You might think owning a restaurant in a primary location downtown on Main Street would be more than enough to keep you busy, but for owner Lance Shalzi, running the restaurant is only half of his workload.
Since 1992, the 49-year-old Park Ridge resident has run his own architecture practice, LAS Architects, specializing in retail, restaurants and multi-family homes. The owner of Kristina's Cafe since February 2011, Shalzi's work day is just getting started when Kristina's is ending. And now that Kristina's is serving dinner four days out of the week, it makes for a long day.
Shalzi knew in high school he wanted to be an architect, but even has he pursued it in college and ultimately started his own company, a second love for food remained ever-present in his mind. He grew up in love with food and often dreamed of owning a hot dog place similar to Gene and Jude's.
“I think it was growing up in a household where everything was homemade,” Shalzi said. “My mother made everything from scratch, so it all kind of started from there.”
In 2005 Shalzi was presented with an opportunity to get involved with an Italian restaurant and martini bar in Oak Brook called Dulce. Shalzi ran it for three years before the restaurant folded, a byproduct of the smoking ban and his inexperience, Shalzi said.
“You have to be here every day,” Shalzi said of the toughest part of running Kristina's. “There's no breaks, no downtime. At Dulce that should've been the case but I was in a different zone back then.”
After Dulce, Shalzi continued with his architecture work, but remained open to getting back into the restaurant business. He continued to dream about owning his own hot dog stand, but he didn't want to start something from scratch. When the opportunity to own Kristina's came along, Shalzi jumped at the chance.
“The hot dog place is something I thought about but I didn't want to start from scratch and deal with build-out costs and everything,” Shalzi said. “I wanted something already established.”
If Shalzi wanted established, he got it with Kristina's. One of the conditions of ownership was that he couldn't change the name, leaving Shalzi the owner of a restaurant with a name he has no connection to. Slowly but surely, though, he's putting his own stamp on the restaurant in other ways. In addition to tinkering with the menu, he recently opened up the lunch and breakfast cafe for dinner, based largely on customer requests.
“I got a lot of requests from customers to open for dinner, so I took them up on it,” he said. “The dinner menu has a lot of comfort foods [and includes] Mexican, Italian, appetizers and desserts.”
Other changes could also be in store for Kristina's down the road. Shalzi would like to put in a coffee bar/bar inside Kristina's, but that will depend on future pursuit of a liquor license. In the meantime, it's about building up the quality and recognition of the cafe, which led Shalzi to agree to let the Vh1 reality series film in his restaurant earlier this year.
“I did it for the exposure, obviously,” he said. “I was excited that they came here and wanted to film. At the time they didn't disclose what the show was, and when I found out, I went back and forth about whether it was the right thing or wrong thing to be a part of.”
Ultimately, Shalzi was okay with it as he chalked it up to just being entertainment. The shoot was professional and low-maintenance with no problems, and Shalzi said people have mentioned seeing it on TV when they come into Kristina's. And as far as exposure goes, Shalzi said he could definitely use more of it when it comes to the recent decision to open for dinner.
“Friday nights are great,” he said, largely because of the . “I have to build up the other nights.
Still, business is good, Shalzi said, and there's little for him to complain about in the nearly year-and-a-half he's owned the cafe. And while he's in no rush, Shalzi isn't ruling out opening a second location somewhere in the area. If he does, he's not sure if the new location will keep the Kristina's name or if he'll go forward with a name and concept he's been thinking about for a while.
Regardless of how many restaurants Shalzi ends up opening, he feels the best part of the experience at Kristina's will always remain.
“The interaction with different people on a daily basis is the best part,” he said. “The fun and excitement of owning [a restaurant]...there's just something about it.”