The Pizza Guys
Lee Kratochvil reminds me of Theodore Roosevelt. Like T.R., Lee has an effusive personality and is an avid outdoorsman. Some years ago, Lee’s broad, toothy grin landed him the role of Teddy in a local production of “Arsenic and Old Lace.”
One major difference between Lee and T.R. might be Lee’s penchant for giving away homemade pizza.
“In the late 1960s, a joint called Pizza Pub opened up in Brookings,” Lee said. “Pizza Pub’s owner, George Ross, was a family friend. My two brothers, my sister, and I all worked there during our college years. Pizza Pub was a great place. Not only did they serve the best pizza, they had sing-alongs on Sundays. It had a real family atmosphere.”
After graduating from South Dakota State University with a degree in park management, Lee worked for the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks for four decades. For 30 of those years, he was regional park supervisor for the northeastern portion of the state.
“The best part of that job was the people,” Lee grinned. “And the worst part was the people. As soon as you understood that, things went much better,” he says.
When Pizza Pub closed in the mid-1980s, Lee’s brother, Mark, obtained the recipes for their crust and their sauce. The sauce was made entirely from scratch and included a secret blend of fragrant herbs and tangy spices.
About 15 years ago, Lee and Mark decided to make pizza for a family birthday party. They dug out the venerable Pizza Pub recipe and put it back to use.
“The pizza was an instant hit,” Lee said. “Other people in the family began to ask us to make pizza for graduations and birthdays. Word got around and folks in the community began to ask us to make pizza for their gatherings.”
Lee and his crew of volunteers dubbed themselves The Pizza Guys. Emblazoned across their aprons is their motto “Because we knead the dough.” Crew members wear flowered (ha!) shirts.
Giving away their homemade pizza is at the core of the Pizza Guys’ business model.
“We don’t charge for our services,” Lee said. “We only ask that our guests bring some cheese and make a contribution to the Brookings County Food Pantry.”
Over the past several years, the Pizza Guys have opened their doors – that is, the doors to Lee’s garage – on the eve of Hobo Day to anyone who wants to enjoy good company and outstanding homemade pizza.
“My parents, my siblings, and I are all SDSU grads,” Lee said. “We decided to hold a pizza party as a way to celebrate the Jackrabbit homecoming and raise money for the food pantry. We supply all the ingredients and ask that our guests bring some cheese and make a donation to the food pantry.”
Why did Lee choose the food pantry?
“My life has been richly blessed, and the food pantry is one of my favorite charities. Food is a basic need, and there are many who can’t afford it. It was a natural transition to use food to raise money for people who can’t afford to put food on their table.”
The Hobo Day-eve pizza party has taken on a life of its own.
“We served pizza to over 150 people last year,” Lee said. “My garage can seat about 80, and it was full the entire evening. We baked pizza for five hours. Our goal is for our guests to enjoy the family-style dining, have pleasant conversations, and give generously to the food pantry.”
Last year’s Hobo Day pizza party donations totaled $1,584, a new record for the event.
The Pizza Guys’ operation has evolved over the years. They no longer form their crusts by hand after acquiring a dough rolling machine that’s identical to the one Pizza Pub used 50 years ago. Lee has two sets of double ovens and can thus bake eight pies at a time.
“Our ingredients have morphed over the years,” Lee said. “We still make pizza with traditional toppings, but we’ve added new toppings such as smoked salmon or smoked oysters or sauerkraut. We’ll throw almost any food you can imagine onto a disk of dough and cook it.”
The “guy” part of the Pizza Guys has also become outmoded.
“A few years ago, my granddaughter, Addi, who is now 13, joined our crew,” Lee smiled. “It’s wonderful to work with her and all the members of the team.”
I don’t know what Teddy Roosevelt would have thought about the Pizza Guys and their give-it-away business model. But I like to think that his reaction might have been:
“Speak softly and carry a large pizza!”