Big Cheese Pizza. Pistol Pete’s Pizza. The Tower of Pizza. Pizza Inn. Showbiz, Shakey’s, and Giovanni’s pizza-by-the-slice at Western Plaza. Spend any amount of time in Amarillo and you’ll find a favorite pizza place. Live here long enough and you’ll lament the loss of your favorite pizza place.
One of Amarillo’s earliest pizza-serving restaurants was an establishment called Eveleno’s Hideaway. Owned by a former New Yorker named Sam Eveleno, it served Italian food on Sixth Avenue across from the old Northwest Texas Hospital. Eveleno eventually opened The Tower of Pizza on Northeast Eighth Avenue, one of the city’s first true pizza joints.
Tony Freeman, an Amarillo businessman who attended Tascosa High School in the mid-1960s, remembers Meehan’s Personality House at 2728 W. 10th Ave. Dorothy Meehan owned and operated it. “She was of Italian descent and had a daughter who was in my class,” says Freeman. “That was the first time I ever ate a pizza. Every Monday night they had two-for-one pizzas.”
Freeman also remembers an Italian place called Cafe Capri, on Plains Boulevard, with pizza on the menu. “The smell of that pizza – there was nothing like it,” he says. But before long, those restaurants (and Amarillo’s pizza preferences) became eclipsed by a California chain that arrived in the late 1960s. Shakey’s Pizza began with a restaurant at 2415 Amarillo Blvd. East, then expanded to a second location near Tascosa High School. (That building is currently occupied by El Tejavan.)
“In 1969 or 1970, we were pretty much regulars at Shakey’s on Friday nights,” Freeman says. “They had terrific pizza and the place was always just packed.”
An extra-large slice of Amarillo shares that fondness for Shakey’s. Mention Shakey’s Pizza to anyone who lived in Amarillo during the 1970s or ’80s and prepare for an excited, lengthy reverie.
“We would walk across the street and eat there for lunch,” says Cindy Hawkins, who attended Tascosa from 1978 to 1981. “We’d eat there on weekends. Their crust and the ingredients they put on it – you’d never had that before.”
Amarillo Chamber of Commerce President Gary Molberg agrees. “They had a Canadian bacon pizza with pineapple,” he says. “That’s the first place I remember ever hearing about that [combination]. It was so delicious.”
Ralph Duke, a professional photographer who spent years working for the Amarillo Globe-News, says the iconic chain was one of the first places he ever saw a pizza buffet. He recalls Shakey’s garish, hand-painted signage and bench-style seating. “It was just a really festive atmosphere. The people that worked behind the counter wore little straw hats and dressed in red-and-white striped shirts,” he says. Duke was a fan of the Mojo Potatoes, a Shakey’s specialty. “They were sliced and seasoned, then deep-fried,” he says. “They were really, really good.”
Denise Rayford, director of first impressions at the Chamber of Commerce, would take her three sons to the Shakey’s Boulevard location every Friday night in the 1980s so her kids could play arcade games. “The buffet was good – it was affordable – but the draw for me was being able to sit there and have fun. The children could play games with tokens, one for a quarter. It was the best thing on weekends.”
Amarilloan Dre Grace says Shakey’s was also a Friday-night tradition for her family. “You could get your pizza in the amount of time it took to play two quarters’ worth of Ms. Pac-Man or Donkey Kong,” she says. “The pizza man would toss his dough in the air and show off for us kids.” Grace remembers watching as her family’s pizza rode a conveyor through the oven. “We would watch as he put the pizza in and it [would] go around the circle. Each time it came around, I always hoped the crust would bubble somewhere so I could have that piece.”
At its peak in the early 1970s, there were more than 500 Shakey’s Pizza Parlors across the U.S. The majority of them closed in the late 1980s when the chain was purchased by a Singapore-based business. Though there are 500 Shakey’s worldwide today, the United States is home to only 51 of them. Most are in California.
Jason is a journalist, copywriter, ghostwriter, and the author of more than a dozen books. His most recent is “12 World Religions: The Beliefs, Rituals, and Traditions of Humanity's Most Influential Faiths”, published by Zephyros Press. Learn more at jasonboyett.com.