Even though Papa Murphy's Take 'n' Bake Pizza chain is the fifth largest in the United States, it's relatively new to the Winston-Salem area, where the first franchise opened last fall.

Owner Gordon Butler first saw the chain and concept — in which pizzas are made in the shop but customers take them home and bake them — while watching the Food Network. Butler had been looking for a new career after 35 years in the hotel furniture supply business.

"I was old enough and cantankerous to start telling people exactly what I thought, and I realized I could be a man or keep being a salesman," said Butler, with his trademark humor.

He had tried the Papa Murphy's brand of pizza when visiting his wife's relatives in Illinois and thought it was some of the best pizza crust he had ever tried.

"Twenty-six years ago the best pizza in town was at the Rose & Thistle (near Baptist Hospital)," he said. "It was a hippie freak hangout that served the best pizza you could get other than up in Yankee World."

Since then, he had hankered for a really good place to find pizza in Winston-Salem. The difference with Papa Murphy's pizza, Butler said, has to do with the malt in the crust ingredients. The dough is shipped to them and is available for purchase.

First timers might enter Papa Murphy's with an air of befuddlement as they stand back and try to figure out exactly how ordering your own pizza works. Butler likens it to a Subway set-up. Patrons can specify just how heavy they want the cheese or just how many mushrooms, etc. Different sauces help customize pizzas as well.

Eating healthy is possible. The Veggie Delite includes fresh spinach, mushrooms and tomatoes. The "sauce" is olive oil and garlic.

On the other end of the spectrum, Papa Murphy's can churn out pizzas with a hefty calorie count. Butler recommends the stuffed pizza for big appetites.

"Once we had several guys from Wake Forest's O-line (offensive line) come over here. They stood in front of the building and blacked it out; they were so massive in their Wake shirts. When they left, they were so happy they couldn't stand it," Butler said.

Because customers take their pizzas home and bake them in their own ovens, the pizzas are piping hot right when it is time to eat. That is another secret to the success. The only oven Papa Murphy's utilizes is the small one where they create samples. Butler did procure a couple of grills when the weather turned nice to demonstrate how to grill Papa Murphy pizzas. That proved to be a popular success.

Butler notes that they are typically a supper destination as people head home from work or soccer practice on their busy days. One customer lives in Galax, Va., and picks up about nine pizzas every time she visits, he said. All of the pizzas can be frozen but the meat pizzas typically hold up better than the ones with fresh vegetables.

"Once people taste it, they are hooked," said Butler. "Meanwhile, I'm having a great time. Our two daughters are grown, the house, college and weddings are paid for, so I figured what better time to try it?"

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