1985. It was a year many future pizza eaters who would define the cultural landscape of Farwell Ave, skateboarding down the hill toward the looming Milwaukee skyline, were not even born yet. On the city’s Northwest side, a small pizza delivery storefront opened at 9006 W. Silver Spring Dr by two young Detroit transplants.
Mark Gold and Louis Siecinski go way back to 1976. Hyper, pudgy Mark and dark-haired Lou experienced a best-friends-forever “love at first sight” sentiment over a movie and tuna sandwiches packed by Mark’s bubby in middle school. Their friendship endured its ups (Lou’s dad expecting rent payments from Mark for spending so much time at his house) and its downs (Mark getting “out of control with his emotions” and luring Lou into a closet and locking him in at a sleepover…Lou assures us, “Yes, I can laugh about it now”), but their shared entrepreneurial blood came all too naturally.
Mark blossomed into an effective manager at a Domino’s restaurant, and started a lawn cutting business together with Lou. “We wanted to own our own business at age 16/17…we got along well,” says Mark. Lou elaborates, “Mark has the experience in the service industry and I had the experience with food recipes and production. Put it together and you have ‘The Shuttle.’”
They began their adventure in the pizza industry in 1984 by trying to fit in as possible franchise candidates for a major pizza chain (check the Pizza Shuttle toilets for the franchise name...the answer lies deep in the bowl). Clearly, and lucky for us, it didn’t pan out. Taking a step back, the long-time friends and new business partners decided to set out on their own, but faced a glaring obstacle: Detroit’s pizza market was oversaturated. Lou recounts, “The next step was to go out on our own and find the location where the competition was not. Yes! Amazing Milwaukee, Wisconsin.”
Back to that amazing brew city across Lake Michigan, circa 1985. Mark and Lou made the move across the Midwest to their new home within a day’s drive of Detroit. On August 17, 1985, a birthday party pizza order kicked off a busy, exciting opening day at that unassuming storefront on Milwaukee’s Northwest side. "Our first location was set up as a delivery only location delivering just pizzas and sodas, very limited menu, 30 minutes or less concept,” Lourecalls.Mark was now 21, Lou only 20, and the demand for their thick, chewy pizza burgeoned. Indeed, Milwaukee had its share of thin, cracker-crust pizza restaurants, but Mark and Lou competed on an entirely different level. Their homemade dough rolled thick, handcrafted sauce, top-shelf Wisconsin mozzarella, and fresh toppings filled a void.
Pizza Shuttle rapidly expanded to three locations within two years, but not without growing pains. "Our struggles began early in our careers by not thinking outside the box," says Lou. Mark agrees. “We worked for almost 10 years without really taking a paycheck, put money back into business, sometimes we didn’t make money. We learned on our own dime".
Doors opened at 10714 W. Okaloma Avenue in 1986 (“a very similar concept but we monkeyed with garlic bread and salads,” explains Lou) and a final third location opened at 1816 N Farwell on Milwaukee's culturally vibrant East Side the following year. Maybe they got a little too ambitious. Mark explains, "We had 3 stores within 17 months of opening and it was very difficult. We sold 2 stores within 5 years and concentrated on the east side store.”
The decision to focus on the East Side location ushered in a new era for Pizza Shuttle. "We moved to the East Side at a time when things were changing for the better (1987)." The same year Mark and Lou arrived in Milwaukee, Randal Sprecher was setting up shop on Milwaukee’s east coast. The year Pizza Shuttle moved across the city to the East Side, the Klisch brothers began brewing out of Riverwest in the shadow of Milwaukee’s famed corporate suds. The flower children of Brady St had grown up and left a vibrant, offbeat legacy and a hunger for a new generation to carry the torch of revitalization. Sandwiched between four major colleges, the East Side was constantly saturated with youthful energy and injected with hungry, young people possessing discriminating taste and sizeable disposable income.
Their storefront on Farwell was still carry-out and delivery only, but they were beginning to learn from those early mistakes. Lou says, “Pizzas alone would never survive and it didn't and it created struggles. We couldn't compete. So by adding a kitchen with a variety of well groomed foods, we became the competition.”
And compete they did. In 1995, Pizza Shuttle moved down the block to their current location at 1827 N Farwell Ave. And for the first time since they opened doors in Milwaukee, Pizza Shuttle was now big enough for a dining room. Pizza Shuttle became a destination, a hot spot to grab a hot slice, a cold brew, or a dripping cup of custard. "We let Pizza Shuttle evolve organically. It’s a reflection of mine, Louie’s and the neighborhood’s heart and soul," says Mark.
Today, independent businesses line the eclectic east side streets. Well-established neighborhood bars illuminate the corners, and college kids grow into themselves in local coffee shops, tattoo parlors, and record stores. “It’s like a family. The kids are young and then you turn your back they’re grown up! Our once young customers who used to ride on skateboards on Farwell Ave are now bringing in their own kids to grab a slice of tradition and memories,” Lou reminisces.
Pizza Shuttle has grown hand-in-hand with the neighborhood, catering to the evolving tastes of a generation. Their late-night hours have established them as a neighborhood institution and a reliable, hot-spot destination. Mark and Lou regularly draw from the city’s art community to reinvent their loud, but always memorable, aesthetic. Their marketing tactics invite customers to feed into their crazy, little world. Want the Large 1-Topping pizza special? You gotta say, “Gobble! Gobble!” first! And some might say you’ve failed to truly experience Milwaukee if you haven’t ordered Pizza Shuttle for delivery at 2am under hazy circumstances. A Warhol cow adorns the dining room wall, watching over young couples on their first dates, post-prom parties, birthday parties, hungry post-show rockers, brides and grooms stumbling in after their wedding receptions, and every rite of passage in-between. It’s a culture niche…”The Shuttle Culture.”
Shuttle’s culture is accessible to anyone, a unique cross-section of the city comprised of families, business people, hippies, hip-hop kids, punks, students, artists, the young, the wise and the indefinable. Its customers are a melting pot of diversity, uniting people from very different walks of life in the one common mission of eating the best pizza in Milwaukee. Milwaukee diners have consistently honored Pizza Shuttle with Best of Milwaukee awards, from Best Pizza to Delivery & Take-out Menu to Late Night Destination. Mark says, "We were lucky to have picked Milwaukee. It fit us well."
As for the future? “We will keep plugging away with new technology, new creative foods, and never stop trying to improve our service,” Lou assures us. “I am very humble over the success we have and really must give our past and current employees credit for our achievements.” Mark simply envisions change. “I am very fortunate. I love my family, my partner, and my business. I enjoy working and interacting with our employees and customers. This is our life.”