RACINE — Two local businessmen have started what will be a complete renovation, expansion and big upgrade to the former De’Pizza Chef Restaurant Pizzeria — a project that will likely end up as a new pizzeria.
Rick Onyon, developer and owner of Butcher & Barrel Gastropub, 300 Sixth St., and local builder Ron Christensen, owner of Ron’s Concrete, recently jointly bought the former De’Pizza Chef, 235 Main St. After the operator of that business was prosecuted for reportedly running a drug operation from there, the building’s previous owner terminated his lease. He decided to sell and knew Christensen.
“We thought it’d make just a cool project,” Onyon said. The two had worked together on Butcher & Barrel; Christensen’s company did that gut-and-remodel.
“It’s a small building, so in theory, it’s a small project, so we said, let’s go ahead and do something,” Onyon said about the latest acquisition.
Both men said they started the project because they believe Downtown is heading in the right direction, and they want to contribute to its success. Christensen is or has done four other Downtown building rehabs, excluding this one.
“We wouldn’t go over here on 16th Street and start a pizza restaurant,” Christensen said. “The only reason that we’re doing it is because it is Downtown.”
“We are reasonably confident it will be a pizza place when it’s done,” he said. “… By-the-slice is obviously pretty key, and that is something we’ll do.”
“We’re going to do the same type of renovation that we did to this space, to that space. So, it’s going to look glorious when we’re done with it,” Onyon continued. “Definitely a place people are going to want to go to for lunch or in the evening.”
The building’s history
The building at 235 Main St., constructed in 1935, has an interesting and embattled history and is a contributing building to the City of Racine-designated Old Main Street Historic District. The building began as a White Tower Hamburger restaurant; Onyon said it was one of about the first five or six in that chain.
According to Wikipedia, the White Tower Hamburger chain started in Milwaukee in 1926 and was considered an imitator of the White Castle chain which started five years earlier. It sold hamburgers for 5 cents during the Great Depression and, at its peak, reached 230 restaurants.
White Castle sued White Tower in 1929, eventually prevailed in 1934, and White Tower lasted until the last restaurant closed in 2004. As a result of that history, Onyon said, the city would like to have the white porcelain brick look of the façade preserved.
The current building is only about 500 square feet in size. Onyon and Christensen plan to extend the building to the rear by about 40 feet to add about 1,580 square feet. However, the seating area will remain up front and will not be much greater than its current rating of 15, Onyon said — perhaps 20 to 25.
“We want it to be that way,” he explained. “We want it to still be this quaint tiny, ultracool little place.”
That’s because they plan to focus heavily on food deliveries to the lakefront including the harbor. Most of the addition will be the production area both for food served on site and deliveries.
“We’re making a pizza and good-food factory,” Onyon said. “It just happens to have a tiny little outlet where people can enjoy it on-premise. But we’re going to place a lot of emphasis on delivery.”
They haven’t decided on a pizza recipe or even what style they’ll produce, Onyon said, but they’re not planning to start a pizza war with Racine’s other established businesses.
“We don’t want to be the best pizza in Racine,” he remarked. “We want to be the best pizza Downtown and the lakefront. … This is not us declaring war.”
Beyond pizza, Onyon said, “We’ll have some secondary things, but we’re not going to be an Italian restaurant.” There will be other grilled sandwiches including grilled cheese, and salads that will be strongly featured.
The partners have set a fall target for opening, if all goes smoothly.
“We are reasonably confident it will be a pizza place when it’s done. … By-the-slice is obviously pretty key, and that is something we’ll do.” Rick Onyon, Downtown businessman