When You’re Johnny Knolla, and You’ve got a Family of 12 to Feed
You don’t just work one job. You work two. Or three. Teacher. Football coach. Pizza parlor. Whatever it takes.
The latter of which was a Pizza Hut, then at the corner of Douglas and Vine. “I remember riding my bicycle up there on Sundays, with dinner for dad, Tim and the others,” recalls Dan Knolla, one of many Knollas to enter the family business over the years.
So, early on it was apparent that pizza was going to play a big role in the Knolla family. (In fact, Johnny actually taught Pizza Hut co-founder Dan Carney and other early eventual Pizza Hut executives while at Wichita’s Kapaun Mt. Carmel high school.) After graduating, for instance, Dan went right to work, building Pizza Huts. “I’ve built restaurants in all the lower 48 states,” exclaims Dan, who even built a Pizza Hut in Florida he’d later actually work at.
Early in their careers, brothers Pat and Tim Knolla were among the dozens of Wichitans who benefited from Pizza Hut’s birth, and quick path to success. Pat, as a major franchiser’s district manager, and Tim, the group's president, helped launch the new restaurant chain's success, building restaurants in places as distant as Florida and Alabama.
But despite the rewards of those high-paying positions, in the late ‘70’s the brothers chose to trade it all for an opportunity they believe, to this day, is far more rewarding: the creation of Knolla's Pizza.
The proof is in the pizza.
Not wanting to be another Pizza Hut, the Knolla's decided to offer an alternative: pizza fashioned after New York pizzerias, where the dough is always worked by hand, and the owners know their customers by name. So, for brothers Pat and Tim, it was off to New York City, to study with the best: a couple of Sicilian brothers whose pizza parlor was reputed to be tops in the city, according to Pat. No money changed hands. Instead, the Wichita brothers worked alongside the Sicilian brothers, learning the fine points of making their special French bread-style crust and not-too-spicy, just-a-little-sweet sauce. They learned how to top their pizza with nothing but whole-milk cheese, and never to skimp on the quantity of their fresh toppings. Above all, they learned the importance of the "personal touch" in making pizza, according to Pat. "In New York, they'd take one look at the dough-rolling machines used in a chain restaurant like Pizza Hut and say, ‘that can't be pizza!' To them, it isn't really pizza unless it's hand-worked and hand-spread. We happen to agree." The Sicilians freely shared everything they knew with the Knollas, as long as Pat and Tim agreed not to open a restaurant within 30 blocks of theirs. That wasn't a problem, said Pat, “since we planned to open our first Knolla’s in Florida, where we had been living, then go back to our roots in Wichita." The first Knolla's was in Orlando, in a former A&W restaurant building, which was, coincidentally, next to a thriving Pizza Hut. “All that separated the stores was a driveway,” recalls Dan, as qualified as anyone to be in the pizza business, having both built, and worked in, one Florida Pizza Hut. Despite the competition, each restaurant held its own, giving the Knollas the confidence to bring their pizza to Wichita in 1981.
Knolla’s comes to Wichita
The first location opened at 13th and Woodlawn. By 1985, there were five Knolla's Pizzas in the city. But, a series of unforeseen pitfalls nearly buried the business. The original store burned, forcing a relocation. Later, Tim's divorce split the restaurant group, and eventually the remaining stores closed.
Looking back, Pat, now the sole owner, recognizes the errors in management.
"What happened to us is what happens to a lot of small companies. They get to growing and thinking they can do that really quickly, but they don't mind their P's and Q's. They don't have the cash flow to keep things going. "That's what we did. We grew too fast."
Wiser from experience, and on his own, Pat set off to revive the restaurant. "In fact, an old high school friend approached me about opening up in the back of his video store," he said. That store, Video Unlimited at Central and Oliver, was the restaurant's home from November 1988 until June 1995
The high-traffic location allowed him to re-establish his mostly east-side clientele. But the success of the store was not without challenges. The restaurant was robbed twice, and after the video business failed and left the location, Pat Knolla was saddled with the utility costs for the entire building. He soon moved the restaurant to its current location near 13th and West, a three-minute drive from his home. The new, tiny store has about as much seating as the average family dining room. And, said Knolla, it provides him with about a third of the salary he commanded during his Pizza Hut days. But, he added, it gives him something much more valuable than money. It's given him the secret to true success.
Pizza. And people.
“I remember Pat always wanting to hire young kids that could use a break,” says Dan. “Working at a pizza place can be a great place to learn more than just how to make a pizza, but how to work with people – something invaluable to young people, especially these days.”
Not surprisingly, customers often serve as the best research. Shares Dan, “At one point we tried a new type of cheese. There was a couple that came in every Friday, and that’s what they always ordered, cheese pizza. So, we asked them what they thought of the new cheese.” (The customers liked it, but not as well!)
“There is simply no other pizza around here like what we make fresh every day,” says Dan. “We spend about 30% more on ingredients – the best you can find - than our competition. And you can really taste it. At least that’s what our customers tell us.”
Ask Dan to share a few customer stories, and it’s hard for him to choose. “We’ve had some interesting requests. A slice of pizza, hold the crust. A sandwich, with no bread. A taco pizza, without taco meat or beans. One customer came in one day and simply exclaimed ‘God bless you for having anchovies!’”
Watch a Knolla’s pizza being crafted (you can see it happening, right through the kitchen windows), and you’ll understand the special flavor not found in those big, national pizza chains. Veggies, chopped and prepared daily. The just-right sauce, and dough, each also made fresh every morning. It doesn’t get any fresher than that. “Don’t expect something that tastes like Papa John’s or Pizza Hut,” boasts Dan.
With three of Dan’s sons already working at the Central and Ridge restaurant, it appears the Knollas may be in the pizza business for quite some time. “We have an enormous amount of pride in the business. You have to love what you do to be good at it, and we certainly love what we do. Customers sense the pride, and it matters to them. That’s a wonderful feeling.”