54 Pizza Express Celebrates its 30th Anniversary in Owensboro
It was thirty years ago that 54 Pizza Express opened its first location in Owensboro. Over the weekend, we helped them celebrate with back-to-back remotes at the east and west locations. I had the chance to chat with owner Cindy Tong about the history of 54 Pizza and learned her secrets to success!
Cindy's very first paid job was at a local pizza place here in town. It was evident early that she had a knack for leadership and business and was later recruited by a national pizza chain. She was in charge of opening new stores and was on the road a lot. That eventually grew old and Cindy decided, at the age of 31, to move back to Owensboro and open her own restaurant. The rest is a "top heavy" slice of history!
It was 1988 when 54 Pizza Express opened on Hwy 54. At the time, the only other food option on 54 was Norman McDonald's in Philpot. That was it. And today that's hard to imagine. Hwy 54 is flooded with food options, but 54 Pizza Express survives and thrives right in the thick of it.
But owner/operator Cindy Tong admits that a lot has changed. When the restaurant first opened thirty years ago, the menu was relatively limited. Cindy says, "We had pizza, soda and three sandwiches: the 'extra', a tuna sandwich and a ham and cheese." Today, the menu at 54 Pizza Express has twenty-five sandwiches on it . . . plus, breadsticks, salads and desserts like chocolate chip cookies and Cindy's insanely good chess bars (they will literally melt in your mouth)! She credits her customers and employees with helping her expand her menu over the years. She basically evolved the menu on the simple principle of supply and demand. If her customers wanted it, she supplied it . . . and tinkered with recipes until they were ready!
Three decades ago, 54 Pizza Express had five employees. Today, Cindy has 25 employees between the east location and the west side location on Starlite Drive. That location, by the way, opened eighteen years ago.
It's that location where dough (and a lot of it) is made daily for the two restaurants. Cindy and store manager Jenny estimate that they prep between 160 and 240 pounds of pizza dough per day. Well, except for Sundays, when 54 Pizza Express is closed. Cindy says the store has only opened on Sunday two times in the history of the chain. She opened the stores on Sunday one time in order to host a fundraiser for local food banks. She also opened one Sunday during the ice storm to feed workers from OMU and other electrical cooperatives that were trying to restore power to the region.
On Saturday, to celebrate the 30th anniversary, Cindy offered her customers one topping 8-inch pizzas for just three dollars.
Cindy says her customers are the true key to her success. She says we're like family. Heck, she's like family too. Like my friend Belinda Abell said Saturday afternoon, "It's like going to your favorite aunt's house for dinner." She's exactly right. Cindy is a favorite aunt to all of her customers. And Auntie knows how to cook up a big old Top Heavy pizza!