Ben Kulikowski, a Chicago native, holds up his new “white pie” pizza. He’s survived in the saturated Ballard restaurant business for 15 months now.
Surviving as a small Ballard restaurant
Benito's Chicago Eatery hits one-year mark
Benito’s Chicago Eatery (6201 15th Ave NW) has now passed the one-year mark -- a badge of honor for any restaurant in a neighborhood that has become a magnet for hip and upscale restaurants. (To be more specific, he's at about 15 months now.)
Kulikowski has found his own swing in offering a niche food that isn’t delivered elsewhere in Ballard. Or, really, that isn’t delivered (at least effectively) in all of Seattle. He brings customers Chicago-style deep dish pizzas, hot dogs, pasta, Italian beef sandwiches and more.
As sugar on top, he’s willing to give anyone who walks through the door his own brand of intense-but-laid-back Chicago style chattering. Especially if you bring up the Chicago Bears, which, alas, he still favors over the Seattle Seahawks. (For now.)
Benito's classic Chicago-style deep dish pizza/Photo courtesy of Benito's
As with any aspiring restauranter hoping to make it in the saturated Ballard market, Kulikowski said it could be hard, especially if you’re someone with relatively little experience and not a lot of money.
“It’s one of the toughest businesses you can get into. Everybody says, ‘Oh yeah, it’d be really great to run a restaurant,’” Kulikowski said. “And I know a lot of people who have done that and ran into the business and did not have a clear and full picture of what it entails.”
First of all, you have to really love it, he said. And then make sure to go in with your eyes wide open, because, as he poetically put it, running a restaurant is a “meat grinder.” There are so many little things that can go wrong, he said.
“There’s a lot of things that can unexpectedly crop up, and if you’re not prepared for them, it can really sock you right between the eyes,” Kulikowski said.
These days, there are are two types of successful restaurants in Ballard: There are the upscale, hipster, media-hyped restaurants -- often found on Ballard Ave and Market St (e.g., King’s, Ballard Annex Oyster House, Bitterroot BBQ); and then there are the more laidback, neighborhood-type joints that have existed in Ballard long before skinny jeans and ironic mustaches invaded (e.g., Bad Albert’s, Hattie’s Hat, Ballard Smokeshop).
Benito’s is trying to fall into the latter kind. His restaurant’s location puts him beyond the grasp of outsiders who typically don’t go beyond the Ballard Ave and Market St core. This means he typically relies on repeat customers such as neighbors, teachers and students from nearby schools -- especially Ballard High School -- and the general Ballard community. As well as some Chicago ex-pats.
Subsisting almost purely off the locals can work, but it takes time to gain adequate traction within a community. For Benito’s, the first 15 months have been a test of patience and mettle.
“The first two years of a restaurant’s life -- no matter where you’re at, you can be in downtown Manhattan, in Chicago, wherever -- it’s the make or break time,” Kulikowski said. “If you’re breaking even in that time, you’re doing good. We’re approaching that point. We’re really close.”
To try and encourage more customers to come, and because he wants to try something different, Kulikowski has added some items to the menu: A mouthwatering deep dish white pizza with housemade creamy garlic sauce, chicken, spinach, mushrooms, fresh tomato and Pecorino Romano; the “Ballard Dog,” a 1/4 lb. all-beef hot dog made with cream cheese, whole grain mustard (never put ketchup on a hot dog, he says) and sautéed peppers and onions; and Benito’s Special Pasta, a pasta remix of the Benito’s signature pizza made with gemelli pasta, sausage, pepperoni, peppers, mushrooms, onions and red sauce.
Benito's new white pie pizza/Photo by Zachariah Bryan
There’s also a new kid’s menu, featuring affordable items such as PB&J on brioche bread, cheesy bread and cheesy pasta.
Kulikowski has a lunch special popular with the high school kids and he said he wants to do a teacher’s appreciation night discount once a week.
As for the way he’s run his restaurant, he’s sticking to his original guns. He has bistro-style seating that makes the restaurant feel open and conversational, and he still stands by his rule of thumb of having no wi-fi or television.
“Community is a big thing here,” Kulikowski said. “I want people to come in, sit down, have a glass of wine, a beer, sit across from each other, talk with friends (and people they might not even know).”
For now, Benito’s is staying in the community. Kulikowski just hammered out a six-year lease with his landlord and the hardcore Chicagoan, as many others have before him, is beginning to fall in love with the Ballard neighborhood.
“I’ve been very really warmly received from my neighbors around here. That’s always a good feeling. People don’t give you the cold shoulder,” he said. “I’d love to be here for the next 20 years, so we’ll see.”
To learn more about Benito's, visit www.benitoschicagoeatery.com/
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