The Man of Pizzas
Former coupon book salesman is now NWA Pizza Czar
By Maylon T. Rice
There is not much separating a coupon salesman and a pizza store owner, according to Rolf Wilkin, CEO of the Fayetteville-based Eureka Pizza. He should know.
Wilkin has been successful at both and wildly successful over the last 17 years at marketing, making and delivering pizza pies all over Northwest Arkansas. His pizza shops can be found in Fayetteville, Springdale, Rogers, Bentonville, Siloam Springs and Fort Smith.
While researching “all things pizza” in Fayetteville, the Free Weekly has taken in many comments on pizza making, but overall when it comes to pizza in NWA, Wilkin comes out as the Italian pie Czar.
Here’s his story.
The Slidell, La., native came to Fayetteville on a whim to visit his brother in the early 1990s and got a temporary gig selling coupon books to college kids. He wasn’t intending to stay in NWA.
“I am still here,” he said and laughed.
He says he stayed in Fayetteville because he saw an opportunity, where others saw nothing but failure.
Pizza In A College Town
When Wilkin went into the former King Pizza on Dickson Street to try and sell the owners on his coupon book, they told him they were headed for closure, that the business just wasn’t making it.
“For the likes of me, I could not figure out why they were not doing better than they were,” Wilkin said. “Pizza in a college town, just blocks away from the state’s largest university campus. Man, I saw potential.”
He also saw his way into negotiating the owner’s asking price of $40,000 down to a bare bones price of $8,500. The rest, even Wilkin says, is history.
Today with sales approaching $5 million, Wilkin and his well-oiled pizza making crew churn out 7,500 pizzas a week in Fayetteville, and 30,000 in its overall operation. Almost a 1.5 million pies a year.
Eating Other Pies
Wilkin comes off focused and upbeat. He is not your average restaurant owner. He readily admits that he eats out and tries his competition’s fare all the time.
“You gotta know what is out there,” he said. “Now I know some of the other owners who will tell you they’ve never had our product. And I say to them — ‘You should.’”
Wilkin says one of the keys to his success has been training good people.
“All of us (pizza store owners) have the same basic product, so you have to have people who can deliver that product and make that product with the ingredients you select and provide a service that brings the customers back again and again.”
But even in the pizza business, Wilkin knows there is a warp and woof to employees, trends and eating habits of his customer base.
“Sometimes I wonder about what you have just asked me,” Wilkin said. “Where will I be in five years? Well I hope I am right here, still doing what I love and that is running Eureka Pizza.”
Rolf Wilkin, right, owner of the Eureka Pizza chain of pizzerias,
visits with Cy Azadanesh at the Elm Springs Road location in Springdale.
Delivery, Faithful Employees And Quality
Wilkin attributes his success to three key elements: delivery, faithful employees and quality.
He loves to tout his standing “three pizzas for the price of two” offer, for those who pick up their pizzas at one of the nine Eureka Pizza locations. Eureka Pizza shops are carryout or delivery only. None offer dine-in seating.
Wilkin is sensitive to indicators that can affect his business such as fluctuating gas prices. He is keenly aware of the increasing costs of delivery. “That’s what is causing the rise in pizza prices, gasoline for delivery.”
Wilkin said that during the fall and winter his drivers travel thousands of miles to make their deliveries. The high cost of gas when prices at the pump neared $4 a gallon cut into well over $5 per pizza, but still delivery is what many customers want.
Rising gas prices were not the only thing that caught Wilkin’s attention.
During the last session of the Arkansas legislature, Wilkin made his first foray into politics. This was because there was talk of a milk tax hike. For Wilkin, that translated into cheese for Eureka’s pies.
“Well, I did some quick math and found that the 3 cent a gallon tax on milk the legislature was talking about was going to cost me about $18,000 a year and that would cause me to pass that on to the customer,” Wilkin said.
A quick e-mail campaign and a call to the governor’s office helped sideline that legislative effort. Wilkin said he was looking out for the little guy, the pizza buyer and, of course, the pizza maker, too.
“It (the tax increase) just wasn’t necessary and after everyone stopped and looked at it, they all agreed.”
Wilkin knows that keeping employees happy is vital to his business and he has a knack for retaining employees. He still remembers his first employee, Charles Nally, who left to run a competitor’s chain store in Fort Smith. But Wilkin’s second hire, Cy Azadanesh, a delivery driver, is still with him. Eureka Pizza has about 200 part-time workers and about 30 fulltime folks.
