Monday, January 9, 2017

I'll take two Garth Brooks tickets with that pizza, PLEASE

So this story about the Irish lady who ordered cold medicine, along with a pepperoni pizza from a Belfast Fish and Chips shop and, amazingly, got them to deliver her entire order, really got me thinking.



Not so much about the obvious observations:

A. Those Irish restaurant owners and delivery drivers must be super nice to actually agree to bring Fiona Cuffe her Benelyn Cold and Flu tablets from the drug store.

B. Since when do fish joints serve pizza, anyway?

Nope, you know my mo’, faithful readers. Got to go deep. I started pondering, in reverse order of cosmic significance:

1. She says in her online order: “…only ordering food so I can get the tablets. I’m dying sick xx.” She insulted their food…and they still brought her the darn meds! Must have been the kisses.

2. If I thought I was about to croak, and I truly believed my pizza deliverers would bring me anything I asked for in honor of my dying wish, I’d start with Super Bowl tickets, or maybe two front-row seats to the Garth Brooks concert coming up in Memphis.

3. OK I get it, we’re talking about items a delivery driver could reasonably stop and pick up on her way with the pizza. Stuff like razors and deodorant and toothpaste and ear swabs. If you’re like me, you’re always running out of toilet paper just when you need it most.

4. TMI? A rare blizzard (actually thin dusting) is panicking peeps here in Mississippi. Instead of me overcrowding the local Dollar General to stampede levels, the super nice pizza driver could bring me my bread and milk and keep my face off TV.

5. Overkill? Batteries are practical. They can mean the difference between life and death when you lose the electrical cord on your radio boombox.

6. OK, we’ve already stipulated these are really, really nice pizzeria owners and delivery drivers so I’m doubling down. In this utopian existence, they would surely do their best to make my final hours on Earth special. I’d ask for some 6-inch Angus fillets, king crab legs and a turtle sundae to top off my pepperoni pizza.

7. It’s true, I’ve got a nervous stomach. I know I’d be too rattled to eat one of those rich final meals if I was only a couple hours from taking my last walk to the lethal injection room before getting strapped in. Please, Fish and Chips Pizza Man, bring me a puppy, instead, (with big feet, not a snippy little yippy dog) to pet and cuddle before the lights go out.

8. Forgot about the lease. I’m a simple man with simple needs, in touch with my Emily Dickenson side. Just deliver some brilliant Red, White and Yellow roses in a deep crystal vase (long A) with an oversized card signed by my girlfriend that reads: “You deserve to experience all the beauty in the world. Here is just a glimpse of what reflects back to me when I look in your eyes.”

9. I know what you’re thinking, dear reader. “You’re frickin’ dying already. Why isn’t Miss Wonderful there to hold your hand while you give it up? Or maybe: “Did he really write that part about the reflecting beauty, or was it some Hallmark nerd?”

10. All mine and, no, my girlfriend hasn’t ditched me! She’s just super, super, really busy at work. And that’s why we don’t have time to go see Garth Brooks. The heck with it, we’re talking theoretical scenario, folks. My for-real questions are simply: Does Fiona look more like the ogre in the movie, or Cameron Diaz? And, did she even pony up a tip?

Monday, December 19, 2016

Open the Pizzeria Bay Doors, HAL

Zume offers human pizza makers retraining as robot partners take over

With the release of Rogue I, I got to thinking about robots…and pizza. I haven’t seen anybody eat pizza in that Galaxy far, far away, but I assume the Universe’s most popular dish has to be on the Cantina menu where Han used to hang out with his freaky pals. So C3PO and R2D2 are cute and helpful and all, but the sci fi nightbots of my scary dreams download more like the bad cop terminator with the morphing pointer impaler in TII; or maybe those nasty bug-looking contraptions in The Matrix that burrowed into Morpheus’ hovercraft and Neo’s navel.

My future vision is definitely right-brain framed, so I tend to share Will Smith’s skepticism in I, Robot about his nemeses’ suitability to write symphonies, paint masterpieces and craft a really good pizza.

