Exlines’ Best Pizza Marks 40 Years

By Bill Dries

It was about 40 years ago that Walt and Violet Exline were looking for a home in Raleigh and stopped with their Realtor to eat lunch at a pizza parlor at the corner of Austin Peay Highway and Stage Road.

They ended up buying what was originally Raleigh Pizza Parlor and is now Exlines’ Best Pizza with 10 locations in the Memphis area including the original at 2935 Austin Peay Highway.

“Initially it was for an investment for my wife and I,” Walt Exline said. “A year and a half later, we ended up buying it as a side investment.”

Ann Howard, an employee of Exlines’ Best Pizza since 1975, serves a signature “Around the World” pizza at the Raleigh location.

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

It was a side investment to the trailer manufacturing company they owned in North Shelby County.

“Then the steel shortage hit and the oil embargo and all that stuff,” he said of the challenging economic environment of the mid-1970s. “We ended up selling the trailer plant and we used some of that money a little bit later to buy that strip center in Raleigh. The pizza parlor was going so well that we decided we would go with multiple units.”

The 10 stores took some time to build and with it has come a core of workers and managers who have worked for Exlines’ for decades.

They will be recognized later this year when the company formally marks the anniversary.

“Right now is kind of our busy time,” Exline said.

Exline is an engineer by training. His wife was in bookkeeping and customer service with experience working for several utility companies before the couple decided to settle in Memphis. Neither had any experience in the restaurant industry. But the pizza parlors weren’t a leap of faith.

“It was not a shot in the dark because we did look at it for a year and a half and looked at the numbers and what we thought was a good product and foundation for a business of our own,” he said.

The couple semi-retired several years ago and go to their home in Florida frequently although they keep a close eye on the business including playing an active role in the company’s management philosophy.

That philosophy’s foundation includes Douglas McGregor’s 1960 book “The Human Side of Enterprise” as well as the later “The Motivation to Work” by Frederick Herzberg and Bernard Mausner.

Both books talk about worker fulfillment and recognizing achievement and growth.

Exline finds challenges in training younger part-time workers beyond the presence of cell phones and other distractions.

“It’s quite a bit tougher with regard to how you want to try to motivate kids to work in an environment like ours,” he said. “It’s fairly easy but you still have to pay attention to detail, to product, the food cycle. We use fresh ingredients.”

The sausage and ground beef used in Exlines’ pizzas are made fresh in Eads and although Exlines’ has added pasta and other side items, pizzas account for about 85 percent of the company’s business.

The future possibilities for the company that began over lunch include some gourmet items that Exline believes may do well at the Germantown location.

“Franchising is certainly an opportunity for us or whoever takes over after us,” he said. “You see these companies now, they are in business one or two years and they start franchising. It would have to be somebody a lot younger than us.”