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By Carmen Ensinger
The end of an era for pizza lovers came on Sept. 4 when John’s Pizza in White Hall closed their doors for the last time after 27 years in business in the same location.
John and Penny Harbaugh opened John’s Pizza on Dec. 6, 1995 and for almost three decades it has been a family run business, seeing five of their six biological children help out with the business along with countless foster children.
John Harbaugh decided after working at Leo’s Pizza in Jacksonville for 17 years that he would like to open his own pizza place.
“Leo backed me all the way on the idea of opening my own place and we went and looked at places within a 100-mile radius of Jacksonville for a place and we picked out a couple of places before I decided on White Hall,” Harbaugh said. “Then, we decided on about three different places here before I chose this place and I wanted this place because it allowed for indoor dining.”
There was kind of a personal reason behind this decision.
“I told Leo that while I worked for him for all those years and people came in and see me in the back, they might talk to me, but they were ‘his’ customers,” Harbaugh said. “I want a place where they can sit down and enjoy a meal and I can go out and talk to them and they will be ‘my’ customers.”
And there have been plenty of those customers Harbaugh said.
“One of the biggest indoor dining customers we had was Jeff and Kim Fansler,” he said. “They would come in to eat all the time and Penny or I would go out and sit down and talk to them awhile. It made them feel more comfortable – like they were at home.”
With all their children helping out, the kids got involved as well.
“There are many times we would look out there and we would see one of our kids sitting out there eating with the customers,” Harbaugh said. “I always felt bad about it and would give the customers a discount. But that is just how it was – we were a family business. Our customers got to know our kids as much as they did us.”
Unfortunately, when COVID hit, it more or less shut down the indoor dining.
“We didn’t shut it down on purpose, but we figured that would be an added cost – having to clean and disinfect after every customer,” Harbaugh said. “Plus, we didn’t really have that many dine-in customers anyway. So, we decided to just not open the front anymore. But, if close friends would come down from Jacksonville or something, we would open up the front and let them sit out front while we talked with them.”
There has also been faithful customers who have had call-in orders.
“Probably our most faithful customer has been Jake Schutz,” Harbaugh said. “He said the first time he ate our pizza was when he was at a birthday party in fifth grade. That is the first time he actually remembers having it. His dad has been ordering it since he was a little kid and when he grew up and hot out on his own he never stopped ordering from us. When he got married, he got his wife hooked on it as well and now it is a tradition. Every Friday they would call in an order that we would deliver to them – it was a tradition.”
So much of a tradition that Harbaugh vowed to make certain that Schutz was his very last customer.
“I told Jake that no matter what day we closed, I wanted him to be our very last customer,” Harbaugh said. “We had a big order for Hanor that day so at 4 p.m. in the afternoon, I was done making the pizzas for Hanor and I made his pizzas, shut the oven off, washed the pizza cutter off after I got done cutting his pizza and delivered them to him myself.”
He also gave him a little something extra with those pizzas.
“I gave him the pizza cutter that I used to cut the pizzas for many, many years,” Harbaugh said. “It was just my way of saying thank you for his patronage for all those years.”
The question on everyone’s mind is why the Harbaugh’s have decided to retire. Harbaugh said it is the rising prices of ingredients that resulted in their decision to close.
“It was kind of a combination of us wanting to retire to enjoy our kids and grandkids sports and us not wanting to raise our prices on our customers,” Harbaugh said. “We have only raised our prices like four times in the last 27 years.”
The dramatic increase in prices in the last few months would mean a dramatic increase in prices and Harbaugh just couldn’t justify that to his customers.
“Our delivery guy kept telling me we have to raise our prices because everyone else is,” Harbaugh said. “He explained it to me this way – he said when prices of cheese and stuff go up, everyone raises their prices, but when it goes back down do you lower your prices? No. Once they get up there you keep it up there. But I couldn’t do that – that is too much of a game.”
Plus, over the years the competition has gotten just too great.
“When I started out 27 years ago, we were the only pizza place in White Hall,” Harbaugh said. “There might have been one in Roodhouse then, but I’m not sure. But, now, there are like seven different places in the North Greene area where you can buy a pizza – not homemade – but you can buy a hot pizza.”
For 27 years, the Harbaugh family has made its own dough, created its own pizza sauce, shredded its own cheese and created its own pizzas to bake fresh in the pizza oven that Harbaugh installed 27 years ago. Nothing frozen has ever been put in that oven, unlike some of the other places that offer pizza in the area.
“Unfortunately, in this economy, people are choosing cost over taste,” Harbaugh said. “That has helped to cut down on our business as well.”
Not only are the many customers going to feel the loss, but so are the city crews and the first responders. Harbaugh has worked for the city since 2001, and been a member of the fire department, and anytime there was an emergency that kept the city workers or the fire department out for extended periods of time, a member of his family was up making pizzas.
“There are times when our city guys would be out for eight hours at a time shoveling snow or in the middle of the night we might have a water leak and be out all night fixing it and need a quick meal,” Harbaugh said. “Or there might be a big fire and the guys would be out for a long time – no matter what time – day or night, we were always open to feed them.”
The Harbaugh’s want to thank all of their many customers over the years.
“We just want to send out a big thank you to everyone who has supported us over these past 27 years,” Harbaugh said. “Their loyalty and patronage have been greatly appreciated and the friendships we have made over the years with our customers are something we will always cherish.”