Blue Ridge Pizza Co. is a place where everybody knows your name — locals call it the “Cheers of Etowah.” On a recent visit, the family-owned restaurant bustled with warmth and friendly shouts between customers and staff. “Hey Tom, making any money?”one diner calls out to owner Tom Sanders. “Nope, but I’m having fun doing it,” Sanders jokes back. “Hey, good to see you, Tom,” says another guest says as he passes by. And so it goes. Pats on the back, handshakes and smiles are exchanged at every turn.
The key to creating this friendly vibe is keeping it all in the family. Husband-and-wife team Tom and Linda Sanders are the brains behind the place, but son Tommy Sanders and daughter Leigh Owens, along with Tommy’s wife, Christin Miller Sanders, are all-hands-on-deck seven days a week.
When Blue Ridge Pizza Co. first opened in 2009, the idea was to focus on takeout. There were 10 tables for dining in, seven employees and a one-page menu. Today, the restaurant has seating for 175, three separate dining rooms, a full bar, a patio (where dogs are invited to join in the fun) and 28 employees. And recently, the Sanders completed an expansion that tripled the kitchen’s original 1,400 square feet, allowing the possibility to add even more menu items.
Xpress chatted with everyone in the family, and they all had things to share.
Mountain Xpress: What do you think customers love most about your place?
Tom Sanders: Without a doubt, it’s the friendly service and fresh food. We make all of our dough, bread, sauce, brownies, cookies, dressings, etc. It’s all from scratch and made in-house daily.
I understand that you and your family started this business with no restaurant experience. How did that come about?
Tom: Well, it all revolved around my granddaughter, Sydney. Sydney is Leigh’s daughter and when she was born, my wife and I, along with our son, Tommy, were living in Memphis. Linda and I were retired, but getting tired of driving back and forth to Asheville to visit Sydney. I convinced Tommy to sell his printing business and to move with us so we could reunite the family. I said, “Don’t worry, we’ll figure something out.” Tommy agreed. They moved and, indeed, they did figure something out.
How many tickets do you handle per day?
Tommy Sanders: 250 to 400 tickets. And each one of those tickets often has more than one person on it.
What’s been your greatest challenge to date?
Tommy: Starting the business with no restaurant experience! No one had any culinary training. We’ve always had trial runs with our new food ideas and let the customers decide what’s a keeper and what’s not. After all, the customer is the boss, and without their approval, we wouldn’t be here.
What’s your most popular menu item?
Leigh Owens: The Fat Gary. It’s our supreme pizza with Italian sausage, ground beef, ham, pepperoni, bacon, onions, green peppers and mushrooms.
What are you most proud of?
Tommy: We have expanded three times and have yet to spend a dime on advertising. Our growth is purely based on word-of-mouth.
Who handles the day-to-day management? Who cooks?
Tommy: It’s truly a family affair. We all do a little bit of everything. It’s not unusual to see my mom sweeping outside, Dad fixing a leaky faucet, my wife freshening up the plants outside, or my sister entertaining a table of kids. Our kitchen managers — Heath Rogers and Steven Summey — even though they’re not technically family, they really are. We have the best staff around. I’d put them head to head against anyone in town.
Do you have a favorite menu item?
Tommy: Currently, it’s our Memphis dry-rub barbecue wings. They are by far our most popular wing flavor and for good reason. These things are absolutely delicious. A little smoky, a little sweet and a little spicy.
Do you serve New York-style pizza? Chicago-style?
Tom: We serve Blue Ridge-style! We’ve had people from New York and Chicago dine here, and their feedback has been great.
The décor is very eclectic. What’s the story there?
Tommy: Everything you see has been done by my dad and me — painting, carpentry, I even framed the regional maps on the wall and designed the funky wooden overhead boat lamp in the bar. See those Birkenstock sandals in the boat? Those were my first pair. And, yes, that backpack and fishing pole on the wall are mine – they remind me of things I used to do before I had a restaurant to run.
What’s a favorite diner’s comment?
Linda Sanders: “You’re the best thing to happen to Etowah since we got a red light.”
You’re a bit off the beaten path. Do you get a mix of locals and tourists, alike?
Christin Miller Sanders: I didn’t believe it until I witnessed it for myself, but when I first met Tommy, and he hired me to work here, he said they got at least two to four new customers per day. ‘Sure,’ I thought to myself. But it’s really true. It’s amazing. We have the Norms of ‘Cheers,’ too.
Tommy: First, we have to get settled into our new kitchen and get the new menu going. After that, who knows? A second location? A third? We may even consider franchising at some point, but we’ll just have to wait and see.