Pizza joint an extended-family affair
Jay and Judy Smith’s first date would have been memorable enough for getting pulled over by Marion police. Instead of a ticket, however, the officer had news of the worst kind.
“On our first date, her dad died,” Jay said.
Whether it was the shared intensity of the moment that sealed the relationship, or just that they proved to be so compatible, the couple has been together ever since.
And how long have they been married?
“We’ve been married, well, 35, well, was last year 35 or was it 36?” Judy said, looking at Jay.
He paused a moment.
“It may have been 36, I don’t know,” he replied.
Judy earlier said they were married in 1982.
More guessing at dates came when they tried to pinpoint just when they bought Gambino’s Pizza.
“Jared, our oldest one, he was 12 at the time,” Judy said. “Oh my god, he’s 33 now, so how many years is that? The twins would’ve been 9 then — 10?”
“No, they’re only three years apart,” Jay said.
Timelines and dates might not be the Smiths’ strength, but spinning pizzas and working with customers and staff have been since they became owners of one of the county’s oldest restaurants in 1997. They think.
“I had been here at least eight years before,” Judy said. “I managed it for three years before we bought it.”
When the couple found out they were going to have twins, Jay quit a job in Hesston to try for one in Marion with the state transportation department.
“We didn’t want to hire a sitter,” Jay said. “We didn’t want anyone else raising our kids. I worked for the state during the day, and she came down here and waited at night.”
However, the twins arrived before Jay got hired.
“The first six months, I stayed at home and changed diapers and made supper,” he said. “That was the hardest job I ever had.”
In 2001, the state did away with Jay’s position, and that’s when he joined Judy full-time at Gambino’s.
“The greatest thing I could’ve done was to do that,” he said. “I got to see my kids more than I ever had in my life. I was always working, but now I was down here working with my family. I’m so happy working here I can’t describe it.”
The Smith family has grown over the years through the close relationships they’ve developed with their employees, Judy said.
They’ve helped kids in trouble get on the right path; some of them lived with the Smiths for a time. They’re godparents to several former employees’ children.
“We’ve seen several people get married that met here,” Judy said. “It makes me want to cry. I think this is our purpose, I guess. We get so emotionally attached to our employees.”
Gambino’s corporate offices prescribe the menus and ingredients for their franchisees, but they had to make a change in Marion when the Smiths hit one something they weren’t willing to give up.
“Our breadsticks are probably 50 to 60 percent of our business,” Jay said.
Unlike standard Gambino’s sticks that are basted with garlic butter, the Smiths discovered using Italian dressing created a moist, almost gooey product customers crave.
Headquarters didn’t like the idea, until the day when Judy made a company rep take orders at the cash register to see how many breadsticks they sold. After that, they added the item to the Smiths’ menu.
“We’ve had kids call from Colorado wanting to know how to make the breadsticks,” Jay said. “You can’t find that Italian dressing on the store shelves, so they never can get it quite right.”
After being courted two years ago by another pizza franchise, the Smiths re-signed with Gambino’s. Jay said he didn’t think they’d be successful changing to a cheaper brand from the quality their customers expect.
While breadsticks are booming, running the business has become tougher in recent years.
A state payroll audit five years ago revealed the Smiths were still paying wait staff a low base rate and letting them keep tips, but the law changed so that they had to ensure all were making $7.25 an hour. That meant cutting some part-time positions.
It’s getting harder, too, they said, to find good help.
“There’s challenges just finding people who want to work,” Judy said. “Even high school kids don’t want to work anymore. We’ve put applications up there and nobody will come down.”
With a spot vacant on Fridays, the labor shortage threatened to affect Marion High School football broadcasts, as well. Jay runs the sideline camera for MCTV. He said he’s made a tentative arrangement with a former employee to cover.
Jay’s broadcast partner and district court judge Mike Powers asked him why help was so hard to find.
“I said, ‘You know Mike, everybody you see during the day are the ones that come in here to apply,’” Jay said. “If they’re your only applicant, do you give them a chance? It’s almost just luck when you hire someone. It’s just taking a chance on people, I guess.”
They have a steady flow of regular customers, ones so familiar they’ll start making their pizzas and have them in the oven before they ever place their order, Jay said.
Business is good, but the Smiths see a day coming when they would like to sell the business and retire.
“I can see us doing it until I’m 60,” Jay said.
All that’s left is for Judy and Jay to figure out just when that might be.