A time to rebuild

Six weeks after an EF5 tornado cut the city in two, the residentsof 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. TheMay 22 storm was unlike anything the 49,000 citizens of thisMidwestern city have experienced in recent memory. A funnelcloud cleaved a ground zero that stretches eight miles longand one mile wide though what was once a largely residentialarea. Aerial photos revealed roughly one-third of the city wasdemolished. In the aftermath, the Joplin Globe reported more
than 8,000 homes and 500 businesses were destroyed by the200-plus-mile-per-hour winds. More than 150 people died. Ahospital was hit. Thousands became unemployed or homelessovernight. Lives were scattered. “Honestly, I’d never been soterrified in my life,” says Roger Hannifin, owner of Blackthorn
Pizza & Pub. “I’m a Southern California kid—give me anearthquake over a tornado any day.”

At least seven pizzerias—both independents and chains—weredestroyed or damaged during the storm. Longtime communitystaple Pizza by Stout (pizzabystout.com) was flattened; only abillboard and the foundation remains. Joplin-based CheeziesPizza (cheeziespizza.com), a franchise of the carryout chain, wasseverely 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 onelocation, two employees—manager Christopher Lucas andrecently hired 16-year-old waitress Kayleigh Teal—were killed.Lucas, a Navy veteran, tried to take refuge in a walk-in refrigeratorsealed with his arms and a bungee cable before he and Teal wereswept away; three remaining workers and 15 customers survivedthe ordeal in the refrigerator thanks to Lucas’ effort. A week later,President Barack Obama honored the manager in an address atnearby Missouri Southern State University, calling him a herowho, in times of danger, “said, ‘I’m willingto die so someone can live.’”

Not all pizzeria owners suffered financiallosses in the first days following thestorm. Yet, out of necessity and compassion,charity abounded. When neighborswere in need, pizzeria owners outside ofthe destruction zone used their businessesto donate pizza, bottled water, emotionalsupport or even alcohol; at least oneoffered short-term shelter for the newlyhomeless. However, for surviving businesses,sales have since gone up: Reliefworkers have caused a jump in cateringorders. Also, the reduction in restaurantsand the increase of residents living inhotels has increased same-store sales forsome operational restaurants.

When PMQ visited the partiallydestroyed city last July, it was evidentthat, like their neighbors, Joplin pizzeriaowners’ experiences varied. Some losthomes. Others lost businesses. Many lostcustomers. Most will rebuild, while a few,fearing their customer base gone, may cuttheir losses and leave. For most, a desireto rebuild and rebound is the unitingfactor. These are a few of their stories.

Pizza by Stout

Only a few days after the tornado, thecommunity demanded the flattenedPizza by Stout on Range Line Road rebuilt.Even months after the storm,citizens posted regularly in a Facebookgroup called Rebuild Pizza by Stout,where young and old reminisced aboutthe pizza, the vast beer selection and themade-from-scratch cinnamon rolls—a recipe that owner Joy Stout says hergreat-grandmother perfected before theCivil War. More than 3,200 Facebookusers joined the group to express theirempathy. The comments alone show thatsince opening in 1978, the restaurant hasbeen dear to three generations of Joplin
families. “In my mind, Pizza by Stout andJoplin are synonymous,” local businesswomanRebekah Santiago wrote. “I justcan’t imagine one without the other.”Joplin native Craig Smith echoed hersentiment, requesting that the owners“please come home and be part of thecommunity” once more. In reality, theynever left.

Rumors, many powered by the Facebookgroup, continued to multiply. “It’sthe big question these days,” explainsStout, who inherited the business fromher father. “Every time I go into townnow, people are asking ‘Are you rebuilding?When are you going to bringback Pizza by Stout?’ There’s alwaysa positive comment. The humanity isvery touching.”

Stout and her husband/business partner,Mike Monahan, weathered the stormat their home. While they’ve closed shopon Sundays for years, Stout had been inthe pizzeria only an hour before the tornadoto make tomato sauce for Monday’slunch. It was the last time she saw herpizzeria in its complete state. Later thatnight, the couple drove through wreckageto check on their business—initiallyexpecting only broken windows, perhapsunpowered refrigerators. However, theonly salvageable items from the wreckagewere a few pewter salad bowls anda 30-year-old mechanical pony which,as they joke, desperately needs a trip tothe vet. “We started seeing damage aswe drove back. The closer we got to thepizzeria, the worse it got,” Stout says. “Ididn’t even know there had been a tornado.My home was fine. I’d rather havelost my home than my business.”

