Fulfilling pie-in-the-sky dreams in Lakewood with Detroit-style pizza, dessert and British pies
Joe Schlott wants to open 100 stores in the next five years. If you think that’s a pie-in-the-sky goal, well, you’re not far off.
It’s a pie-in-the-oven goal. Actually many, many ovens baking many, many sweet dessert pies, savory handheld British pies and thick Detroit-style pizza pies.
“The point of that goal is just to have a big goal, so you have something to shoot at,” Schlott said. “If I say I’ll open three stores, then you can shuffle your feet for five years, and nothing happens. So now that goal is public. My staff is expecting it. I promised to make everybody rich! What a pompous ass. You can judge in five years.”
The 63-year-old Westlake resident, who launched Gray House Pies in 2004 from his home kitchen, has a passion for creating new businesses. He hopes to get as many as five more pizza shops opened this year.
“It might not happen, but certainly a couple more,” he said.
On a Saturday evening a few weeks ago Schlott was hustling to get his newest endeavor, U.K. Pies & Fries, ready to open in four days. He was washing the windows and arranging display cases.
Just about a month earlier, the wiry, gray-bearded entrepreneur opened Gray House Pizza at the corner of Madison and Brown Avenues in Lakewood. The take-out eatery serves what Schlott calls the Cleveland area’s only authentic Detroit-style pizza. Customers enter the pizza shop off of Madison Avenue.
U.K. Pies and Fries is located in the same building as Gray House Pizza but has a separate entrance off Brown. Schlott and his staff then spent the last few weeks converting a small room in the back into a British-themed pub that serves four-inch savory pies filled with meat, vegetables and cheese. But with a Yankee twist. Known in the UK as pies and mash, Schlott has Americanized the traditional British working-class dish, substituting French fries for the standard mashed potatoes.
He has a big concept for this Lakewood venue. The roughly 18-feet-by-15 feet back room opens at 7 a.m. as Gray House Pie Express, which sells coffee, donuts and other grab-and-go food items. Then later in the day, the kitchen switches menus, and customers can buy pies and fries until 9 p.m.
By the end of the month, Schlott expects to open a second location of another branch of his Gray House brand, Gray House Pies, on Detroit Avenue near West Clifton Boulevard in Lakewood. Like the original location in Westlake, it will offer home-made fruit, nut, cream-style and specialty pies.
So far, Gray House Pizza appears to be a hit. Meanwhile, UK Pies and Fries has drawn a surprising number of British expats, Schlott said. Both places have received a lot of positive online reviews.
The pizza shop sold out many nights the first two weeks of business. Schlott has added a second three-level, stone-deck oven to keep up with demand. He’s had many repeat customers, many who are being introduced to Detroit-style pizza.
“The first week we were open, we had people come back three times,” he said. “For me, that’s the validation. OK. We might have something.”
For the uninitiated, Detroit-style pizza is thick and rectangular. Pre-made dough lines each pan, which measure 8x10 for a medium and 10x14 for a large. Bakers add the selected ingredients and two types of cheeses, traditionally brick and cheddar. Cheese goes around the edge so when it cooks, it melts down the side and creates a crispy edge. Each large pizza gets more than a pound of cheese on top.
Another difference: The sauce goes on top after it’s baked for 20 minutes. The pie is then drizzled with virgin olive oil. The pizza’s edge and bottom are crispy, yet it’s moist, chewy and fluffy.
The dough is the key ingredient. It’s not tossed like traditional pizza dough is and put into a round tray, then topped with sauce and ingredients. His Detroit-style pizza dough must proof for three days.
“The other pizzas, when people order it, they put (the dough) on the bench, press it down, and put it in the oven,” he explained. “It's a three-day process proofing this dough so it comes out light and fluffy despite it being an inch thick.”
The shop is open from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. Some nights customers must order early if they want to secure a specific time slot. The shop takes phone orders, but encourages customers to order online, which starts at 9 a.m. If a customer wants a pizza at a specific time, say 6 p.m., it’s best to secure that slot early online. But customers will find slots open into the afternoon and evening.
