This is the first installment of my series on Kansas City pizza.
As I remember it, years ago, some professional athlete, I think he was an NFL player, called Kansas City the “most pizza eating-ist town” he’d even known. I recall this being a compliment, but it kind of sounded like he may have been dismissing Kansas City for have pedestrian pizza offerings. But Kansas Citians love pizza and we have many amazing pizza options. Our city doesn’t have a unique style of pizza, but we make up for it in our enthusiasm for all types of pizza.
My first encounter with Kansas City pizza was as a child growing up in south Kansas City in the 1970s. Shakey’s Pizza on Troost, just north of Bannister Road, was my first experience with restaurant pizza. That chain was magical to a young kid, especially as fast food chains were still a novelty in that era.
The restaurant was dark, full of pizza smells, music and families. I recall there being a live band in the early visits, replaced later by old movies projected on a screen. Kids could go up to a window and watch pizzas being made. The place had solid wood table and clunky wood chairs. It was like having pizza in some medieval-themed restaurant. The pizza was solid roadhouse style pizza. A similar experience and pizza can be found at Fun House Pizza (in Independence).
Independent pizza joints in the 1970s included Zepi’s Pizza, on Wornall near 85th Street, and Paul Schaal’s, at 103rd and State Line. Zepi’s had a similar pizza house vibe as Shakey’s. Paul Schaal was a third baseman for the Kansas City Royals who opened a pizza restaurant after leaving baseball. I still recall that I didn’t like Paul Schaal’s pizza. I remember it being like a pizza made from a grocery store pizza kit. Too much tomato sauce and not enough cheese.
By the end of the 1970s, the Wichita-based Pizza Hut chain was beginning to appear everywhere across the country. In the early 1980s, the Godfather’s chain was popping up across Kansas City. As a teenager and then college student, Pizza Hut and Godfather’s were my mainstays for pizza and socializing. I really liked Godfather’s. Their pizza was similar to Pizza Hut, but was different in having more spices, better cheese, and crusts. It’s possible that the salad bar and side dishes were another reason for my preference.
I spent a lot of time over the years at the Pizza Hut in Claycomo, Missouri. This was the closest location to Worlds of Fun, where I worked for five summers. Getting pizza and hanging out there with friends from WOF was a weekly event. I recall the atmosphere with the group tables, the video games on the tabletop console, the salad bar and juke box. Oh, those red plastic glasses for drinks. At some point, Pizza Hut introduced Personal Pan Pizzas, which were a great option for hungry young people who didn’t want to waste 30 minutes agreeing to topping on shared pizzas.
The local Minsky’s chain started in 1976 and I vaguely recall dining there when I was in college. I think we saw it as a slightly better version of the chain pizza stores, though in 2023 I’d say that Minsky’s is one of the best pizza options in Kansas City.
I moved away from the area in 1989 and didn’t return until 2013. I missed the early years of Waldo Pizza and don’t recall visiting any independent pizza restaurants during my visits to family during this time.
By the time I came back to Kansas City in the early 2000s, the Pizza Hut chain was on the wane and Godfather’s had maybe one location left in Kansas City. Other national chains like Pizzeria Uno and California Pizza Kitchen (both favorites of mine) had locations here, but they were facing challenges due to customer dietary changes.
In the mid-2000s, I opened a small independent bookstore in the Crossroads Arts District with friends. Our landlord was the prominent local artist, Jeffrey “Stretch” Rumaner. He had a large studio on the block and owned several buildings. I remember hanging out with him on the sidewalk on Friday nights, with other local artists including the late Lee “Mott-ly” Tisdale. Stretch talked about his ideas for the block, including his plans for an authentic Philadelphia-style pizza joint. Many of you are familiar with the popular restaurant he opened, Grinders.
I will look more at the current “pizza scene” in upcoming newsletters. In the 2010s, many prominent dine-in pizza chains closed totally or dramatically scaled back. Most of these chains disappeared from Kansas City. Dining habits have changed, with most people ordering pizzas and baking pizzas at home. Independent pizza joints thrive and pizza style options have expanded.
Is There a Kansas City Style of Pizza
The short answer? No. There isn’t even a local style that could be loosely identified as a candidate style. If you asked Kansas Citians, I suspect they couldn’t name a signature local style.
But we do have an emerging topping that extends Kansas City’s signature cuisine. Barbecue pizza and toppings! Our local Minsky’s chain has been a trendsetter here, with their burnt ends and barbecue pizzas. Recently, Artego Pizza on 39th Street has been offering the “Q39 BBQ PIZZA.” They are working in conjunction with Q39 barbecue which is a few blocks away. The pizza features smoked brisket, Q39 Chipotle Sausage, and cheeses.