Julia Collins and her human business partner Alex Garden are the owners of Zume Pizza, a Silicon Valley startup that’s likely the first pizzeria in the world to partner humans with pizza-making robots. The pizzabots at Zume don’t really look like their movie star cousins. They don’t roll around the workspace warning, “Danger, Will Robinson!” They’re more like seamless, functional machines-in-motion, spreading pizza sauce evenly or hoisting dough with mechanical limbs to the tune of 288 pizzas an hour for delivery by oven-equipped trucks in an average of under 15 minutes.

Bot friendly Collins doesn’t see her automated pizzaioli as Robot Overlords. “We’re a co-bot environment,” she says, noting that, for now, Zume still employs humans. Air breathers, it turns out, are still too good at one vital pizza activity to hand over full control to their botmates. Humans hand-place toppings like pepperonis, mushrooms and peppers nice and pretty. But despite their aesthetic shortfalls, and limitations in other interpersonal pursuits like chatting up customers, robots have apparently advanced enough for Zume to schedule the Mountain View, California store for full automation in 2017. Zume’s ‘shrooms—and even their sausages and stuff—will be handed over to the pincers of hotbot pizza chefs with cool, friendly names like Bruno, Jojo, Pepe, Marta and Vincenzo.

To be fair, in an era when some fast food executives are threatening to automate traditional workers out of a job over minimum wage worries, Collins and Garden remain pro human: 1. They’re all about serving their nutrient-fueled customers great-tasting pizza with top-quality ingredients at an ever-quickening pace. 2. They’ve promised the roughly 30 flesh-and-blood Zumers, their jobs are safe. As the Mountain View site goes fullbotic and Zume zooms ahead on its way to San Jose and other Bay area delivery hubs, displaced human pizza makers will learn new skills in areas like tech support, engineering or web design. “We give them an opportunity to keep growing,” say Collins, a Stanford Business School grad and former analyst at Shake Shack. She adds: “Since the industrial revolution, the American workforce has been adapting to the advent of new technologies. The important thing is — for those who’ve chosen to be at the leading edge of automation, as we have — how can we think responsibly about our obligation to the people that come work for us?”

Zume is putting actions where its obligation is, offering carbon-based employees tuition subsidies, teaching-English-as-a-second-language opportunities and even some volunteers a chance to go to graphic design school. One Tweeter, whom I’m guessing never mastered InDesign, ain’t buying it: “Future story: Zume closes! No one can afford to buy pizza after losing jobs to automation.”

Still, automation, in balance, has surely improved the lives and economics of most people on Planet Earth, if not the entire Federation of Planets. And yes, I like my computer, even if I only use it to write and read and Siri and Alexa do remind me of 2001’s HAL in training. Balance IS always the ticket! That’s why I must agree with the CEO whose cutting-edge outfit has, ironically, pioneered the push to automate pizza ordering and delivery. Patrick Doyle, Dominos CEO, says “There is magic in hand-crafted pizza.” What?

I’ve interviewed dozens of elite pizza chef—all born to mothers and not created in labs. They might not be big Domino’s fans, but they fully back Doyle’s statement. Pizza maestros like Lee Hunzinger, Guilio Adriani and Gennaro Luciano, whose family basically invented the modern pizzeria in the 19th Century back in Milan, are on the same page. They attest passionately that love, training and mentorship—human interaction built upon years of attempts, successes and yes, failures—are the only reliable ingredients in pizza perfection. My friend, U.S. Pizza Team Lead Culinary Consultant Gino Rago, owner of Panino’s Pizzeria in Chicago, defines these terms in the original old-school Italian: “Passione and Fantasia.” The first translation of “fantasia” in the Italian-to-English dictionary is:

1. Music: A composition in fanciful or irregular form.

Maybe Will Smith got it right in that unsettling movie preview of our robotic destiny run amok. And maybe crafting memorable pizza and pizzeria experiences is more art than science. But then again, I’m a right-brain guy.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

