Viral mozzarella sticks were a double-edged sword for Alphonso’s The Original

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This story began as an article about lightning rods, the famous over-the-top, forearm-sized mozzarella sticks sold at Alphonso’s The Original, 1119 S. 108th St. in West Allis.

I expected to get poetic about their crisp, herb-sprinkled crumb crust and the legendary cheesy pull you get when you open one of the monstrous 11 inch sticks filled with a pound full of cheese. mozzarella (with the breadcrumbs, they weigh about 14 ounces).

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And yes, the abominably huge cheese sticks are just as satisfying as you might expect, making it worth placing an order and trying them out.

But what started as a story of mozzarella sticks took a turn when I placed my order at Alphonso on a moody weeknight in October to find that the “old” pizzeria no longer served pizza. Their pizza oven was broken. So while I could absolutely get my fix of mozzarella cheese, I had to wait for them to move into their new location at 9130 W. Greenfield Ave. to satisfy my craving for Malibu, a tart made with fresh vegetables topped with artichokes, basil, spinach and tomatoes.

So I placed my order for two lightning rods (which I supplemented with a takeout pizza from another local restaurant) and moved on with my life.

But I couldn’t shake the lingering feeling that I had to call Szuta and see if there was an update on the pizza oven and the new location of the pizzeria. So, in the end, that’s what I did.

If you have already read the story of L’Original d’Alphonso which was hidden under the glass counter in the restaurant, you already know that the story of Alphonso is not just any story. In fact, it reads like a fairy tale about two young boys, a car, and a life-changing chance encounter.

“It was 1993,” says Szuta, “and we were just kids. But we met Alphonso, this cool Italian dude who loved classic cars. Over the years, we have built a relationship with him. We helped him, did odd jobs, and he became a friend. When Alphonso passed away in 2005, he left us what he loved most: two cars [a 1969 Z28 Camaro and a 1968 Chevelle] and a book of family recipes handed down from generation to generation.

Szuta says he knew they had to honor Alphonso’s legacy by making sure his family recipes (especially his delicious pizza) endure.

“I knew I had to go through with it at all costs,” he says. “I didn’t have a lot, but I was able to raise just enough money to open the restaurant.

Driven by optimism and determination, the two friends opened Alphonso’s The Original in February 2010 with little more than a wing and a prayer.

The pizzeria served aptly named pies for classic cars, including the Firebird (grilled buffalo chicken with bacon, red onion, black olives, green peppers); the Cutlass Supreme (sausage, mushroom, onion and pepperoni) and the Heavy Chevy (loaded with all the toppings on the books).

The Supreme Cutlass
The Cutlass Supreme (photo: Alphonso’s)
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And the two owners did everything they could to draw attention to the business, including quirky stunts like dressing up as “Slicey the Slice and Bongo Man,” dancing in front of the restaurant, and performing skits for the business. West Allis July 4th Parade.

At the time, he says, he was still working full-time as a semiconductor with a route that went through some of the worst neighborhoods in southern Chicago. It was not a glamorous concert.

“I was robbed. I was shot,” he says, “But I kept my job because it paid well and I knew I needed the money to get things done. I had to do it for Alphonso.

Tim szuta
Alphonso owner Tim Szuta
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It wasn’t easy, but Alphonso’s The Original hit the five-year mark, a feat for any small restaurant. But in 2015, tragedy struck. Szuta suffered a tragic accident on his platform which left him with multiple shoulder and back injuries.

“I still had the choice of finding work to pay for surgery to fix my back or making a workers’ compensation settlement,” says Szuta, who ultimately chose the latter, starting a multi-year process to collect his settlement.

“A lot of people didn’t understand my decision; and I admit that I gave up a lot. I have lost friends. I lost family in the process. But I cashed in my 401K and gave up my career to go into the pizza business because I wanted it to work.

Over the course of the year, Szuta says she faced another challenge: parting with her longtime friend and co-owner Corey Washington and becoming the sole owner of the pizzeria.

