Fresh food meets fast food

Vincent Bradshaw

Peter Lutz, the owner of Pita Pete’s, 1571 Sherman Ave., is preparing for a fast-food revolution.

He’s got the idea: healthy food at fair prices. He’s got the ammunition: fresh vegetables, including green and black olives, iceberg and romaine lettuce, cucumbers and dill pickles. Before opening the store every morning, Lutz travels to Al Khayam Bakery on Kedzie Street in Chicago, just to get fresh-baked pita bread.

“It’ll be a movement,” Lutz said, and Pita Pete’s will be ready for it. “Americans will say, ‘I’m tired of crap food; I want good food.'”

Before the “movement” takes off, Pita Pete’s manager has made the restaurant the place to go for healthy food. Customers choose from a variety of meats such as chicken, turkey, steak and ham, as well as vegetables and sauces to customize their pitas.

“The pitas are made by what the customer wants,” employee Justin Hildebrandt said. “It’s all about getting to know the customer.”

Before the meat is added, an employee grills it while the patron watches.

Vegetarian pitas can be made without meat and filled with sauces from mayonnaise to Italian and vinaigrette.

The vegetarian menu hooked Northwestern post-doctorate students Gour Pati, 34, and Renu Tripathi, 33.

“Coming here is pretty much a vegetarian choice,” Tripathi said as she finished up her last falafel ball and seven-bean soup.

For dessert, customers can order Homer’s ice cream.

While the establishment strives to meet customer’s expectations, it also tries to stand out from the other eateries and franchises that fill downtown Evanston.

“I consider myself the anti-franchise,” Lutz said.

Lutz said he’s “doing just fine” competing against other sandwich shops in Evanston. When lines at other restaurants are too long, people usually walk over to Pita Pete’s, he said.

Weinberg junior Nabeel Anwar visited Pita Pete’s after encountering crowds at another restaurant.

“I was on my way to Flat Top (Grill) with my two friends, but it was a 55-minute wait, so we came here,” said Anwar, a first-time customer.

While other restaurants spend their money on advertising, Lutz said he saves that money and invests it into the food and quality of the store.

The result is a restaurant franchise that consistently receives scores of 98 or better on health inspections, he said.

Lutz came up with the idea for Pita Pete’s after he dined at a Canadian restaurant called Pita Pit while visiting his son at Syracuse University.

Leaving dissatisfied with the food, Lutz thought he could do a better job.

“I just thought, ‘Here’s a good idea, but they’re doing it wrong,'” he said.

Lutz changed the menu, improved the food and opened his first Pita Pete’s near Northern Illinois University in 2000.

Five years after that restaurant was a success, Lutz opened one in Evanston on Jan. 12.

“I love this location,” he said. “Come here on a summer night, and you wouldn’t believe how many people you’ll find on the street.”

Reach Vincent Bradshaw at [email protected]