3 college Towns, Sofo mojo and the High Priest of Yeast

You know, college life is on my mind lately. I teach a class at Ole Miss and I’ve become a fanatical devotee to the Rebel football team, who would be one of the best college football squads in the country if games only lasted two quarters. That, plus two months ago I took a week-long trip to Columbus, Ohio, for the Sofo Summit. No, not a high-level diplomatic confab with the Japanese prime minister, but a cool food distributor show. You pizzeria peeps know about Sofo, where this year pizza chef extraordinaire Ryan LaRose ruled in the culinary contest with his “Shroom Zoom” masterpiece featuring the elusive crack equivalent of pizza ingredients, White Truffle Oil. Listen to LaRose describe his big winner here.

The happy young pizza virtuoso at Leone's Pizza in Columbus doesn't share that his lovely city is also the hometown of THE Ohio State University and the zoo where my favorite Saturday morning TV personality, Jack Hanna, reigns as director emeritus.

Anyway, I endured the 632.1-mile, 9½-hour (Google lies—more like 12-hour) drive to Columbus where my job was to cover the Sofo mojo and stop in for a story on Mikey’s Late Night Slice. Mikey’s started out as the quintessential college “drunk food” oasis fueled by contests, iconic pizza varieties like the “Cheesus Crust” and edgy pop culture décor that includes a fake bathroom door. That's the snare where unsuspecting patrons pull the knob only to stand nose to nose with a life-sized poster of Samuel L. Jackson looking more batpoop crazy than he did in the Pulp Fiction car scene where Travolta accidentally shoots the dude. Learn more about Mikey's here.

Before we arrived in Columbus we made a pit stop in my hometown, St. Louis. The Gateway City is home of Provel cheese-oozing square pizza. It's also headquarters for the company that makes the living organism, yeast, that activates both pizza crust and the perfect golden elixir to wash it down. The impressive urban headquarters of AB Mauri and Fleischmann Yeast offered us the chance to video capture some even more impressive, mostly young, professionals who specialize in blending a passion for baking with a keen understanding of the science behind yeast and other flavor enhancers. 

As a college town, St. Louis is home to St. Louis University and Washington University. The Billikens (think Munchkins) don't boast a football team (Wash U Bears are Division III), but both universities sport national powerhouse medical schools. At AB Mauri/Fleischmann's, I met a team of professionals who've taken their food science degrees to the next level. Equally comfortable in their fully equipped test kitchen or laboratory, this team is led by former Domino's operator, current AB Mauri Innovation Manager, and the man I like to call The High Priest of Yeast, Paul Bright. Our hosts downloaded their off-the-charts foodie intellects to treat our video crew. The payoff was homemade pizza with a yeasty kick in the crust. I successfully resisted the powerful urge to greet my collaborators with a hearty: “There's a fungus among us!” See the AB Mauri crew in action here.

Then the PizzaTV van pushed east to the home of the Boilermakers and Mad Mushroom Pizza. The Purdue Boilermakers of West Lafayette, Indiana, aren't named for their ability to down shots of whiskey floating in beer. Do these Big 10ers produce a plethora of portly opera majors? Haven't done the research. I do know they graduate a bunch of guys and gals who can engineer stuff, presumably like boilers and additional infrastructure that makes our economy hum. Purdue may rarely beat THE Ohio State in football, but they did educate the first man to walk on the moon, Neil Armstrong, and the talented entrepreneur who owns two Mad Mushroom pizzerias in West Lafayette.

U.S. Pizza Team mainstay Dave Sommers is currently expanding his Mad Mushroom brand to additional Midwest college towns, but 20 years ago he was a college kid trying to earn some spending money. Pizza sauce, flour and dough seeped into his blood and today Dave is one of the industry's sharpest pizzeria practitioners with a vision for marketing America's favorite food and crafting internationally acclaimed American Pies.