“Suffice it to say we didn’t leave things on a very high note,” he says, noting that in the absence of his co-owner, he put everything he had into management. of the company.

In 2019 he had his settlement in hand and he used it for a down payment on the property at 91st and Greenfield, pending construction of a new (and more spacious) house for the pizzeria.

“Since then, I’ve spent all of my time trying to rebuild the business and earn enough money to finish building the new location,” he says. “I put all of my pain and problems aside and followed my heart. I knew I was going to get there, no matter what the cost.

In 2020, the pizzeria had obtained good recognition. But things took off in a new way when he introduced a whole new menu item: lightning rods, gigantic mozzarella sticks named after an aftermarket performance automotive shifter that has become famous over the years. 1980.

Lightning rodsX

“From day one we had mozzarella sticks,” says Szuta. “But one day I was playing in the kitchen and… I don’t even remember when, but I made the very first lightning rod. And I started selling them for $ 3 each. We totally lost some of it. ‘money on them at first; but it was worth it because it made people smile. ”

Szuta pauses. “That’s really all I ever wanted from this business,” he says, “to provide people with great food and make them happy”.

Lightning rods did just that, and more. In fact, mozzarella sticks have gone viral. It all started with a Facebook post. And came an article on Reddit, which garnered over a million views in less than 8 hours, as well as a tiktok video by @thekatcurtis, which sparked another series of videos and created #alphonsostheoriginal, which currently has 1.6 million views.

“We had lines around the block,” says Szuta. “And every time someone put something in there, its popularity would increase again. And things have been going really well for a while. ”

Sales have increased. But the viral mozzarella sticks boosted revenue for 2020 enough that Szuta said he was not eligible for a much needed PPP loan, which would have helped him complete work on the new location and take advantage of the new one. momentum.

Instead, he found himself stuck in his tiny hot box in a kitchen, trying to keep up with the demand.

And then, in the middle of a huge stampede last April, Alphonso’s pizza oven died. Szuta says he brought in many repairers, who all told him the furnace would need a full rebuild or a full replacement. It was an expense Szuta says he couldn’t afford, especially since he had invested all of his money into building the new location.

“By the time we were catching up, business stopped,” he says. “It was really frustrating. Despite all the popularity, I’m back to square one. I had to fire all my employees, and now it’s just me, a deep fryer and those viral, crazy mozzarella sticks.

And yet, lightning rods have continued to gain popularity, most recently winning an article in the New York Times.

“Right now I’m pretty much homeless,” he adds, noting that pizza is really what has kept the business afloat. “All I have is a car, a new building and this dream… of running this pizza business. So I am not giving up.

Location of the new Alphonso
The new location underway for Alphonso’s
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Szuta says he’s working hard – despite delays caused by a tight budget and supply chain issues that have delayed necessary equipment – in hopes of opening the new location (which has a fully-equipped oven). operational and three fryers) by the end of the year.

“Right now I’m a guy with a deep fryer, making some really famous mozzarella sticks,” he says. “I sell stuff left and right to get the money I need. And I spend all my free time – with the help of my brothers – building the new restaurant. And I am so close. I just need a point of sale system and I need the materials to arrive so I can finish the counter.

He says it’s been hard to admit he’s struggling, despite having a business that has gained national notoriety.

“I want people to realize that I am here and that I am working very hard,” he says. “And I want people to stay with me. I got into this business because I wanted to make people happy. I want to do things that make people smile. I also want to earn enough money to be able to give it back to the community. I want to be positive and inspire people. It’s something that I believe in. This is something I think is worth fighting for.

Szuta says he wakes up every morning and goes to work in an attempt to make a difference.

“At the end of the day, it’s not Alphonso’s dream anymore. It’s my dream, ”he said with a shrug. “And in the end, if that doesn’t work out, I’m just a guy with a broken body who can make really big mozzarella sticks.”

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