Besides introducing a new pizza style, another barrier Schlott and his staff have had to work through is customers grousing about the price. A six-slice medium starts at $16, with each topping $3. A 10-slice large starts at $22, with each topping $4.
But Schlott points out, backed up by a reviewer, a $30 pizza can feed three people. Gray House has sold many $40 pizzas and plenty of $30 pizzas, Schlott said. (It hasn’t stopped orders from coming in and from sell-out nights.)
Schlott prides himself on the ingredients, which are fresh and locally sourced. He uses organic flour that’s milled locally, cheese from the Middlefield Original Cheese Co-op and pizzas topped with a pound of cheese and sauce made daily.
“See this sausage,” he said, lifting a tray of ground pork that came from a farm in southern Ohio. “That pig was walking around four days ago.”
He does have a moral dilemma about serving meat. Schlott has been a vegetarian for nearly his whole life and Vegan since 2015.
A Knack for making Dough
As a kid growing up around West 95th Street and Lorain Avenue in Cleveland, Schlott worked in restaurants and was an aspiring chef. After graduating from West Tech High School in Cleveland in 1977, he was accepted to the Culinary Institute of America in New York. But he never went. Looking back, he believes he passed because he was afraid to leave.
Instead, he attended Cleveland State University and earned a bachelor's degree in psychology and later a master’s degree in counseling. He ended up in the mortgage business, working for KeyBank, Fifth Third and many other institutions.
While he enjoyed buying and selling houses, he found he had a knack for making pies and bread.
At the holidays, he would bake about 15 pies, mostly apple, and give them to people he knew. Then in 2003, Schlott, his wife and two sons moved from Lakewood into a 136-year-old former farmhouse in Westlake. A sign in front said, “The Gray House.”
The previous owner would sell items off his porch and Christmas trees out of his backyard. Schlott’s wife, Darlene, suggested he sell his pies off the porch. Schlott resisted for a few weeks, but with St. Ladislas Catholic Church nearby, he felt he had a built-in customer base.
On a Sunday morning in April 2004, Schlott hung a sign on the mailbox that read, “Homemade Apple Pies. $10.” He set out a coffee can and relied on buyers to deposit the money. He stood peeking out of his window for the first hour and counted 300 cars, and not one sale. So, he and Darlene left.
When they returned, all the pies were sold, and he found money in the can. But what amazed him were the messages he got from people who called his number from a label on the pie. “Hey, I just bought your pie off the porch,” Schlott recalled a caller saying. “They’re the best pies I’ve ever had.”
Schlott said telling that story always gives him a chill: “What happened was shocking. They didn’t like them. They loved them.”
People started referring to this spot as the pies at the Gray House. Schlott adopted the name. They sold more pies on weekends and, during the holiday season, took orders for about 60 apple and pumpkin pies.
The following spring, he set up at the farmer’s market at Crocker Park in Westlake. He took over 20 pies and sold out in less than an hour. The next week he sold 40 pies. Then he added the farmer’s market in Shaker Square. He was baking 80 pies in a double oven in his kitchen. He would get up Friday morning and start baking. But since his oven would only fit eight pies an hour, he was spending nearly a day baking 160 pies.
Early in the process, the couple decided it was better “not to work together.” Schlott said. Darlene remains a cheerleader and offers advice when asked.
Schlott got to talking with Ginius Macys, an artisanal bread baker who set up at Shaker Square and had recently opened Breadsmith on Detroit in western Lakewood. Macys offered to rent his kitchen to Schlott since he used the kitchen in the evening to bake bread and it was available during the day. That allowed Schlott to bake 133 pies at a time. So what had taken him 20 to 22 hours at home to do he could now do in two to three hours.
As both businesses grew, Schlott moved into the storefront next door to Breadsmith. He shared the location with Two Peas in a Pod Catering. He did his baking here.