Friday, August 12, 2016

When in Rome – Or San Diego – NAPIZZA Rocks

Did you know that beautiful, laid-back San Diego is leading the charge (think Lightning Bolts) to popularize Roman-style pizza in the U.S.? Did you know that the home of Tony Gwynn’s Padres, Balboa’s Park and Coronado’s Island was discovered by the Germans in 1904, and is named for a whale’s private parts? No, that’s not right—the bit about the whale and the Germans, I mean. I was trying to impress you, faithful Pizza Perspective readers. But it’s true, I just got back from the city with the greatest weather in the universe (no exaggeration there). I swear, friends, countrymen, the Roman-style pizza at NAPIZZA in San Diego’s Little Italy (and another location) is the manna that passionate pizza lovers, and surfers, munch on when they open their eyes in Heaven.


My PMQ amigo Daniel Perea and I visited NAPIZZA last month to shoot a video. Our fortunate California mission was to highlight the gnarly by-the-slice pizzeria and top-shelf flour, Polselli, that infuses the dough foundation of NAPIZZA’s “Best-In-San Diego”-rated hunks of airy, crispy Pizza al Taglio. That’s the old-school name for pillowy pizza squares loaded with ultrafresh meats, cheeses, sauces and veggies aligned on flush rectangular pans. Like living, never-wilting edible museum pieces, the vibrant red, white and golden crust canvasses are enticingly showcased in NAPIZZA’s rapidly replenished glass serving shelves. Until a chosen slice is scooped up eagerly by smiling servers and handed over to hungry patrons. 

And speaking of hunks. The cozy gathering spot, featuring first-come seating inside and outside, right next to the Little Italy banner on India Street, is the life’s work of a couple of breathtakingly beautiful humans. Roman-bred Christopher Antinucci and Giulia Colmignoli are a real couple. They have real kids, in addition to their devoted NAPIZZA staffers. The day and night shifts function smartly—as tightly as any genetic clan, hustling and laughing, igniting pizza enlightenment in the New World. They’re building a thriving business slice by slice with an ambiance that feels almost like a chatty community market. The entire Little Italy neighborhood is an eclectic mix of traditional Italian merchants and eateries mingled with up-scale, trendy shops. Throw in the ship-lined waterfront, museums, parks, beaches and pro and college sports, and who could possibly disagree with the great Ron Burgundy? It IS a proven fact, Ron, and scholars agree: S.D. is the “greatest city in the history of mankind.”

Christopher and Giula agree with the fictional Anchorman that their adopted hometown is, really, a great place to run a business and raise a family. The copacetic coastal vibe and ocean-cooled natural landscapes perfectly match their health and fitness-focused priorities. They’re as passionate about the bountiful southern West Coast environment as they are about their fast-selling pizza and gourmet salads featuring wild-caught salmon and tuna. Giulia consulted with a Whole Foods nutritionist to develop the salad menu with an eye and a taste bud tuned to locally sourced produce and the fight against heart disease and diabetes. “San Diego is a city of fit-minded people who love to play outside in the beautiful natural resources and weather we enjoy here,” says Giulia, who is proud of NAPIZZA’s “Go Green” business model.  “We recycle as much as possible, use environmentally friendly building materials and even use a motor-assisted bicycle for deliveries.”

Conserving natural resources is top-of-mind for the NAPIZZA team, but their Roman-inspired pizza legacy cuts no corners . “As a native of Rome, my first impression of American pizza was that it tended to be heavy and overly greasy,” Christopher admits candidly. “Giulia and I grew up in Rome going to pizzerias where Pizza al Taglio was something light we could eat as a high-quality snack without feeling bloated. When we became partners, we looked around at pizza opportunities and we took a gamble on the pizza we already knew and loved. Our goal was to bring an ancient tradition from Rome to San Diego.” 

