Harry's Gang: A fond farewell to the pizza business
November 6, 2020
I’ve operated a pizza restaurant longer than I’ve had children, but it’s time to say goodbye (to the pizza place, not the kids).
I opened Eskomo Pizza Pies in the old Cloquet Co-op building in downtown Esko on Jan. 26, 2006, after spending my entire life’s saving remodeling the space and buying pizza ovens. Jim Ruzic, the old WKLK radio guy, and his buddy, Rick Bassett from the county assessor’s office, were our first customers on Jan. 25, a day early.
They came in expecting we were open and we scrambled to feed them amid trying to get the place ready for a soft opening the next day. They laughed a lot and offered to return the next day, but how could I turn away a couple of hungry guys at lunchtime? So we fed them.
It’s been nearly 15 years, a pretty good run for a local restaurant, and possibly a record for Esko. I estimate I flipped about a million pizza crusts in that time and employed hundreds of teenagers from the area. For most of those kids, this was their first job, and I was their first boss. I always warned new employees: I’m not your parent, I don’t owe you anything. I’m not your teacher, I don’t owe you a job. I’m not your pastor, you may hear a few choice words out of me occasionally.
I always told them: Treat me right and I’ll treat you right. School comes first. Sports and activities come second. Your job comes next. If you call in sick to attend a party, or no-show because your friends want you to go fishing, you won’t be working at Eskomo Pies anymore. But give me plenty of notice, and I’ll try to accommodate you. That system worked out pretty well over the years.
Until my brother closed his place in Two Harbors, the kids often covered shifts between the two places. They made a deal with each other: Agates would come to Esko to work on prom night, so the Esko staff could take the night off and the Eskomos would run to Portside Pizza on their important nights. It was a sweet arrangement that Todd and I respected — kids learning to be adults — and we played a small role in that. Even after all these years, I still get listed as a reference for a lot of these kids and they occasionally call me for legal advice. I’ve been invited to many of their weddings, graduations, and still get birth announcements and such. It’s a thrill to see some kid who worked in the kitchen 15 years ago as a scrawny teenager bring his family in for pizza, now a successful insurance agent or doctor.
Sometimes I ask them if they want to go back and make their own pizza, like the good old days. Not one has refused.
Even my own kids have been a huge part of Eskomo Pies. My wife was just wrapping up her last day before maternity leave 13 years ago, working in my office that entire Friday evening. It was especially busy, and I asked her to help out. Just as I was coming back from the last delivery of the night, she called me. “My water just broke.” We rushed to the hospital and Tommy was born a couple hours later. I still say that Tara delivered a couple sandwiches, a few pizzas, and a 10-pound baby boy that evening.
This past summer, Tommy started working in the restaurant making pizzas and mopping floors. I couldn’t be more lucky.
But it had to end, eventually. My pesky side job (practicing law) takes up too much of my time and making pizzas just didn’t fit in anymore. So new owners took over this week and Eskomo Pizza Pies is just a pleasant memory.
There’s a few people I want to thank. First, the Esko fire department for putting fire numbers on each and every Esko address. How could I have delivered pizzas without them? Then, the good people of Esko. I’ll miss seeing you daily in the restaurant and delivering to your homes. But I’m still around, so it’s not really goodbye. And, finally, to Mike Prachar and Andrea King, the new father-daughter owners who are finally bringing breakfast to town.
I’ll miss the restaurant business. But it will be nice to spend a little more time with my family. It will be nice to own pants that don’t have bleach stains on them. I’ll enjoy Friday evenings at home rather than helping out during the rush. And without free pizza any time I want it, maybe I’ll be able to fit into some of my old clothes one of these days.
Pete Radosevich is the publisher of the Pine Knot News community newspaper and an attorney in Esko who hosts the talk show Harry’s Gang on CAT-7. His opinions are his own. He can be reached at [email protected]