Doing it the old-fashioned way at Howard’s Family Pizza means using the same recipes and same ovens that helped launch the small pizzeria in the 1960s.
With a few exceptions, all the pies at Howard’s are prepped by longtime owner Jim Meyer and baked inside the 50-year-old ovens inside the shop’s busy, well-used kitchen.
The most popular topping is Italian sausage mixed in house by Meyer, who gets the ground pork from Diamond Bar Meats.
“We try to keep quality top of what we can. I think people appreciate that,” Meyer said.
Howard’s only recently began accepting debit cards.
Meyer’s kids dragged him onto the Internet, he said, and Howard’s now has a website. An electronic point of sale might come soon. As of last week, handwritten paper tickets clipped above the kitchen prep table still quivered among the flurry of activity as Matthew Meyer, set to eventually take over the shop from Jim, readied dinner orders.
“He makes a prettier pie than me,” Meyer said, although Matthew quickly disagrees.
The Missoula Howard’s has served pizza from its longtime home on South Avenue for 18 years and is a survivor of a Howard’s franchise that started in Great Falls in the ’60s.
Meyer and wife Karen bought the Howard’s in 1985. They ran it, with the help of their six kids, ever since.
“It’s definitely kept the family tight,” Matthew said. “The family is always together down here.”
On busy nights, Howard’s has five delivery vehicles working and its dine-in space – decorated with dozens of mounted family trophies ranging from antelope to black bears – is full of longtime customers.
Matthew guessed that on average Jim has worked 70 hours a week for the past 28 years.
Missoula’s pizza scene is a busy one.
It’s easy to count 40 pizzerias spread across the city. Along with every major chain, a handful of one-shop favorites, like Tower Pizza, Biga and The Bridge thrive here.
It’s is a niche where independent places like Howard’s compete favorably nationwide with the large chains.
According to the 2013 media guide produced by Pizza Today magazine, dollar for dollar, independent and multi-unit pizzerias outsell national chains.
The 32,000 independent or multi-unit pizzerias makeup a $19 billion industry in the U.S.
The top four pizzeria companies, Pizza Hut, Domino’s, Papa John’s and Little Caesar’s, include 19,000 pizzerias that sell around $14.25 billion worth of pizza each year, according to the Pizza Today statistics.
The numbers project the industry will grow 3 percent and add 20,000 pizzerias in the next five years.
This summer alone, two new pizzerias have set up shop in Missoula.
In June, Kyle Johnson teamed up with high school buddy Noah Castle to grab a slice of the growing pizzeria industry, bringing Bozeman favorite Tarantino’s Pizzeria to Missoula.
Tarantino’s operates inside Castle’s Silver Slipper Bar and Casino on the south end of town.
Tarantino’s serves New York-style thin crust pizza. In Missoula, customers can get a pint of Big Dipper ice cream with their pies.
The combination offers a win-win for Castle and Johnson, a one-time construction project manager who made the full-time jump to the restaurant business after opening Tarantino’s.
“The kitchen was always a big concern, how to stay on top of getting food to people,” Castle said. “This side of town is becoming really busy. It seems like a good marriage.”
The south side of town is underserved, Johnson agreed, and Tarantino’s offers a large delivery range that stretched up Grant Creek to Lolo.
Being at the Slipper “allows us to serve a high-quality product all the way until bar time,” Johnson said.
Tarantino’s now has five locations across the state.
Johnson said the plan to expand that number in the future.
In mid-August, Zpizza will open on North Higgins Avenue.
The international chain features organic, thin crust artisan pizzas with gluten free and vegan options.
Missoula was a target market for Z, said Michael Gray, who operates two Zpizza locations in Billings and plans to add more locations in the Northwest.
“The mind-set in Missoula is ... more caring for what I put in my body. Biga, the Bridge and those guys wouldn’t have been serving things like artichoke asparagus with white sauce if people didn’t care,” Gray said.
There’s enough room in the market for more pizzerias if the product is unique, he said.
“Our customer is not the Papa John’s customer or the Dominos customer,” Gray said. “If you want a $5 pizza with as much meat toppings as you want, it’s not in our shop. We don’t see it as competition.”
Mackenzie River pizza opened its first location in Bozeman 20 years ago and has expanded from there since. The company has two Missoula locations, as well as restaurants throughout the Northwest and Midwest.
A wide variety of menu offerings in a unique, western style setting has helped the company expand, said Erica Coffman, Mackenzie director of marketing.
Each Mackenzie restaurant focuses on being a community partner within the cities, Coffman said.
“We don’t offer the same things as the national chains. We’re a family casual restaurant. It’s more about the experience,” she said.
At Howard’s, the addition of new pizzerias to Missoula means business as usual, Meyer said.
Restaurants are one of a few small business operations that can still succeed “because people want it.”
There’s nothing wrong with competition, as long as you’re willing to adjust to the trends without compromising the basics, Meyer said.
Howard’s customers know who’s making their pizza and they know who’s delivering it.
“My customers are families that have been here,” Meyer said. “I probably know by name 75 percent of customers ... I can’t compete with (the chains) on price but I can compete with quality and service. That’s what I feel good about. People order enough we’re on a first name basis.”