After studying the demanding pizza-cooking style themselves formally, from farm to kitchen, in Italy and the States, Christopher and Giulia hired a seasoned head pizzaiolo, Alessio Poli. For this skilled pizza chef, transforming flour, water and yeast into fluffy, chewy bliss, even in a steamy, cramped, deck-oven radiating kitchen, is an irresistible drug. Today, four years after the launch of the NAPIZZA flagship, San Diego has acquired an insatiable appetite for the wheat and cheese-based fuel that once powered the Roman legions. Modern Roman adventurers Christopher and Giulia have marched to success on the same source, opening another NAPIZZA in a San Diego shopping center. “We’re more confident than ever that Roman-Style presents the biggest growth potential of any pizza segment on the market,” Christopher says. “Along the way, I’ve learned that you sometimes have to accommodate the American pizza palate.” A palate, by the way, which Christopher discovered, doesn’t dig that European delight, potatoes on pizza. So, along with classic toppings and imported Italian ingredients, NAPIZZA has added American favorites like bacon and barbecue chicken among its 12 slice varieties.

During our short San Diego Roman working holiday, Daniel and I internalized (we chowed down on) the pizza heritage of two great cultures in one dynamic pizzeria. At NAPIZZA we experienced, simultaneously, The Eternal City and the city of Comic-Con, which, coincidentally, was spewing Superhero-garbed geeks into the streets as we drove to our hotel in the rental go-cart they classify as an economy car. We did make it to Coronado Beach, where it was 80 degrees, sunny and breezy. I documented, birds, waves, kids in waves, the most elaborate sandcastle ever constructed, a beach wedding with formally attired bride and groom, and a bikini model photo shoot. If you think I’m making that last part up, well…I love you Ron Bergundy.  Let’s agree to disagree.


Forget that! Check this out!








Monday, July 11, 2016

Pizza Getti Leaves the "H" and Oakland Behind

Pizza people have a wonderful devotion to family tradition. I was settling in at the PMQ Mothership here in Oxford, Mississippi, on the Tuesday after the July 4 holiday weekend when a Dallas pizza clan dropped by. Kyle Rotenberry is distantly related to Star Trek visionary Gene Roddenberry (Gene changed the spelling). Today Kyle captains a historic pizzeria, Pizza Getti, that has blazed a fast-Italian course in food-trendy Dallas since 1968.

Kyle and his lovely wife, Karla, docked at PMQ with their three young children during their self-described “foodie” trip from Texas to the Rotenberry ancestral homeland of Oakland. Not that Oakland! Not the hard-scrapping West Coast city across the bay from San Francisco, but Oakland, Mississippi, a laid-back, one-stopsign, off-the-highway berg 20 miles from Oxford with a minuscule population of 500 friendly souls. Folks in Oakland tend to favor collard greens and fried chicken over pizza, but that didn’t stop the Rotenberry brothers (Kyle’s uncles) from securing the tribe’s pizza business legacy.

But only after Bob, Dave and Dale Rotenbery left Mississippi in the early 1960s courtesy of Uncle Sam to experience the bigger world. Kyle’s dad Bob was a Marine stationed in Hawaii, when he met, and married, Kyle’s mom Vivian.  The couple ended up, ironically, in San Francisco, Bay Area sister city of the California Oakland where the Raiders play. Native San Franciscan Vivian found a successful, if unlikely, cultural and romantic mix with her country-bred husband. Bob was mixing paint himself for application on the iconic Golden Gate Bridge when a call came from his brothers in Dallas to come together as pizza selling paisons. The concept was spaghetti and pizza for dining in and carry-out. The name of the restaurant in East Dallas continues to be Pizza Getti.

“Yes, ‘getti’ is a typo, but when dad any my uncles had the sign made, it came back spelled that way,” explains Kyle. “When the signmaker said it would cost $600 to make a new one, my uncle said, ‘Looks good to me!’”

Errantly titled or not, Pizza Getti has been making spot-on pizza, spaghetti, subs and, sometimes, lasagna, since 1968 at three different locations in the same East Dallas neighborhood. “The community started out as an upper middle class neighborhood where families hung out after high school football games,” says Kyle, who grew up in Dallas and graduated from Baylor in 1993 while contemplating a career in technology. “It went through a down-in-the-dumps era and is now on the upswing.” In 2001, after accepting a buy-out package from his corporate dream job, Kyle got an offer from the family he couldn’t refuse. “My brother said, ‘Why don’t we buy out Dad and be Pizza Getti partners?'’’
             
