Recently, my pizza partner, Christa, and I traveled to McConnels Mill for some good old fashioned hiking. We packed a backpack full of bread, peanut butter, chips and wandered through the wilderness. Our goal was to find the a lost civilization of pizza worshipers who we would wow with our pizza prowess and be crowned gods. At least that was my motivation; I think Christa was just trying to enjoy Fall.
As isolated as McConnels Mill is, there were signs for a “Pizza Joe’s” plastered along the route to the park. The signs were old and decrepit, like left behind relics from an ancient pizza civilization. I wasn’t sure who Pizza Joe was, but I knew I wanted to sit with him over a freshly baked pizza and discuss the finer aspects of life.
Once we were done hiking we made our way to Pizza Joe’s. It was two miles from the park entrance, but impossible to miss thanks to the surplus signage sprinkled along the highway. We pulled into the gravel parking lot, doing our best impressions of city slickers, and walked into the front door worried they wouldn’t take credit cards.
The interior was typical country-pizza decor; the workers wore camouflage clothing (presumably so they could efficiently hunt ingredients), an ancient TV played the local news, and the walls were covered in Pizza Joe’s paraphernalia. Being a pizza journalist, I walked up to the counter, ordered a slice of pizza, and asked the owner what made Pizza Joes unique. “Unique?” Jason, the owner, responded, “We aren’t unique. There are 45 other Pizza Joe’s.”
I was awe struck. This feeling must be the same feeling Indiana Jones gets when he realizes he’s adventuring in a museum, not the ancient ruins he thought he was exploring. Soaked in disappointment, I tried to make the best of the situation as I waited for my slice. Jason answered my questions, with much hesitation, and I learned a few interesting things about the Pizza Joe’s in McConnells Mill.
- Jason’s parents owned a bakery. Despite his upbringing he has no desire to break off from the Pizza Joe’s chain and do things his way.
- Jason did work at Pizza Joe’s corporate then moved (upgraded?) to owning a store. He says it’s easier being affiliated with Pizza Joe’s because he only has to work with one vendor and the advertising is done by corporate.
- Each franchise has the flexibility to create their own menu items, a flexibility absent from most other chains.
I pondered why someone with a baking background would bother to work for “the man,” but I’m sure Jason has his reasons. Besides, my slice was ready and I, like a vampire craving blood, needed to eat some pizza before I lost my cool.
The pizza wasn’t remarkable. The cheese didn’t have any character, the sauce was negligible, and despite seeing the slice come out of the oven, it tasted like something a community pool snack bar would cook in a microwave to sell to their summer patrons.
I still finished the slice, but by the end of it I was regretting my Pizza Joe’s experience. I was lured in under (my own) pretense that this was a flag ship pizza shop, only to discover it was one of many. Maybe the pizza tasted off because my heart wasn’t in it. Perhaps, my sorrow warped my tastebuds?
I’m not sure, but it looks like I’m about to cry in the this picture.
Out of a possible five pizzas, I give Pizza Joe’s two. True, it’s not like most of the bigger chains and perhaps if I stumble upon another Pizza Joe’s in the wild I’d try it again, but this visit was disappointing all around. I may also have some insider info regarding the recipe from a friend, who, apparently grew up next to the original Pizza Joe’s. So, stay tuned for that.