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A time to rebuild

In the aftermath of a devastating tornado, some Joplin, Missouri, pizzeria owners rebuild, while others consider cutting their losses.



Six weeks after an EF5 tornado cut the city in two, the residents of Joplin, Missouri, were in the midst of a tremendous task—rebuilding their homes and businesses and, more importantly, recapturing a sense of normalcy. The process will take years. The May 22 storm was unlike anything the 49,000 citizens of this Midwestern city have experienced in recent memory. A funnel cloud cleaved a ground zero that stretches eight miles long and one mile wide though what was once a largely residential area. Aerial photos revealed roughly one-third of the city was demolished. In the aftermath, the Joplin Globe reported more
than 8,000 homes and 500 businesses were destroyed by the 200-plus-mile-per-hour winds. More than 150 people died. A hospital was hit. Thousands became unemployed or homeless overnight. Lives were scattered. “Honestly, I’d never been so terrified in my life,” says Roger Hannifin, owner of Blackthorn
Pizza & Pub. “I’m a Southern California kid—give me an earthquake over a tornado any day.” 

At least seven pizzerias—both independents and chains—were destroyed or damaged during the storm. Longtime community staple Pizza by Stout (pizzabystout.com) was flattened; only a billboard and the foundation remains. Joplin-based Cheezies Pizza (cheeziespizza.com), a franchise of the carryout chain, was severely damaged. The local franchises of CiCi’s Pizza (cicispizza.com), Papa John’s (papajohns.com) and Pizza Inn (pizzainn.com) were also destroyed or put out of business. 

Two Pizza Huts (pizzahut.com) were hit that night. At one location, two employees—manager Christopher Lucas and recently hired 16-year-old waitress Kayleigh Teal—were killed. Lucas, a Navy veteran, tried to take refuge in a walk-in refrigerator sealed with his arms and a bungee cable before he and Teal were swept away; three remaining workers and 15 customers survived the ordeal in the refrigerator thanks to Lucas’ effort. A week later, President Barack Obama honored the manager in an address at nearby Missouri Southern State University, calling him a hero who, in times of danger, “said, ‘I’m willing to die so someone can live.’” 

Not all pizzeria owners suffered financial losses in the first days following the storm. Yet, out of necessity and compassion, charity abounded. When neighbors were in need, pizzeria owners outside of the destruction zone used their businesses to donate pizza, bottled water, emotional support or even alcohol; at least one offered short-term shelter for the newly homeless. However, for surviving businesses, sales have since gone up: Relief workers have caused a jump in catering orders. Also, the reduction in restaurants and the increase of residents living in hotels has increased same-store sales for some operational restaurants. 

When PMQ visited the partially destroyed city last July, it was evident that, like their neighbors, Joplin pizzeria owners’ experiences varied. Some lost homes. Others lost businesses. Many lost customers. Most will rebuild, while a few, fearing their customer base gone, may cut their losses and leave. For most, a desire to rebuild and rebound is the uniting factor. These are a few of their stories.

Pizza by Stout

Only a few days after the tornado, the community demanded the flattened Pizza by Stout on Range Line Road rebuilt. Even months after the storm, citizens posted regularly in a Facebook group called Rebuild Pizza by Stout, where young and old reminisced about the pizza, the vast beer selection and the made-from-scratch cinnamon rolls— a recipe that owner Joy Stout says her great-grandmother perfected before the Civil War. More than 3,200 Facebook users joined the group to express their empathy. The comments alone show that since opening in 1978, the restaurant has been dear to three generations of Joplin
families. “In my mind, Pizza by Stout and Joplin are synonymous,” local businesswoman Rebekah Santiago wrote. “I just can’t imagine one without the other.” Joplin native Craig Smith echoed her sentiment, requesting that the owners “please come home and be part of the community” once more. In reality, they never left. 

Rumors, many powered by the Facebook group, continued to multiply. “It’s the big question these days,” explains Stout, who inherited the business from her father. “Every time I go into town now, people are asking ‘Are you rebuilding? When are you going to bring back Pizza by Stout?’ There’s always a positive comment. The humanity is very touching.” 

Stout and her husband/business partner, Mike Monahan, weathered the storm at their home. While they’ve closed shop on Sundays for years, Stout had been in the pizzeria only an hour before the tornado to make tomato sauce for Monday’s lunch. It was the last time she saw her pizzeria in its complete state. Later that night, the couple drove through wreckage to check on their business—initially expecting only broken windows, perhaps unpowered refrigerators. However, the only salvageable items from the wreckage were a few pewter salad bowls and a 30-year-old mechanical pony which, as they joke, desperately needs a trip to the vet. “We started seeing damage as we drove back. The closer we got to the pizzeria, the worse it got,” Stout says. “I didn’t even know there had been a tornado. My home was fine. I’d rather have lost my home than my business.”