With his dad retired, Kyle bought out his brother in 2011 and stood, temporarily, as the only Rotenberry left carrying forward the proud, if misspelled, Pizza Getti name. In 2014, Uncle Billy Rotenberry proved you CAN go home again when he returned to his roots in Yalobusha County, Mississippi. Billy asked for permission to go for the Getti, opening his own version of the family franchise in Water Valley, a short drive from Oakland. The Southern outpost of the Mississippi-ready Pizza Getti micro-chain was popular, but shortlived, with Billy’s passing ultimately closing PG’s Mississippi doors in 2015.

Growing up, Kyle’s family made frequent trips back to the Magnolia State. With the demise of the Water Valley Pizza Getti, Kyle’s surviving Oakland South relatives urged him to gather the family and experience Mississippi hospitality firsthand during their 2016 summer vacation.  Kyle planned the Rotenberry pilgrimage around America’s birthday with a stop in Greenville, in the Mississippi Delta, to sample the famous hot tamales his family had touted for decades. But another nearby Mississippi hot spot beckoned—an advanced pizza civilization where no Rotenberry had gone before.  “I’m a long-time subscriber to PMQ Pizza Magazine,” Kyle says. “I check out the web site and I thought, 'Since we’re so close to Oxford, why not stop in?'”

We’re glad Kyle and family could fit us in. We even took advantage of the visit to videotape this interview with Pizza Getti's skipper. Below he shares some valuable insights about running a historic pizzeria in the midst of an evolving, cutting edge restaurant market like Dallas.






Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Make a Video, Earn $1000, Trigger the Pizza Singularity

This is for all you would-be Scorseses out there.  Or just the operators who want to sell more pizza. PizzaTV has a great opportunity—and a $1,000 check with your name on it. All you need to do is send us a video about your pizzeria (30 minutes or less, and preferably, much shorter and sweeter) and your friends at PMQ will screen it and conduct our own Pizza Academy Awards evaluation. The best entry, based on the careful evaluation of our panel of experts, will earn one of you aspiring movie auteurs the "dough" and a feature posting on PizzaTV.com. Relax, Star Wars-level CGI isn’t required, just solid story-telling and watchable images. Hint: At PMQ we find closeups of delicious pizza fresh out of the oven sexier than the movie Nine and a Half Weeks. Now that’s hot!

Your next question: What’s PizzaTV.com? Powered by PMQ Pizza Magazine, the Wall Street Journal  of the international pizza industry, PizzaTV is an app, a website and the official online video home of the Pizza Universe. Click on PizzaTV.com right now and you’ll find our developmental site highlighting pizzeria profiles, news about the U.S. Pizza Team and pizza culture, along with some of the most colorful characters in the restaurant world.

Ultimately, with your help, as you claim your own PizzaTV.com channel, you’ll discover dynamic tools to reach a wider audience of pizza consumers. That’s right, imagine an up-to-date nationwide coordinated pizza marketing network where you can increase online orders, post social media messages and offer loyalty rewards programs. Not to mention live-streamed interviews with pizza chefs and marketing experts, and instructional videos on industry must-knows like dough-mixing targeted to your mixers and flour options.

The video you’re going to submit to PIZZATV for this $1,000 contest—whether you win or not—can be the pilot plug-in to an online connection with PMQ. One that can boost your worldwide visibility with your favorite videos, pizza specials and personal story. Once registered with PizzaTV.com, you’ll be empowered to list your business hours, accepted credit cards, regular and special diet menus and delivery options. Even participate in coordinated regional and national pizza promotions. Claiming your channel is one click away. Go to PizzaTV com and click on the top-left “Claim Your Channel” button. You’ll be taken to our registry page for step-by-step instructions on how to join the PizzaTV team. The first 1,000 participants receive a free premium listing.