In 2008, the mortgage business crashed with the housing market and Schlott, who was paid entirely on commissions from his sales, wasn’t getting a paycheck. So he decided this was the time to open a retail store. He moved out of Lakewood and into a vacant former Chinese restaurant on Lorain Avenue in Fairview Park.
Less than three years later, he opened a second dessert pie storefront in Westlake. He struggled financially having two shops just about three miles apart. When his lease ended in Fairview, he closed it and concentrated on the Westlake store.
“A rookie mistake,” Schlott calls it. “So, what happened? It bled off half the business from Fairview. So I was still doing the same total amount, but between two stores. And I couldn’t carry it”
Pizza remained on the backburner “all the time, all the time,” he said.
“Pizza has always been my passion,” he said. “I’ve always been putzing around with pizza dough, trying to get better and better and better and studying it constantly,” he said. “It took me years to make a decent pizza dough. It seems so totally simple. Maybe it is for some. For me it wasn’t. Over time I got to the point where I was making traditional New York-style dough pretty good.”
So for fun on Fridays at the Westlake pie shop, he’d make 10 pizzas and the staff could put whatever they wanted on them. He would set them out and let customers help themselves.
Then about 10 years ago, Schlott and his oldest son went to Detroit to see a baseball game. Afterward they went out to eat and they stumbled into Buddy’s Pizza, which originated the Detroit-style pizza, which Schlott knew nothing about at the time. He just thought the place served a square pizza. He then learned that Detroit-style pizza was a thing, and was getting popular everywhere but Cleveland. So he started studying how to make it.
Unlike normal dough, Detroit-style dough requires little yeast, it must rise slowly so it will be light and fluffy despite its thickness. “So when you bake it, the inside is super light. It’s an inch thick. You can eat it and it’s not like an anchor in your stomach. It’s light. It’s beautiful,” Schlott said. “And so I fell in love with it and started studying it.”
When he finally nailed the recipe, “I almost fell out of my chair. It was like a religious experience. It was so good and unlike any pizza I had ever eaten and so freakin’ good. I couldn’t believe it,” he said.
He sold his Detroit-style pizzas in the pie store, and while customers who bought them loved them , Schlott said they were never a big seller. He sold pizza on Friday and Saturday nights, staying open until 9 p.m., but the best sales night he ever had was 10 pizzas. The first night in Lakewood he sold 80.
He was disheartened. But the handful of people who were buying the pizza constantly told him that it was the best pizza they have ever had, words that would stay with him.
In 2018, with a strong management team in place, Schlott stepped away from the pie shop. He went camping and hiking and spent more time with his two sons. The pandemic didn’t affect business. In fact in 2020 and 2021, he had his best years ever, which he said was due to the hiring of a social media professional to promote the pie shop. After about five years of “laying around,” Schlott said he got a second wind and began to grow restless. His children were grown. He had some money. While he always had the ambition to expand, the pieces were now in place.
In August he rented the storefront on Detroit next to Breadsmith where he had operated previously. But all the kitchen equipment had been torn out and after nearly three months, he learned the Lakewood location would be categorized as a distributor and fall under the jurisdiction of the Ohio Department of Agriculture because he was not baking pies at the shop but would just be selling ones baked in Westlake.
In October, he shifted his focus when he found what he had wanted for 10 years. While perusing Craigslist, Schlott found that the building at Madison and Brown, which had housed Primo’s Pizza, was available. The building had a fully equipped kitchen. But whenever it previously became available, another business got it before he could act. Within an hour of meeting with the owner, he had signed a lease and switched his focus from apple pies to pizza pies.
Lakewood: A Pizza Hub?
While Detroit-style is fairly new around Cleveland, it has grown in popularity since about 2017, said Stephen Green, the publisher of PMQ Pizza Media, an Oxford, Mississippi-based pizza trade magazine.
“It’s been on fire for five years,” he said. “ It’s not smoldering yet. It’s still burning.”
