Born in a partnership between the Chicago area pizza
chain and Lawndale Community Church, this Malnati's was
never about making money anyway. The business plan calls
for spending all the restaurant's profits, if there ever
are any, on helping to make crime-ridden Lawndale a
better place. And Malnati's created a job- training
program for residents of the church's recovery home,
Hope House, that helps recovering drug addicts and
ex-cons get back in the working world.
only sit-down restaurant, the place was meant to be a
beacon -- attracting other businesses to the downtrodden
urban landscape. Maybe it has, but change comes slow.
There's a new strip mall, expanded health clinic and
slow-sprouting condominium buildings, but no
pizza-fueled business boom.
And they say it's added to the quality of life in
Lawndale, a local spot finally suitable for a business
lunch or family birthday party.
But the reality is that maybe "Lawndale isn't ready
for upscale pizza," LCC pastor Wayne "Coach" Gordon
admitted. Most neighborhood folks just don't have much
disposable income for deep dish comfort food.
In 2005, the average household income in Lawndale was
just $21,200 compared with the citywide average of
$40,800, according to the Metro Chicago Information
What folks do have, Gordon says, is hope.
From time to time, Malnati's top bosses talk about
closing up shop and offering up profits from the other
23 locations to community groups rather than continuing
to eat the yearly losses.
So far, they've decided the casualties of closing -- the
guys who turned their lives around working there -- are
more important than the lack of profits.
"It's pretty emotional. I can't stop thinking about
what would happen if we decide to stop doing this. Who's
going to be on these guys' side?" regional manager Jim
BENEFIT WORKS BOTH WAYS
"The numbers we've helped aren't huge. I can't say
we've helped hundreds or thousands . . . but I feel we
can't give up on them. Who else would create this
opportunity for them? We don't consider it losing money.
It's an investment in the community."
At the front of his mind are guys like assistant
manager Jermaine Hill, a recovering crackhead who turned
his life around at Hope House.
"In Chicago, I found my way to Cabrini Green. . . . I
was stealing, hanging out with people who steal, selling
drugs for a little while, begging. I was a great
beggar," said Hill, 34. "People in Chicago were great.
They always gave you money. There was just never enough
A chance meeting with a pastor led Hill to Hope House
six sober years ago. He dedicated his life to God, and
as part of the back-to- work program started working for
free washing pizza pans. He worked his way up to busboy,
server and now assistant manager.
"I wouldn't have been able to get a job anywhere
else. And I wasn't even looking for one. They accepted
me on my word. I didn't even have an ID," he said. "I've
been able to save up quite a bit, pay off old debts. My
main goal now is to get a home, keys to my own home.
"This Malnati's might be losing money, but they're
saving lives. Helping grown men like me get back on
track. What's that worth?"
Over the years there's been dozens of guys like Hill
at Malnati's in Lawndale. A few have moved up in the
Malnati ranks, others used their experience to score
better jobs with other companies such as Starbucks.
"It's not a business that makes tons of money and
funds youth programs and all kinds of good things like
the Malnatis hoped. But it's working in another ways.
It's helping men get their lives together," Gordon said.
And not just guys who are down and out.
D'Angelo said the Lawndale restaurant changed him
"I thought it would be about me giving to guys who
needed a chance. I was told I was going to give and
support them, but they gave to me," he said. "In the
process I received the greatest thing in life, my faith
An ex-con named Sam Jones who worked as a cook at
Malnati's befriended D'Angelo and invited him to a Bible
'AN INVESTMENT IN PEOPLE'
"It was a guy who was in prison that helped lead me
to something good in my life. Something that made me a
better man, better father and better husband," D'Angelo
said. "That does emotionally attach me to the store. And
it's one of the reasons we still do it. It's an
investment in people. It's there to help people make
better lives for themselves."
The restaurant's future remains uncertain, but
business seems to be looking up as new condos and
businesses sprout in the area. Hope survives.
"We've started to deliver to homes, which wasn't an
option in the past because we thought it was a threat to
our drivers," manager Linda Matthews said. "I know it's
been 11 years, but I see us doing a lot better."