What’s unclear to many businessowners in the destruction zone is howreconstruction will affect the neighborhooditself; the area now resembles awar zone more than a suburb. Manyask themselves: How will Joplin bounceback? With so many still in need of debrisremoval, it will be late fall beforemany business owners will start to breakground on new buildings. Although Stoutand Monahan initially made plans to usetheir insurance claim to rebuild and restorethe menu and building as close tothe original as possible, just more thantwo months after the storm, the coupledecided that without the necessary family
interest, they will retire. In their view,Pizza by Stout needed to stay in the familyor disappear altogether. On July 31,the couple announced on their pizzeria’sFacebook page, “After much consideration,it’s with regret that we will not berebuilding Pizza by Stout. It has been ourgreat privilege to have been blessed withthe greatest restaurant staff anywhereand wonderful customers, all of whomwill 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 ofhis Joplin pizzeria again. A resident ofnearby Neosho, Missouri, Culp ownsthe Joplin-based Cheezies as part ofa three-unit franchise in a multiunitchain; he has operated his stores withhis wife, Mandy, since 2007. The storelies on the edge of the destruction zone;many of the businesses on the oppositeside of the street remain remarkablyuntouched. The damage to his building,which he rents, was moderate—broken windows and half an exteriorwall ripped away—and the vast majorityof his kitchen equipment was ruined,first from the tornado, then by the morethan 10’’ of rain. While his insuranceclaims aren’t completely settled, it’s notthe money that has Culp fretting overhis next move. “Right now, we’re justwaiting to see what Joplin is going tobe,” he explains. “A good portion of mycustomer base is no longer here—or, atleast, their homes are not here. We hada viable store here before. Right now, wejust don’t have a timeline.”

Like many small business owners inthe community, Culp must consider thepotential of rebuilding in the same location.It’s not a quick decision. While hemay exit the Joplin market, it’s clear toCulp that the situation could have beenmuch worse. Two employees manned thekitchen that night, and both evacuatedbefore the funnel cloud. Too, the influxof relief workers has actually driven upsales slightly at his other locations. Henotes that the disaster has brought outthe charity in Joplin; in the aftermath,contractors and friends volunteeredtheir time to help clean his location. “I’venever seen anything like this,” he says.“Churches, corporations and individualshave all stepped up incredibly to helpthose who have lost everything. I reallycan’t describe it.”

Woody’s Wood-Fire Pizza

For husband-and-wife team Pete andHeidi Williams, owners of Woody’sWood-Fire Pizza (782wood.com), life hasbecome incredibly busy since May 22. Locatedin west Joplin, their family businesswas unharmed by the deadly storm. Thatevening, they’d attended their daughter’shigh school graduation; the tornadostruck while they were trying to gathertheir family of six after the ceremony.Pete notes that if his daughter hadn’t arrived20 minutes late from returning hercap and gown and retrieving her diploma,they might have driven into the tornado’spath. “I attribute that to saving our lives,”he points out, adding cheerfully, “I’m nevergoing to get mad at her for holding usup again.”

However, like many residents, theWilliams are an example of many smallbusiness owners trying to balance thedemands of repairing partially destroyedlives and running a business. They foundthemselves among the homeless after thetornado, and salvaged only a few clothesand personal items from their destroyedhome that evening. After assessing theirdamage and finding shelter with a relative,they started the nonstop process ofrebuilding 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 makesus special. Talk to anyone else here, andthey’re all doing the same.”

While they donated their time, pizzaand good spirits to their neighbors, theytoo have received charity. Anonymousbaskets appeared at their new rentalhome’s doorstep containing gift cardsfor hardware stores and essential goods.“The first 10 days were a blur,” Petesays. “We were running food to workerswhile at the same time I was runningchainsaws. You just did what you could.I might use a chainsaw for cleanup for30 minutes, then just talk to a guy for 30minutes and maybe give him a hug.”

Cleaning up their house and neighborhoodrequired a tremendous effort;six weeks later, all that stood from theirhome was a chimney. But keeping upwith the demand at their pizzeria wasalso challenging. While they can’t offerspecific numbers, Woody’s has seen a“notable” increase in sales since the tornado.Regulars who came in once a weeknow dine three or four times. The lunchbuffet has become popular with workersand those who now eat out most mealsbecause they’ve lost their homes. “In 24hours, it was like business went fromhere 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 alot of restaurants are gone.”

Dealing with more customers (and misplacedcustomers) revealed challenges fortheir business and staff. Their pizzeriaisn’t large: Woody’s can seat a little morethan 50 in the dining room and patiocombined, and they have nine employees.Also, it can be difficult to cheer someoneup who has lost his home—they occasionallymay even have to cut some off at thebar, they point out. “Our staff has beengreat,” Pete says. “People always ask, ‘Whydon’t you expand?’ Or ‘Why don’t you geta bigger building?’ But I always tell them,it doesn’t take a big building—it takes astaff that knows what they’re doing.”

