Twenty years ago this month, a trio of businessmen opened a new pizza shop in Overton Square.
Cole Dickey of Memphis Pizza Cafe makes a pizza during lunch at the local chain’s Midtown location, 2087 Madison Ave., one of its five restaurants in the area. (Daily News File Photo: Lance Murphey)
And one year after Memphis Pizza Cafe opened its doors, Memphians were hungry enough for the business’ signature thin-crust pizza that a second location soon was in order.
Owner Gary Garlington said the company, which today operates five locations, had its best sales year ever in 2012. And it’s a testament to the secret sauce behind what’s essentially a simple business concept that Memphis Pizza Cafe each year owns the “Best Pizza” competition in the Memphis Flyer’s Reader’s Poll and Memphis Magazine’s Subscriber’s Poll – while each year, the competition also keeps multiplying.
Not only is dough being slung at places like Mellow Mushroom, Coletta’s and Fox Ridge Pizza, but even establishments that don’t focus on pizza pies still have pizza among their menu options.
Two factors may be at work there. Garlington described pizza as “good recession food,” which accounts for Memphis Pizza Cafe’s strong sales even when the bottom fell out of the economy a few years ago. Also, the old adage that competition drives sales is true, according to Camy’s owner Camy Archer.
She once told The Daily News that Pizza Hut and Papa John’s opening near Camy’s helped drive up her company’s sales.
“When you talk about competition, in Midtown there’s the new Five Guys, there’s Chiwawa, which just opened and the Panera Bread deli,” Garlington said. “At Park Avenue, Mellow Mushroom is opening. We’re just trying to do the same thing we’ve been doing. We had a good year last year, but we’ve got to be good every day. That’s all we’re really trying to do.
“Our arrows have just been steadily kind of going up. Last year was our best year ever, and the year before that had been the best year. We’re seeing just kind of steady growth. Nice, steady growth.”
That’s been the story from the beginning. Two years after opening in Overton Square, the first restaurant moved four doors down into its current location after acquiring more space as well as a patio. Also in 1995, Memphis Pizza Cafe opened the location that’s currently the company’s busiest, on Park Avenue, across from the Eastgate Shopping Center.
A Saddle Creek restaurant followed in November 1997. The company then tapped the brakes on expanding – for a little while, at least – until pulling the trigger on a Wolfchase Galleria-area location in 2002 that was later closed. Finally, two additional stores followed in 2006 – one in Southaven and another in Collierville.
Garlington said Memphis Pizza Cafe recently re-upped for 15 more years at Overton Square.
“We’re excited to be over there where it’s been vacant for so long, and there’s all this action around it,” he said. “It’s been our second busiest store, so we’re hopeful all the renovations going on over there, with the parking garage and all, mean better things are ahead for us over there, too.”
The menu, along with thin-crust pizza, includes items like sandwiches, salads and beer and wine. The dough is made daily, is never frozen and doesn’t contain sugar or dairy products.
The company currently has about 120 employees. And Memphis Pizza Cafe has been either a sponsor or donor to lots of community events and groups, including Zoo Rendezvous, St. Peter Villa 5K, the Memphis Italian Festival, Rendezvous at the Dixon, Shelby Recreational and Vocational Services and the Memphis Food Bank.
“I know we could deliver and probably make more money doing that,” Garlington said. “But we’re comfortable. We’ve been fortunate enough to be accepted in the community. We’ve been very blessed.”