And then there is the product itself.
Wilkin says that quality is the key to success.
“Quality is our secret recipe,” he said. “That is printed on our boxes and hopefully that’s what our customers know to be true.
“We do use only California olives. Why? Because the others are bitter. We really do work at a job that others have sometimes found not to be profitable and good. Why? Because they didn’t insist on quality.”
10 Questions for Rolf Wilkin
It doesn’t really take 10 quick questions to understand that this Louisiana native has never regretted his migration to the Athens of the Ozarks. The Free Weekly fired off these questions of a personal nature to the Poobah of Pizza. Here are his answers.
Q: Do you have a nickname?
A: With a name like Rolf Wilkin, (laughing) you don’t need a nickname.
Q: Do you have pets and their names?
A: We have a dog named Lux and five chickens. We can’t tell but one of the chickens apart these days. He is a black chicken. The kids call him Darth Mahall (after the Star Wars Character).
Q: Your last concert was?
A: KC and the Sunshine Band at The AMP.
Q: Last book you read?
A: “Brother Fish,” by Bryce Courtney, a New Zealand writer. My wife, who is from New Zealand, turned me on to his writing.
Q: The last time you voted?
A: In November. I vote in every election.
Q: If you had another business what would it be?
A: I would have some kind of manufacturing factory business that would be based here, but operate on some kind of regional scale. I would not want a business I would have to fly to New York or California to oversee.
Q: Your best decision?
A: To marry my wife, Ceri, some eight years ago.
Q: Your worst decision?
A: Not to own more of the nine store locations.
Q: No one knows this about me:
A: I worry a lot more than people realize.
Q: If not Fayetteville where would you live?
A: I am so happy here — married, have three beautiful children, a good business. No, this is the place I would want to be.
Dickson Street’s Pizza Past
The first pizza cooked and served to the public in Fayetteville, according to long time residents, was at The Majestic Cafe, a forerunner of George’s Majestic Lounge on Dickson Street.
The late John Lewis, who was knowledgeable about all things Fayetteville, once recalled the folks at The Majestic cooking a pizza in a small oven in the 1950s.
The first actual pizza store, called Steve’s Pizza, made its debut in the 1964 Fayetteville City Directory at 522 W. Dickson St. The owners were Steven L. and Sharon Richardson. A check of later issues of the City Directory showed the address vacant.
The next pizza store was the Pizza House at 430 W. Dickson from 1964 to 1969.
Ken’s Pizza Parlor, a chain-operation, gained a foothold at 409 W. Dickson Street in 1969 and added another location at 2730 N. U.S. 71 the same year. Pizza Hut opened its 2315 N. College Ave. location the same year.
Today, U.S. Pizza Co. reigns over Dickson Street serving stone hearth oven-baked pizza, as well as salads and sandwiches for lunch, dinner and late night seven days a week. Down the street at George’s Majestic Lounge, pizza has returned on a limited basis. Yazetti’s serves pizza, pasta and salads there from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays.
Lots Of Pizzas, Lots Of Choices
The Free Weekly asked several pizza lovers to comment on the standalone pizza houses in the city. The only restriction: The word “pizza” had to be in the name. Here are some of the comments.
- Cable Car Pizza. Best individual pizzas.
- CiCi’s Pizza. Best feeding spot for a pack of children or out-of-town relatives.
- Domino’s Pizza. Dependable product, but not so quick delivery. Carry out or delivery only.
- Eureka Pizza. Popular for the buy two get one free, if you pick up. Carry out or delivery only.
- Guido’s Pizza. Best names for traditional pizzas. Sports bar atmosphere.
- Gusano’s Pizza. Good Chicago-style or deep dish.
- Jim’s Razorback Pizza. Many outlets and the signature Jim’s Razorback pizza.
- Pappa John’s Pizza. Quick delivery and good dipping sauces. Carry out or delivery only.
- Pizza Hut. Good lunchtime buffet and dependable delivery.
- Tim’s Pizza. College Avenue location is a longtime, hometown favorite.
- Tiny Tim’s Pizza. Loyal following. Downtown location.
- U.S. Pizza Co. Best menu and relative ease for the lunch hour. Nice deck with occasional live music. On Dickson Street.
- Ye Olde King Pizza. Good for the price and plenty of parking.