Leader Blues

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

FROM THE PUBLISHER >>Pizzeria closes after move and owner's surgery

The state Highway Department is completing work on an on-ramp at Hwy. 67/167 in north Jacksonville, where the Pizza Company did pretty decent business for more than a decade.

Over the years, other restaurants opened and shut down at that same location on T.P. White Drive, but the Pizza Company had found a niche feeding young athletes and their families, until the Highway Department told the owners a couple of years ago that the northbound on-ramp would go right through their pizzeria, so they had to move last summer.

The Highway Department paid Virgil Wilson and his wife Leigh a few bucks for their moving expenses (they didn’t own the building) and they relocated inside the Howard Johnson’s a couple of miles south of their old location, but business never took off.

Old customers drifted away, and then, a couple of months ago, Virgil, who is 63 and a Vietnam veteran, had triple-bypass surgery.

Virgil returned to work a few days after his surgery — nobody could make pizza like he could, prepared fresh every day — but he was too weak to work seven days a week anymore, so on Aug. 13, he shut the Pizza Company down, a victim of progress, tough times and a broken heart.

“We got screwed over the whole deal,” he says.

“I fought for this country,” Wilson, an Army veteran, told us last year when he was forced to move. “I’ve been shot at. I even have a Bronze Star.”

The Wilsons were optimistic when they first reopened at their new location and hoped they would rebuild their business.
The couple moved a lot of their old décor into the new restaurant and put up a U.S. flag that had flown in Iraq.

“We’ve kept a lot of the old and have added some new,” he said when they moved into the Howard Johnson’s, formerly the Ramada Inn.

The old included a lunch buffet that was expanded to seven days a week. The new included alcoholic beverages as part of the dinner menu, with several new entrees.

“We don’t buy precut onions and vegetables,” he said before he closed his business. “Leigh does all the salad bar cutting and preparations daily.”

He used his own recipes for the restaurant’s barbecue, roast beef, chicken and shrimp dishes, along with the pizzas.

“Our favorites are still pepperoni, supreme and dessert pizzas,” Wilson said. “But you haven’t lived until you try our Polish pizza—mustard sauce, sauerkraut and Polish sausage.”

Before his surgery, Wilson worked 80 hours a week, and his wife about 50 hours.

He himself made 200 pizzas a week and gave a lot of them away to Little League teams, schools and newly arrived airmen.
“We always supported youth sports,” he recalled. If we kept a few of them off the streets and kept them from getting into trouble, it was worth it.”

“We took everything we had and put it in the new location,” he continued. “I just figured things would turn around after I got my feet on the ground. But a lot of things went haywire.”

At his age, he says, “I’m too old to work for somebody else.”

He’s not giving up, though. If his health improves, he’ll start looking for work.

“I’ll try to figure out what to do next,” he said.