How many pizza restaurants can a community support?
“This is the oldest story in pizza,” Green said. Whatever is existing is existing for a reason, and there for several good reasons, he said. Some deliver. Some are sit-down restaurants. Other ones have great word of mouth. Others have different marketing strategies.
“The way we should look at it is, when you see a bunch of pizzerias tightly packed in an area, what you're witnessing is Darwinian proof that pizza is a good business. Each one has a different personality and different reach,” he said.
The United States has 80,175 pizza locations, with 44,644 independents, according to the magazine’s most recent annual Pizza Power Report. Ohio has 3,685 pizzerias. That’s 3.18 stores per 10,000 people, ranking it ninth in stores per capita. Five years ago, Ohio had 3075, according to its 2017 report.
“North America is the (pizza) rain forest of diversity and innovation,” he said. “It’s always changing. There's always something that is driving changes.”
The unofficial pizzeria count in Lakewood is 28, including 10 restaurants where you can get pizza and 18 others that are straight-up pizza shops, said Ian Andrews, the executive director of LakewoodAlive, a non-profit that supports Lakewood’s businesses.
“My impression is, if they didn’t think there was enough demand, then they wouldn’t be opening,” Andrews said. “We’ve got a lot of really savvy entrepreneurs and small business owners and they read the tea leaves, and they must see that despite the number of pizza places and places that sell pizza, but that are not necessarily pizza joints, that there’s still plenty of demand to go around.”
Lakewood also offers high density with a population of 50,000 that skews younger crammed into 5.5 square miles. It’s also a hub for entrepreneurs. The city has only a handful of chain restaurants, McDonald’s, Taco Bell and Subway to name a few. A significant majority are independent, family-owned restaurants and businesses.
“Lakewood loves small businesses,” Andrews said, “and I think they see that in our culture.”
Schlott agrees. Other communities like chain restaurants. Not Lakewood, which only has a handful.
“Here, they are adventurous,” he said. That’s one of the main reasons he decided to open in Lakewood, he said.
About two blocks east of his pizza shop is Angelo’s Pizza, which opened in 1981 and has been voted the best pizza in Greater Cleveland. Harlow’s Pizza is about a block west. It opened in 2017 and offers a Neapolitan pizza baked in an Italian Pavesi, a wood-fired oven. Boom Pizza, which offers a New York-style pizza, opened in January at the corner of Detroit Avenue and Warren Road.
Those places and the other competitors don’t worry Schlott. In fact, he embraces the competition and wants to capitalize on it.
Schlott wants to turn the section of Madison between Harlow’s and Angelo’s into a Pizza District. That would make it “a thing, make it a destination. And bring in the best pizza makers in Cleveland and have them all here. So, when people want pizza, they come here.
He openly muses about opening another pizza shop nearby offering a different type, such as New Haven, grandma or St. Louis pizza. Schlott also is scouting locations in Cleveland and other communities for Gray house Detroit-style pizza shops.
“I’m trying to build some traction here before the other guys wake up,” he said. “The whole thing about this when I wanted to do this Detroit style… I kept watching out of the corner of my eye and someone is going to do it and I’ll kick myself. So I cannot believe no one has done it. I’m shocked I’m the first to do it and I dragged my feet for years,” he said.
He also would love to see the stretch of Detroit Avenue between Breadsmith and Blackbird Baking Co. on the corner of Sloan Avenue become Lakewood’s Bakery District.
Listen to him talk, and you believe it could happen.
Schlott’s biggest passion by far is creating new businesses. That’s what drives him. Besides pizza and pies, future businesses could focus on ramen noodles, donuts or cigars, which are other food and products that strongly interest him
About that goal of 100 stores in five years? He concedes it’s ludicrous. But the clock started Jan. 1.
“It’s a fun goal,” he admits. “It’s outrageous. Who knows. Who knows. Maybe it will take me 10 years or I’ll never do it. . But I’m gonna try it.”