For many high-school graduates, the first order of business is deciding what they’d like to do with the rest of their lives. But for Roger Steichen of St. Joseph, owner of Gary’s Pizza, it was an easy choice.
In 1988 at the age of 19, Steichen bought Gary’s Pizza in St. Joseph from Gary Schyma, the original owner. With the help of a small loan – extremely small by today’s standards, Steichen said – he purchased the downtown St. Joseph location, which shared the front half of the building with a boutique shop.
Steichen said there was just something he liked about working in the restaurant industry. At age 16 he worked for Bo Diddley’s, and also worked part-time for Gary’s Pizza by the end of high school. After graduating, he knew Schyma wanted to sell the company, and Steichen saw his chance to do what he dreamed of doing – owning a restaurant.
“Actually, it was always a vision I had for my life,” Steichen said. “Before I even bought the restaurant, I bought restaurant equipment at an auction.”
Schyma opened the initial location on the corner of Minnesota Street and College Avenue in 1982. Now, as Steichen and the staff celebrate Gary’s Pizza’s 35-year anniversary, it may look different and certainly has grown throughout the years, but Steichen said he’s proud of the small-town feel and freshness in the food they continue to offer.
“We have a value,” Steichen said. “We have a pizza with a lot of ingredients. We don’t skimp. And we have the best ingredients we can get.”
The dough is made fresh every day, he said, and the sauce is an original recipe only for their restaurants. And Steichen said he attributes much of the expansion he’s been able to do over time to loyal customers and the quality of their pizza.
For example, in 1992 the St. Joseph location moved about 20 feet out the back door to where it is today, on N. College Avenue. The building became owned, not rented, as it was previously, and it gave them 1,500 square feet of space.
In 1996, Steichen went to the Mankato area to visit his sister and noticed a similar population to St. Joseph/St. Cloud – a mix of residential and college students. He saw the potential for expansion and opened the Mankato location shortly afterward.
Wanting to branch out near his home base, the greater St. Cloud area, he then opened a Sartell and a central St. Cloud location in 2000 and 2002.
“It was a time where I was feeling like the other locations (St. Joseph and Mankato) were doing well enough, and I wanted to expand into another area,” Steichen said.
It was important, he said, to be able to deliver to a wider area, thereby serving more customers.
With so much to juggle, Steichen keeps the day-to-day operations going smoothly with the help of his two longtime employees. His office marketing manager of 27 years, Scott Bunkers of Sartell, knows the whole operation backward and forward and could run things if he needed to, Steichen said. Tina Haley of Sauk Rapids has been with the company for 20 years and manages the St. Cloud and Sartell restaurants and their daily activities.
Even with all the restaurant expansion, Steichen said they still want to be thought of as the small-town pizza place, and said he enjoys the loyal, multi-generational customers they have.
“We have customers who have been coming in for 20 years,” Steichen said. “We have college kids whose parents used to eat here when they were in school.”
The unpredictable nature of the business and talking with the long-time customers when he’s working in a location is what he said he loves about owning the restaurants and keeps him at it year after year.
“There’s always this myth that we wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the college (in St. Joseph) specifically,” Steichen said. “And there’s just no truth to that. While the college is great to us, don’t get me wrong, it’s not why we’re in town.”
He said the reliability of the residential customers is there no matter what, and he said he appreciates it and feels they’ll have a place in the heart of Minnesota for many more years to come because of it.
Rushmeyer grew up in the Brainerd Lakes area then moved to St. Cloud to attend St. Cloud State University, pursuing a degree in community psychology and family dynamics. She now resides in Rice with her husband and their two daughters. Rushmeyer became a freelance reporter/ photographer with the Newsleaders in 2016, but her love of the written word started as a child. When she’s not writing news articles, she blogs, writes flash fiction, short stories and novels. She has been to Europe several times and enjoys travelling, spending time with her family, getting outdoors and reading.