What’s unclear to many business owners in the destruction zone is how reconstruction will affect the neighborhood itself; the area now resembles a war zone more than a suburb. Many ask themselves: How will Joplin bounce back? With so many still in need of debris removal, it will be late fall before many business owners will start to break ground on new buildings. Although Stout and Monahan initially made plans to use their insurance claim to rebuild and restore the menu and building as close to the original as possible, just more than two months after the storm, the couple decided that without the necessary family
interest, they will retire. In their view, Pizza by Stout needed to stay in the family or disappear altogether. On July 31, the couple announced on their pizzeria’s Facebook page, “After much consideration, it’s with regret that we will not be rebuilding Pizza by Stout. It has been our great privilege to have been blessed with the greatest restaurant staff anywhere and wonderful customers, all of whom will be missed greatly.”

Cheezies Pizza

Joe Culp, a franchisee of Cheezies Pizza, a carryout operation known for its large $4.99 pie, may never open the doors of his Joplin pizzeria again. A resident of nearby Neosho, Missouri, Culp owns the Joplin-based Cheezies as part of a three-unit franchise in a multiunit chain; he has operated his stores with his wife, Mandy, since 2007. The store lies on the edge of the destruction zone; many of the businesses on the opposite side of the street remain remarkably untouched. The damage to his building, which he rents, was moderate—broken windows and half an exterior wall ripped away—and the vast majority of his kitchen equipment was ruined, first from the tornado, then by the more than 10’’ of rain. While his insurance claims aren’t completely settled, it’s not the money that has Culp fretting over his next move. “Right now, we’re just waiting to see what Joplin is going to be,” he explains. “A good portion of my customer base is no longer here—or, at least, their homes are not here. We had a viable store here before. Right now, we just don’t have a timeline.” 

Like many small business owners in the community, Culp must consider the potential of rebuilding in the same location. It’s not a quick decision. While he may exit the Joplin market, it’s clear to Culp that the situation could have been much worse. Two employees manned the kitchen that night, and both evacuated before the funnel cloud. Too, the influx of relief workers has actually driven up sales slightly at his other locations. He notes that the disaster has brought out the charity in Joplin; in the aftermath, contractors and friends volunteered their time to help clean his location. “I’ve never seen anything like this,” he says. “Churches, corporations and individuals have all stepped up incredibly to help those who have lost everything. I really can’t describe it.”

Woody’s Wood-Fire Pizza

For husband-and-wife team Pete and Heidi Williams, owners of Woody’s Wood-Fire Pizza (782wood.com), life has become incredibly busy since May 22. Located in west Joplin, their family business was unharmed by the deadly storm. That evening, they’d attended their daughter’s high school graduation; the tornado struck while they were trying to gather their family of six after the ceremony. Pete notes that if his daughter hadn’t arrived 20 minutes late from returning her cap and gown and retrieving her diploma, they might have driven into the tornado’s path. “I attribute that to saving our lives,” he points out, adding cheerfully, “I’m never going to get mad at her for holding us up again.” 

However, like many residents, the Williams are an example of many small business owners trying to balance the demands of repairing partially destroyed lives and running a business. They found themselves among the homeless after the tornado, and salvaged only a few clothes and personal items from their destroyed home that evening. After assessing their damage and finding shelter with a relative, they started the nonstop process of rebuilding and offering aid to their neighbors. “It’s hard to put the pieces together. We just fed people if they needed it,” Heidi explains. “I don’t think that makes us special. Talk to anyone else here, and they’re all doing the same.” 

While they donated their time, pizza and good spirits to their neighbors, they too have received charity. Anonymous baskets appeared at their new rental home’s doorstep containing gift cards for hardware stores and essential goods. “The first 10 days were a blur,” Pete says. “We were running food to workers while at the same time I was running chainsaws. You just did what you could. I might use a chainsaw for cleanup for 30 minutes, then just talk to a guy for 30 minutes and maybe give him a hug.” 

Cleaning up their house and neighborhood required a tremendous effort; six weeks later, all that stood from their home was a chimney. But keeping up with the demand at their pizzeria was also challenging. While they can’t offer specific numbers, Woody’s has seen a “notable” increase in sales since the tornado. Regulars who came in once a week now dine three or four times. The lunch buffet has become popular with workers and those who now eat out most meals because they’ve lost their homes. “In 24 hours, it was like business went from here to all the way up here,” says Heidi, using her hand as a guide. “There are a lot of people who live in this town, and a lot of restaurants are gone.” 

