LIMA — “It’s hard to have a bad pizza,” said Apollo Culinary Arts Instructor Carrie Prince.
“It starts with the crust,” Prince said. “You have to make sure you work your dough so that it’s tender and bake it enough to have the crispy crust. Dusting on the cornmeal can help or pre-baking the dough to make sure the cheese doesn’t burn before the dough.”
The sauce is next.
“Here at Apollo, we teach them how to cook down tomatoes and make a fresh sauce with basil, garlic and a little sugar,” Prince said.
And last are the toppings — preferred fresh and custom-tailored to the eater’s palate. For Prince, the standard is pepperoni, sausage and banana peppers to “add pungency.” But she’s also partial to barbecue chicken pizza topped with a few onions and green peppers. If she wants something a little different, she’ll opt for a good Reuben pizza sprinkled with Swiss cheese, shredded corn beef and cabbage.
“You can make it any flavor you want,” Prince said. “It’s a flexible food.”
Lima doesn’t rank as a pizza capital alongside Chicago or New York, but with all the pizza restaurants dotting the landscape, maybe it should.
With 3,771 total pizza stores, Ohio comes in at #9 among the most pizza dense states, but some local counties push past the state average. A quick look into the numbers show that for every 10,000 residents, Allen County has 4.74 pizza parlors (not counting gas station pizzas). Auglaize County has 3.05, and Putnam County has 5.6. Ohio’s state average is 3.26.
There’s no one variable creating the perfect storm of pizza joints for the region, but experts point to a confluence of affordability, cultural standards and convenience. Simply put, pizza is the quick and easy takeout that few kids object to. And for pizza parlor owners, if they are able to differentiate themselves among competitors and put in the hard work, they can find success no matter how thick the market becomes.
“American as pizza pie”
For many Lima residents, pizza has become a weekly staple of their diet. Originally created to cheaply feed hardworking Italians and their families, the dish has crossed the Atlantic and been transformed to cheaply feed hardworking Americans and their families.
“Fridays is pizza night, and we eat it because we like it,” local resident Adrienne Guthrie said. “I could eat a pan pepperoni pizza with ranch dressing every day.”
Even Prince, who has the skills to cook plenty of dishes outside of pizza, finds herself ordering a pie sometimes twice a week.
”What’s nice about it, and this is why I think its popular: You can stop and pick up a pizza, order bread sticks and a two-liter, sit down with the family and have a family dinner. It’s hot. It’s economical. That’s the nice part about it,” Pizzeria owner Brent Shafer said.
“Pizza is one of America’s foods of choice. It’s like, ‘As American as apple pie.’ Well, there’s ‘as American as pizza,’ too,” said Ed Ezzelle, owner of Pat’s Donuts & Kreme. “You can order a large pizza and feed four and six people on it for cheap. That’s where that value comes into play.”
“We have a lot of families come in. It’s easy to feed large groups with pizza even with kids. We get a lot of large groups after games and tournaments,” said Beer Barrel’s Director of People and Promotions Erika Cannon.
“We consider both value and quality, and pizza is fast and convenient,” Josh Schoolcraft, owner of CJ’s Pizza, said. “Typically, we can always get you food within an hour. We can make a pizza and deliver it to your door.
“It’s a cheap way to feed a lot of people. And who doesn’t like pizza? There’s always some style that somebody likes.”
“No one really thinks about pizza as Italian food anymore.” said Ohio Northern University Business Dean John Navin. “It’s very much taken on that kind of all-American type of meal.”
Navin was stumped on why the area has such a large number of pizza joints, but he doubted if regions with similar demographics differed a whole lot when it comes to pizza popularity. But since there’s plenty of families craving for cheap, delicious food, then investors have responded to meet the market’s demand.
“In terms of starting up a business, it’s relatively low-cost,” Navin said. “It doesn’t require a fancy chef or fancy kitchen equipment. You require a building and an oven, so startup is relatively easy.”
The Lima Style
While Chicago, New York and Detroit have been able to slap their names onto their favored pizza style, Lima hasn’t had the opportunity. But if it did, that pizza would be thinner than Chicago, thicker than New York and cut neatly into squares with toppings buried under the cheese.