Blackthorn Pizza & Pub

Blackthorn Pizza & Pub owner RogerHannifin spent the early evening of May22 watching the tornado from the rooftopof a friend’s apartment only three blocksfrom the destruction path. To this pizzeriaowner, the scene was shocking—almostparalyzing. “It will never be the same asit was before,” he says. “Hopefully, we’llbe stronger because of this, and Joplinpeople are strong; that’s why I live here.”

A former sound engineer, Hannifin hasowned and operated Blackthorn for morethan 10 years. The pizzeria and Irish-themedpub is a popular late-night concertvenue in downtown Joplin, with a close-knitcore of regulars. However, that nightwas one of his most memorable to date.As victims started to show up, Hannifinopened his doors and kept his cash registerclosed. Over three days of this charity,his financial loss, which he keeps to himself,ballooned. “We’re normally closedon Sunday, but we opened up anyway becausethere was nothing else we could do,”he says. “All the booze was free, and we put out pizzas so people could eat. People wereactually spending the night here because,at that point, they had nowhere else to go.Monday night and part of Tuesday, it wasthe same way. Some people didn’t haveanything, so we didn’t charge them.”

In the short term, Hannifin and his staffoffered shelter, food and drink to theirneighbors. However, long-term, they’vemade plans to help individual communitymembers, many of them customers.Throughout the summer, Blackthorn hascollected donations and hosted concerts toraise money for tornado victims. Additionally,he’s used his connections in the musicindustry to throw fundraising concertsat different locations around the country;they plan to donate portions of this fund todifferent individuals and groups. “Blackthornis an institution—people know theycan come here and it will be a home awayfrom home,” Hannifin explains. “The peoplewho had nothing before are doing well,and the people who had a lot of insuranceare doing well, but there are a lot of peoplestuck in the middle.”

Like Woody’s, Blackthorn experiencedincreased sales due to the influx of reliefworkers following the tornado. Whilethere’s no end in sight for his fundraisingefforts, Hannifin wants to continue to usehis business to help take care of his customers.“I live in this town because it’s aneasy place to live,” he says. “People arereal here. I think an insurance adjusterat my bar said it best: ‘Joplin knows howto throw a disaster.’ He’d never seen suchhospitality. He had trouble adjustinghouses because he would arrive and it’dalready be cleaned up.”

Reconstruction

Despite challenges, by early July, thecleanup of Joplin—albeit far from over—had gained an optimistic level of momentum.Droves of volunteers continued toappear to clear wreckage. Some businessesat the edge of the destruction stillhung banners offering free food and waterto relief workers. Woodcarving artiststransformed ruined trees at a partiallydestroyed high school into sculptures ofbirds and bears. On more than one ruinedbuilding, people had spray painted“God bless Joplin” and “We will rebuild.”A federal presence remained—efforts byU.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and theFederal Emergency Management Agency,brought manpower and temporary shelterfor the misplaced. The federal governmentpromised to pay for 90% of debrisremoval until August 7.

To celebrate Independence Day, MayorMike Woolston ordered flags raisedto full-staff for the fi rst time since thedisaster. Many citizens also expressedtheir patriotism by hanging Americanflags on walls and in treetops on partiallycleared lots. That night, there were fireworksand country-western music andbouncy castles for children. Gradually,neighborhoods were turning from fieldsof wreckage into rows of concrete slabs.Reconstruction continues.

There are still uncertainties and frustrations,but other pizzerias destroyedon May 22 may rebuild in time. Corporate-and franchisee-owned chainshaveshown interest and held fundraisers. Anarea Domino’s Pizza (dominos.com) acceptsdonations for victims at the counter.A Papa John’s location sold gift cardsto raise money for tornado victims. Forone day in early June, both CiCi’s Pizzaand Pizza Hut separately gathered Midwestfranchisees to donate a portion of aday’s sales. CiCi’s announced a donationof $10,000 to the Joplin Salvation Army.Pizza Hut gave an undisclosed amountto the area United Way. Some franchiseeshave ensured that workers still havejobs: Bridget Lough, a Pizza Hut shiftmanager who was among the survivorsthe night Lucas and Teal died, explainedthat many of the employees from her oldstore were transferred to work in nearbyWebb City. For Joy Stout, the Pizza Huttragedy hit hard—Teal had applied for ajob at her pizzeria only a few weeks earlierbut had been turned away from theEnglish-style pub because of her age. “IfI’d known,” Stout reflects, “I could havesaved her life.”

Still, for most, the main struggle remainsfinding a balance between theirold and new Joplin way of life. “There’sa clear definition between north andsouth Joplin now; those on one side ofthe damage and those on the other,” saysPete Williams. “But this is our home.This is home.”

Andrew Abernathy is PMQ’s associate editor.