I know signing up for stuff is a pain, but wrap your head around these bottom-line numbers. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but video scores 1.8 million of them, according to Forrester Research. Get the picture? OK, visualize the fact that 85% of companies say video has helped them achieve their marketing goals. Can you look into the camera and say “Cheese.” Videobrewery.com says 100 million internet users watch online video every day, and eMarketer.com adds U.S. adults spend 1 hour, 16 minutes watching videos on their digital devices.

So, we’re excited to see what you’ve got in your camera bag. Send us your video by July 1 and we’ll announce the winner on Aug. 1. And even if you’re not ready to send a video right now, visit PizzaTV.com, look around and make yourself at home. Claim your channel and start your video journey toward the pizza singularity. I made that part up about the Pizza Singularity. Just sounds cool. But I’m serious as a Jedi light saber dissecting a loaded veggie pie when I say, in the words of Rick (Bogie in Casablanca if you’re not really an auteur), “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
       

     

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

I’ll take a Liver With That Pepperoni--A Pizza Rebirth

I’ve been thinking about the power of pizza to heal the soul and the body. In a story for May’s PMQ Pizza Magazine, I had the privilege of writing about a remarkable leader from a one-stoplight town of less than 2,000 residents. Don Van Zant reflects exactly what it means to have your tenuous mortality green-lighted. 

The owner of Cardinal’s Pizza in North Lewisburg, Ohio, says be careful not to blink or you’ll miss his 40-seat restaurant 45 minutes northwest of Columbus. Don found out he had terminal liver cancer in July 2012. His doctors said a transplant was his last, best hope, and in October of that year he received a donor liver at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center from a young man who had been critically injured in a truck crash only hours earlier. So, you ask, wasn’t it Don’s team of oncologist and skilled transplant surgeons who saved his life? Yes, technically it was medical science and the selfless gift of a young organ donor named Drew Mason from Owen County, Kentucky, and Drew's family, who returned Don Van Zant to his beloved Cardinal’s Pizza. Don refers to Cardinal’s as North Lewisburg’s info center, adding, “Townsfolk seem to have my place on speed dial.”

But pizza played a pivotal role in Don’s recovery—and the lives of many people he touches. Here’s how.

Since buying Cardinal’s in 1994, his pizza restaurant had been the focus point to Don's dynamic existence as a successful businessman and tribal elder. Cardinal’s is North Lewisburg’s unofficial civic center for community advancement—the gathering spot where little league teams and seniors and church groups and families and the Kiwanis Club convene—and The Donald (This one doesn’t have much hair) holds court. But after Don got a new, unexpected, chance to keep doing the only job he had ever wanted, his life’s purpose, as well as his liver, was reborn.  After meeting his donor’s family in 2013, Don established the “Drew Mason Memorial Scholarship” at Owen County High School in Kentucky, where Drew graduated in 2004. Since presenting the first scholarship gift of $2,500 to Drew Mason’s sister, Don has followed up that pay-it-forward gesture by expanding this year’s annual award to six $1,000 grants.

That’s six lives changed. Six futures improved with a helping hand in a part of the industrial Midwest hit hardest by economic dislocation. Six youngsters picked up by the love of pizza. All the money for the Mason Scholarships, you see, is raised at Cardinal’s Pizza hot-ticket fundraisers. Don, who swears he never met a slice of pizza that wasn’t his best friend, keeps an olive jar tip stasher on the front counter. His still successful transplant means Don can no longer eat his favorite food—as much. But he happily conducts pizza sampler donation parties throughout the year at Cardinal’s and multipurposes the occasions to educate patrons about the vital importance of organ donation. In the end, the example of Don, his Ohio Cardinal’s team and the good folks of North Lewisburg is a case study in how running a pizzeria dedicated to making good pizza and reaching out to neighbors can enrich the human spirit. Those magical ingredients of compassion, dough, sauce and cheese go a long way toward a better world.  But you pizza guys already knew that.