toss pizza, then sit down to dig into specialty pizzas with quirky names like Edgar Allan Poe. The fun, tongue-in-cheek personality of the place is unmistakable, perhaps mirroring its founder's disposition.
How else would you explain a place that describes itself as “The Hendrix guitar solo of pizza -- except we never burn it?”
DeWitt is not your typical corporate executive; he's comfortable in khakis, his eyes smile often, and he looks like he's having the time of his life.
Born and raised in Cincinnati, he developed an early passion for music. With the electric guitar in hand, he played in college bands while pursuing a liberal arts degree at Denison University outside of Columbus. After graduation, he went on to complete a one-year music program in Los Angeles, then headed north to Seattle to visit his girlfriend (now wife).
There, his life would change. DeWitt stumbled onto his love for making pizza when he landed a gig as a pizza cook in Seattle.
“I always took a lot of pride in how my pizza looked,” he said.
To his dismay, his work always got cut up and packed into a box for delivery. “We didn’t have a dining room,” he said.
The gastropubs and microbreweries in Seattle, along with his newfound appreciation for handcrafted pizza, sparked the idea of opening his own pizzeria.
“The idea was to have a small restaurant, like a gastropub, and still be able to deliver,” he said.
While he knew pizza, DeWitt didn’t have experience in full-service restaurants. His first hire was a manager from Trio restaurant to oversee the front of the house.
DeWitt floated names of Italian cities like Positano and Portofino for his restaurant name until his buddy said to him, “Dude, you’re not Italian.” He settled on his nickname, Dewey, and his namesake restaurant was born.
From the start, DeWitt knew he would offer pizza that would stand out. Central to his vision was the use of fresh dough, creative use of quality ingredients, a stone oven and an open kitchen to showcase the handcrafting of pizza. DeWitt planned to first offer dine-in and carryout, then add home delivery.
However, DeWitt’s vision ran counter to the trends at that time.
“When I decided to come in, it was a throwback,” he said, referring to his craft approach to pizza, and the offering of full-service dining. According to him, those who were successful in the pizza space were the people who owned multiple small pizza stores that did only delivery service and didn’t offer dine-in.
The marketplace was also crowded with established players like LaRosa's, Pizza Hut and Domino's. However, DeWitt was not one to back away from uncertainty; if anything, the challenge fired him up.
"Maybe it was a little bit of me against the world ... but I just had enough of an entrepreneurial spirit to risk opening," he said, adding, "I was nervous, don't get me wrong."
The success of the restaurant exceeded his expectations, and after being open for several months, he decided to forgo delivery and focus more deeply instead on service and product quality.
Eighteen years is a long time, especially in the restaurant business. In an industry where 80 percent of restaurants go under within five years, Dewey’s continues to shine.
Turns out, DeWitt’s passion to make a better pizza and keep the menu focused have served him well. He realizes, though, that in order to stay competitive, Dewey’s needs quality and consistency, and a team that can hit those benchmarks.
“I believe there are a lot of great concepts,” he said, referring to the many restaurants in the marketplace. But many fall flat because “usually it’s the execution that takes it down.”
With more than 1,000 employees (nicknamed the “Dew Crew"), DeWitt is driven to develop an environment in which his employees can thrive and have fun. "This is about people," he said, adding, “I own an organizational development company that happens to sell pizza."
DeWitt puts a priority on developing great managers at each of the stores. “Ultimately, that’s who the employees work for,” he said. He said he also has learned not to make the common mistake of automatically putting the best workers on the management track, as it’s not always the right move for everyone.
Dewey’s Pizza continues to refresh and innovate its menu. Earlier this year, it introduced new specialty pizzas to the lineup: the Don Corleone (a version of meat lovers' pizza) and Porky Fig (a fig jam and prosciutto pizza). The Tito Santana (a pizza version of the taco) is the featured seasonal pizza for October.
The craft beers on tap undergo constant rotation to keep the selection current, interesting and seasonal. Earlier this year, Dewey’s launched Thanx, a smartphone application rewards program for loyal customers.
As Dewey's prepares to open its 24th restaurant, in Akron, DeWitt still appears surprised with his success.
"I thought the maximum we could have were three (restaurants),” he said, recalling a thought from the early years. “That would have been a home run."
Multiple locations. (Original location: 3014 Madison Road, Oakley)
Grace Yek writes about food for WCPO Digital. She is a certified chef-de-cuisine with the American Culinary Federation, and a former chemical engineer. Questions or comments? Connect with her on Twitter: @Grace_Yek.