Rustique: Suamico’s premiere pizza sanctuary turns 10
By Katie Leach
SUAMICO – Ten years ago, local business owners Katie and Joe Witthuhn had a dream.
“It had been a dream of mine for a long time to open a restaurant,” Rustique Pizzeria co-owner Katie Witthuhn said.
The couple made that dream a reality when they opened Rustique in Suamico in February 2012, in hopes of creating a place that offered high-quality food without the expensive bill.
“When we moved back to Green Bay, if we wanted a really good meal, it was like a $100 dinner, and we couldn’t afford that,” Witthuhn said. “We liked to go out to eat, but it just felt like Green Bay was missing that casual restaurant that isn’t bar food or fine dining.”
Meant to be
Though the pair dated in high school, the two went their separate ways after graduation.
“He went to school in Minnesota and I went to Madison,” she said. “We kept in touch a little bit, but didn’t really see each other too much.”
After graduating college, Witthuhn moved to Argentina with some friends, but soon discovered Wisconsin was home and returned.
It was shortly after that she said a chance meeting at a bar during a snowstorm brought Joe back into her life.
“I randomly went out in a snowstorm one night and ran into Joe at the bar, and we started talking and hanging out,” she said. “That was in like 2004.”
The couple started dating and even moved to Florida together for a couple of years.
After deciding they wanted to get married and start a family, Witthuhn said they moved back to the area to be closer to family, and things began following into place.
“I went and talked to (a friend) who I worked with at Chives, and he said he had a turnkey restaurant for (us) across the street, if (we) wanted,’” Witthuhn said. “I was like, ‘It’s now or never, and I think we should give it a shot.’ We fixed it up ourselves and decided to give it a go.”
Housed in an 112-year-old chapel featuring vaulted ceilings and original hardwood floors, she said Rustique offers customers a unique dining experience with an open concept kitchen.
Witthuhn said pizza wasn’t necessarily what she envisioned when she first thought about opening a restaurant.
“Joe always loved pizza and was a huge pizza guy, so we would eat pizza like once a week,” she said. “We actually made pizza a lot at home and would experiment with a lot of toppings and throw it on the grill.”
Witthuhn said the fact that the space already had a pizza oven, and it was the center of the dining area, made the decision a no-brainer.
“So, it was just me changing my thinking like ‘Okay, we could work with that,’ and then we kind of incorporated some of the South American things I liked, because I studied and traveled there, and it just put a different spin on it I guess.”
As things for Rustique began falling into place, life threw the Witthuhns a curveball — they found out Katie was pregnant with their now nine-year-old daughter, Bellamy.
Katie Witthuhn said at the time, Joe was working a full-time job at Notre Dame Academy, and if they were going to make this work, something would need to change.
“We needed to either hire a manager and pay them the same amount as (Joe) was making at the Catholic school teaching, or (Joe) needed to just quit his job and (manage),” she said. “So, it’s always been a job-share since then.”
10 years of growth
Over the past 10 years, as the Rustique customer base grew, so did the Witthuhn family – from a family of three to a family of five.
Witthuhn said each of their three children has a special connection with the restaurant.
“They love it, especially our oldest, Bellamy,” she said. “(There was a video from) when she was probably like four or five walking around the kitchen dancing with a box on her head. She just loves to come in and work… she definitely feels a sense of ownership over it. Edda does, too, but she isn’t as into working as Bellamy is, and Ford just doesn’t get it yet. They definitely like it, and know all the employees.”
Rustique’s management staff has grown as well with the addition of Robbie Krueger in 2013.
“Now we have Robbie in place, so we have a little bit more freedom,” Witthuhn said.
Though they’ve discussed a possible second location, Witthuhn said it’s not in the cards right now.
“(The kids) are getting more into sports and things, so I think it just looks like continuing to grow this and spending time with family and taking advantage of that,” she said.
Part of the community
Rustique is well-known in the Suamico community.
“(We) have made some close relationships with customers over the years, where they are more than customers, we know their families and what’s going on,” Witthuhn said.
What’s become a staple for many over the past 10 years, Witthuhn said kind of just happened.
“I think it came from just us being here all the time to start out, and we kind of opened under the radar like we did not advertise,” she said. “There had been a couple restaurants (here) open before us, so people just came in out of curiosity and then enjoyed it and (continued to come). So, I think (our success has much to do with us) just being genuinely interested in caring about people.”
As far as the food itself – you’d be hard-pressed to find a customer without a Rustique favorite – whether it’s the pesto fries, signature “El Duque” Cuban sandwich or brick-oven pizzas.
“Everything is from scratch, and we put a lot of care into making sure – and when I say we I mean Joe – because he totally took over the kitchen, is high-quality,” Witthuhn said. “He always loved to cook, and he does not want to put anything out that isn’t awesome. Like if he is not like, ‘Yes, I would order this and be really happy with it,’ then he’s not going to put it out… A lot of care is put into each item, each feature.”