Dealing with more customers (and misplaced customers) revealed challenges for their business and staff. Their pizzeria isn’t large: Woody’s can seat a little more than 50 in the dining room and patio combined, and they have nine employees. Also, it can be difficult to cheer someone up who has lost his home—they occasionally may even have to cut some off at the bar, they point out. “Our staff has been great,” Pete says. “People always ask, ‘Why don’t you expand?’ Or ‘Why don’t you get a bigger building?’ But I always tell them, it doesn’t take a big building—it takes a staff that knows what they’re doing.”

Blackthorn Pizza & Pub

Blackthorn Pizza & Pub owner Roger Hannifin spent the early evening of May 22 watching the tornado from the rooftop of a friend’s apartment only three blocks from the destruction path. To this pizzeria owner, the scene was shocking—almost paralyzing. “It will never be the same as it was before,” he says. “Hopefully, we’ll be stronger because of this, and Joplin people are strong; that’s why I live here.” 

A former sound engineer, Hannifin has owned and operated Blackthorn for more than 10 years. The pizzeria and Irish-themed pub is a popular late-night concert venue in downtown Joplin, with a close-knit core of regulars. However, that night was one of his most memorable to date. As victims started to show up, Hannifin opened his doors and kept his cash register closed. Over three days of this charity, his financial loss, which he keeps to himself, ballooned. “We’re normally closed on Sunday, but we opened up anyway because there was nothing else we could do,” he says. “All the booze was free, and we put out pizzas so people could eat. People were actually spending the night here because, at that point, they had nowhere else to go. Monday night and part of Tuesday, it was the same way. Some people didn’t have anything, so we didn’t charge them.” 

In the short term, Hannifin and his staff offered shelter, food and drink to their neighbors. However, long-term, they’ve made plans to help individual community members, many of them customers. Throughout the summer, Blackthorn has collected donations and hosted concerts to raise money for tornado victims. Additionally, he’s used his connections in the music industry to throw fundraising concerts at different locations around the country; they plan to donate portions of this fund to different individuals and groups. “Blackthorn is an institution—people know they can come here and it will be a home away from home,” Hannifin explains. “The people who had nothing before are doing well, and the people who had a lot of insurance are doing well, but there are a lot of people stuck in the middle.” 

Like Woody’s, Blackthorn experienced increased sales due to the influx of relief workers following the tornado. While there’s no end in sight for his fundraising efforts, Hannifin wants to continue to use his business to help take care of his customers. “I live in this town because it’s an easy place to live,” he says. “People are real here. I think an insurance adjuster at my bar said it best: ‘Joplin knows how to throw a disaster.’ He’d never seen such hospitality. He had trouble adjusting houses because he would arrive and it’d already be cleaned up.”

Reconstruction 

Despite challenges, by early July, the cleanup of Joplin—albeit far from over—had gained an optimistic level of momentum. Droves of volunteers continued to appear to clear wreckage. Some businesses at the edge of the destruction still hung banners offering free food and water to relief workers. Woodcarving artists transformed ruined trees at a partially destroyed high school into sculptures of birds and bears. On more than one ruined building, people had spray painted “God bless Joplin” and “We will rebuild.” A federal presence remained—efforts by U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, brought manpower and temporary shelter for the misplaced. The federal government promised to pay for 90% of debris removal until August 7. 

To celebrate Independence Day, Mayor Mike Woolston ordered flags raised to full-staff for the fi rst time since the disaster. Many citizens also expressed their patriotism by hanging American flags on walls and in treetops on partially cleared lots. That night, there were fireworks and country-western music and bouncy castles for children. Gradually, neighborhoods were turning from fields of wreckage into rows of concrete slabs. Reconstruction continues.

There are still uncertainties and frustrations, but other pizzerias destroyed on May 22 may rebuild in time. Corporate-and franchisee-owned chains have shown interest and held fundraisers. An area Domino’s Pizza (dominos.com) accepts donations for victims at the counter. A Papa John’s location sold gift cards to raise money for tornado victims. For one day in early June, both CiCi’s Pizza and Pizza Hut separately gathered Midwest franchisees to donate a portion of a day’s sales. CiCi’s announced a donation of $10,000 to the Joplin Salvation Army. Pizza Hut gave an undisclosed amount to the area United Way. Some franchisees have ensured that workers still have jobs: Bridget Lough, a Pizza Hut shift manager who was among the survivors the night Lucas and Teal died, explained that many of the employees from her old store were transferred to work in nearby Webb City. For Joy Stout, the Pizza Hut tragedy hit hard—Teal had applied for a job at her pizzeria only a few weeks earlier but had been turned away from the English-style pub because of her age. “If I’d known,” Stout reflects, “I could have saved her life.” 

Still, for most, the main struggle remains finding a balance between their old and new Joplin way of life. “There’s a clear definition between north and south Joplin now; those on one side of the damage and those on the other,” says Pete Williams. “But this is our home. This is home.”

Andrew Abernathy is PMQ’s associate editor.

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