About Knolla's Pizza
"In the late `70s, we decided to take our future into our own hands"
Early in their careers, brothers Pat and Tim Knolla were among the dozens of Wichitan's who rode the Pizza Hut train to financial reward.
Pat, as a district manager for a major franchiser, and Tim, that group's president, helped launch the new restaurant chain's success, establishing the franchise in places as distant as Florida and Alabama. But despite the rewards of their high-paying positions, the brothers chose to trade it all for an opportunity they said is far more rewarding: the creation of Knolla's Pizza.
"Actually, our franchise group had been sold to a large restaurant group, and we knew it was just a matter of time until the new owners replaced us with a management team of their own," Pat Knolla said. "So, in the late `70s, we decided to take our future into our own hands.
Knowing they couldn't compete with a giant like Pizza Hut, the Knolla's decided instead to offer an alternative: pizza fashioned after that offered in New York pizzerias, where the dough is always worked by hand and the owners know their customers by name. And toward that end, the Knolla's packed up for a year and moved to New York City to study with the best, a couple of Sicilian brothers whose pizza parlor was reputed to be tops in the city, said Pat Knolla.
No money changed hands in the arrangement, he said. Instead, the Wichita brothers worked alongside the Sicilian brothers, learning the fine points of making their special French bread-style crust and not-too-spicy, just-a-little-sweet sauce. They learned how to top their pizza with nothing but whole-milk cheese and never to skimp on the quantity of their fresh toppings. And they learned the importance of the "personal touch" in making pizza, he said.
"In New York, they'd take one look at the dough-rolling machines used in a chain restaurant like Pizza Hut and say, `That can't be pizza!' " he said. "To them, it isn't really pizza unless it's hand-worked and hand-spread."
The Sicilians freely shared everything they knew with the Knolla's
"Their only stipulation was that we not open a restaurant within 30 blocks of theirs," said Pat. "That wasn't a problem, because we told them all along, we'd open in Florida where we had been living, then go back to our roots in Wichita."The first Knolla's was in Orlando, Fla., in a former A&W restaurant building, which was coincidentally, next to a thriving Pizza Hut. Despite the competition, each restaurant held its own among customers, giving the Knollas the confidence to bring their pizza to Wichita in 1981.
Something much more valuable than money
By 1985, there were five Knolla's Pizzas in the city. But a series of unforeseen pitfalls nearly buried the business, admits Knolla. The original store, at 13th and Woodlawn, burned, forcing a relocation to new quarters. Later, Tim's divorce settlement split the restaurant group, and eventually the remaining stores closed.
Looking back, Pat, now the sole owner, recognizes the errors in management.
"What happened to us is what happens to a lot of small companies," admitted Knolla. "They get to growing and thinking they can do that really quick, but they don't mind their p's and q's. They don't have the cash flow to keep things going. "That's what we did. We grew too fast." Wiser from experience, and on his own, Pat set off to revive the restaurant. "In fact, an old high school friend approached me about opening up in the back of his video store," he said. That store, Video Unlimited at Central and Oliver, was the restaurant's home from November 1988 until June 1995
The high-traffic location allowed him to re-establish his mostly east-side clientele, said Knolla. But the success of the store was not without a downside. The restaurant was robbed twice, and after the video business failed and vacated the location, Knolla was saddled with the utility costs for the entire building. He soon moved the restaurant to its current location near 13th and West, a three-minute drive from his home. The new, tiny store has about as much seating as the average family dining room. And, said Knolla, it provides him with about a third of the salary he commanded during his Pizza Hut days. But, he added, it gives him something much more valuable than money. It's given him the secret to true success.