That’s the way Fat Jack’s Pizza does it – a Lima pizza chain that continues to top The Lima News’ “best pizza” competition for the last decade.
Owner Dave Boyles said the style has been going strong for the last four decades ever since he started working at pizza parlours, first at Pizza Chef.
“That’s just the way we did it back in the ’70s. It seemed to work for me all of these years,” Boyles said.
“We’ve kept as close to the recipe from back then as we can. That’s why we’re so successful. People change their cheese and their sauce for a couple pennies on the price. I don’t do that. Quality and consistency was what we found has maintained the business.”
“Some of the ones that have been around forever, we cut our pizzas in squares,” Ezzelle said. “We also use a deck oven. It’s different than a conveyor oven, and it gets the cheese browned a little bit more for better taste and presentation.”
“We have the old-fashioned-style pizza,” Schoolcraft said. “Most of us make our own dough every morning. We roll it out and make it to order. We put the toppings under the cheese. It’s kind of old -fashioned. We have a medium crust – thick, not real thin.”
The style is replicated by quite a few competitors with shorter histories throughout Putnam, Auglaize and Allen counties. But differences can be found.
Sometimes, it’s the toppings. The Pizzeria will take advantage of the area’s German heritage to hide sauerkraut under the cheese during Oktoberfest, or morning visitors to Pat’s will see the standard shifted to incorporate sausage gravy and sausage for a breakfast pizza.
Other times, it’s dough. Both Pat’s and Beer Barrel will make their bread fresh every day while others will buy ready-made dough.
But the style stays pretty close to the regional standard. A few restaurants have even found the model to be successful outside of the area.
Beer Barrel now has six — soon to be seven restaurants — throughout the state with the latest expansions into the Columbus area.
“We have been very successful in other markets,” Cannon said. “I think (our original pizza) is different in other markets. In the local area, it’s more common. In other markets, it’s not.”
“It’s different than what other people are used to, but they like it,” Cannon said.
So with so many options, can one pizza claim to be the best? Lima residents will tell you what they like without reservation, but if Lima can handle so many restaurants, there must be fans of each.
Ezzelle compares the phenomenon of pizza competition and customization with how someone chooses a car. Everyone has a certain preference, he said, but for most folks, they’re not going to always agree with each other.
“I always compare the pizza business to the car business,” Ezzelle said. “Everybody has their own opinion and everyone has their own taste.”
“Thirty years ago, we wouldn’t have sold a chicken pizza. Now, we go through a lot of chicken. Ranch is a popular sauce where it wouldn’t have been. Things have changed from the days of pepperoni and sausage.” Shafer said.
Today, the Pizzeria has 20 topping options including anchovies and broccoli. Both are rare requests.
“Sometimes, it doesn’t even sound good,” Shafer said. “But that’s what people like.”
Beer Barrel has seen similar demands for customization. They’ve added specialty pizzas to their menus not too long ago, and now it’s not uncommon to see a potato and bacon pizza or mac n’ cheese pizza arrive at one of their tables.
“I think our menu offers such a variety so there’s something for everyone,” Cannon said.
While everyone may have a different opinion on toppings, there is at least one thing pizza makers had no problem agreeing upon: Pizza’s popularity doesn’t make the business any less competitive.
“Everybody thinks it’s an easy dollar and it’s not,” Boyles said. “They think when you work for yourself, you have more time. I worked more of my kids’ birthdays because of situations that came up for more than I care to remember.”
“Every place probably has their niche,” Shafer said. “But it’s not easy. … There’s money in pizza if you’re willing to work. You can’t just go in there and open up and wait.”
Shafer’s business now has five restaurants scattered throughout Putnam County. Despite the success, he can still be found in the kitchen prepping pizzas and zipping along during the dinner time rush hour.
“When we bought (the Ottawa location), people thought no place would make it there. I said, ‘I wouldn’t bet against it.’”
Reach Josh Ellerbrock at 567-242-0398.