A childhood dream came true for 58-year-old Mark Mannen in November 2014 when he opened Fat Jacks, a Quad Cities style pizzeria.
Mannen said he spent much of his childhood in local pizzerias, learning centuries-old lessons about pizza preparation from an Italian pizzeria owner.
“The old man would pay us $1 an hour and free pizza at night,” Mannen said. “I’m one of only a handful left alive that made pizza with him and was actually trained by him. He knew pizza.”
While Mannen said he quickly developed a passion for pizza, time got in the way of his ultimate goal of opening his own pizzeria for the next 50 years.
“Other opportunities came about,” Mannen said. “And the cost of opening a business, let alone the risk and everything else that goes along with it, is just monumental.”
However, Mannen said his mind never really abandoned the thought of opening a pizzeria over the years.
“We would drive around town, my wife and I and the kids, and I’d always be pointing at a place saying, ‘That would make a good pizzeria,’” Mannen said. “And they’re all looking at me like ‘Oh, OK Dad. Out of everything going on in the world, you’re [thinking about pizza]?’ It’s just a passion of mine.”
It was the foreclosure of a clothing store that, according to Mannen, created the perfect opportunity for the establishment of his long-dreamed about pizzeria.
“Location, location, location — the old man taught me that really well,” Mannen said. “One day, I was driving by and [saw] this place going out of business. I stopped in, and you know, I’m just doing this undercover thing, and I say, ‘So you’re going out of business?’ And they said, ‘Yeah, due to health reasons …’ So I got ahold of the landlord and asked if they had any plans for the place … so I ran it past them, what my ideas were, and they were like, ‘Great.’”
Following Mannen’s acquisition of the property, he said he spent a lot of time customizing the former clothing store into a pizzeria.
“I made a few phone calls to buddies of mine,” Mannen said. “A union contractor, a union plumber and a union electrician … [I] had them all in here with an architect to draw up my plans according to how I wanted it set up. This entire thing I drew on a piece of 10 [inch] by 10 [inch] paper. Long story short, we built this place.”
Mannen also said the beginning of Fat Jacks was not stress free.
“Obviously, when you open a new business, I don’t care what it is, you’re wondering how it’s going to be received,” Mannen said. “Are people going to like it? Are they not going to like it?”
Mannen said he attributes Fat Jacks’ success thus far to the uniqueness of the Quad Cities style pizza, in contrast to the style of pizza being produced by other Peoria pizzerias.
“What sets us apart, and one of the criteria I needed to have as part of the business model, was something that was unique from everyone else,” Mannen said. “I mean, what am I going to do, just open another pizzeria? What’s that going to do? At the time [in 2014], there were 75 other pizzerias. I had to have something unique, and this is unique.”
Another principle Mannen said he has employed that has been critical to the success of Fat Jacks is the freshness and quality of his ingredients. He said his philosophy is quality should always be more important than cost.
“We make – fresh – our own Italian sausage from scratch,” Mannen said. “We make our own fresh dough daily. We do our own sauce from California tomatoes. We hand-cut our own vegetables. We’re preparing pizza the same exact way as we did when I was 9 years old.”
Mannen said he intends to build on the success of his original Fat Jacks pizzeria by opening additional locations around the Peoria area in coming years.
“I’d like to have at least one to two more stores,” Mannen said. “There’s nothing but growth.”
Mannen also said strong customer service and relationship building has been one reason Fat Jacks has grown.
“I know we’re old school, and that’s the way we want to keep it,” Mannen said. “I think people, whether its students or people in general, I think that they kind of find that unique. If you like quality, give us a try. I’d love to have you as a customer, and I’d love to have you as a friend.”
Fat Jacks is located at 7016 N University St. and is open from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.