Memories of good times somehow always include pizza. Meeting the gang for pizza, after the ball game, after the movie, after the prom...
And Covington area residents have great memories of enjoying pizza at The Pizza Man, a legendary pizza place that still makes pizza the old-fashioned way, using old family recipes and the best ingredients that can be found. I visited with owner Dustin Schrems Sunday afternoon, and he shared the history and the highlights of his family's business.
He talked about what made it so special for his customers, who have over the years become loyal fans. Three things came to the forefront: the quality and taste of the pizza, the jukebox, and the show put on through the window into the kitchen.
His grandfather opened his first pizza restaurant in Houma in 1964, then his parents came to Covington in 1976, and opened up their pizza place on Boston Street near Vermont St. In 1990 the business moved to Collins Blvd. near the parish fairgrounds, across the highway from Zoe's Bakery. The front of the business faces the side parking lot, but the sign out front points a newcomer in the right direction.
"So we are now in our third generation of making pizza," Dustin said, "My grandpa and mom and dad did the hard work of getting the recipes together and our job here is to don't change anything."
All of which creates a unique blend of team work on the part of the eight employees, an appreciation for all the families, coaches, and individuals who have come there for decades, as well as a unique environment decorated with framed artwork, jigsaw puzzles, and one-of-a-kind pizza boxes painted by well-known local artist Suzanne King.
While there are recipes, "not everything is measured," Dustin says. "It's sometimes a little bit of this and a little bit of that, a dash of this and a sprinkle of that. After ten or 15 years of making pizzas you know how much of what to put in, and it comes out to be what people enjoy."
They make the dough, the sausage and the meatballs themselves, preferring to avoid the pre-packaged foodstuffs that some restaurants use. The kitchen is open for anyone to see how pizzas are made because of the large picture window that lets those in the dining room watch the process. The window showcases a bit of pizza making magic, the tossing, the spinning, the sprinkling of flour.
The window has always been a favorite of the youngsters, since watching someone make pizzas is a form of entertainment in itself. But the window also gives the pizza makers a chance to watch as their pizza customers enjoy the show, then sit down and enjoy the eating when the pizza is delivered to their table. It's a "two-way" street, Dustin said, and the window is just as much appreciated by the staff and cooks as it is by the customers (and their children.)
Keeping Pizza Lovers Happy
The ambience of a pizza place is one of fun and good eating, and Dustin loves seeing the families come in and share a pizza. "It's one of the few meals where folks can just all take a piece and enjoy the same food together, not like where everyone has their own plate of food in front of them."
He gives much of the credit for The Pizza Man experience, however, to the teamwork spirit of his employees. "We have people who are really good at their jobs," Dustin remarked. "The secret of the window is that it brings the kitchen into the spotlight. The customers are fascinated watching the pizza chefs, and the chefs enjoy performing for the customers." It's a fun job, he said, and the interacting with the customers makes it even more so.
The Pizza Box Art
The dining room is lined with an array of pizza boxes, mounted high up on the wall, each one a masterpiece of artwork by Suzanne King. The pizza boxes are, well, just different than anything else, and Dustin is proud of them.
"They were completely Suzanne's idea," he said. "She does them on every subject and every person." The pizza box cartoon renderings feature famous musicians, sports teams, historical events, and key milestones in a person's life (prom, graduation, birthdays). Dustin is most proud of the pizza box near the check out for it shows the tragedy of 9-11 in New York. "She did that one right after it happened, and it's kind of special," he commented.
He explained that viewing the pizza boxes have become a highlight of visiting The Pizza Man. "When you look around at them, it is amazing the points she makes, the views on life and society." Suzanne is well known for her fair posters and house illustrations, and she has exhibited her work at the St. Tammany Art Association. "She's a huge part of our family," he said.
His best selling pizza is The Board. It's not a traditional pizza, but it has a lot of interesting and tasty ingredients. How did it get its name? Back in the early days of the Pizza Man, his mom and dad didn't have a "menu" per se, but they would write the ingredients available that day on a chalk board. "So people could read the board and mix and match what they wanted,"he explained. "Well, one day someone came in and said he wanted everything on the board."
That customer liked it so much that they came back the next week and wanted the same pizza, but since the board changed almost every day, they had to go back and try to remember what was on the board on the day the customers' favorite pizza was created. It's been around ever since.
"The Wow" pizza is also a crowd favorite. The Pizza Palace is more of a traditional pizza, he noted, and its recipe includes meatballs. Dustin's attention to detail is nowhere more apparent than in his dedication to the preparation of the meatballs for the pizza. "It's an all-day process," he said. "But it's a labor of love, because it's really good."
Making the ingredients from scratch helps bond the connection between the pizza cook and his customers. That's the way cooking should be done and the way restaurants should be run, "but that's also why I don't have a lot of stores," he said. It requires a lot of individual attention to detail, and especially an awareness of what his customers enjoy.
The Special Occasions
The best part of it all, however, is when families come to The Pizza Man for special occasions - Mothers Day, Father's Day, birthdays. They have even had a wedding reception. "It is such an honor for us when people come to us and bring their loved ones for those special occasions," Dustin remarked.
And that's another reason why the window is vital. "Without the window the cooks would be way in the back. They wouldn't see the customers. The window allows the cooks to look out and watch the dining room activity, see the families sharing a meal and conversation. They can see the results of their work."
They can also see when the wait staff might need an extra hand in serving a particular table, so that results in better service, Dustin commented.
Part of the legacy of The Pizza Man is its jukebox. Many a tune brings back many a memory, and customers love it, especially when they play specific songs at specific times. "The records in there are all pretty much 50's, 60's and 70's," Dustin said. While they do have different records for different holiday seasons (Christmas music for Christmas, Mardi Gras music for the Carnival season), he knows that the song "Puff the Magic Dragon" is a favorite selection in the jukebox.
The Pizza Man has been helping Covington area residents make fond memories for the past 46 years: their first dates, second and third dates, team get-togethers after the big games, making new friends and having good times with old friends. "It's an honor to be involved in our customer's lives," Dustin believes.
His dad Paul Schrems still comes in from time to time, just to visit or sometimes to flip a pizza. "The five and six year old kids who were looking in the window when he was here, they are now parents who bring their own kids to come look through the window," he recalls. It's become a generational experience for many families.
Evelyn Schrems, his mother, takes care of the business end of the pizza place, doing the paperwork and record-keeping as she has for the past 40 years. "She is truly the backbone of the business," Dustin states.
Dustin Schrems (left) and Corey Wall provide the pizza-making magic behind the window at The Pizza Man. The business has provided longtime jobs for many young people over the years.