Issue 26

Sam & Louie’s Pizza is an Elkhorn Family Affair

Sam & Louie’s Pizza is an Elkhorn Family Affair

Henry Ford is quoted as saying, “Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress; working together is success.”  For the Nolan family of Elkhorn, Ford’s words reflect not only this family’s spirit, but their thriving business and giving impact on the community. For over 22 years, Sam & Louie’s New York Style Pizzerias have been serving delicious hand-tossed New York style pizza to those in and around the Omaha metro.  Unbeknownst to many, this once one-store operation has grown into a franchise that now covers six states.

Greg and Nancy, both originally from Niobrara, Nebraska, moved their family to Elkhorn in 1986 when Greg was reassigned to Omaha from Tulsa, OK where he worked for Electrolux.  They have two adult children, Melissa and Michael, and are grandparents to four beautiful granddaughters. Both Melissa and Michael went to Elkhorn Public Schools.  Today, Melissa is a busy single mom to two teen daughters and Michael and his wife Sarah are busy chasing two young daughters who now attend the same elementary school as they did.  As a family unit, the Nolan’s operate three stores (Elkhorn, 120th and Blondo and 180th and Q) and have 14 franchises in 6 states, the newest opening weeks ago in Sterling, Colorado. And it all started with an overnight drive Melissa made some years ago.

Melissa was an interior design student at Northwest Missouri State, or so Greg and Nancy thought.  They awoke one morning in the fall of 1993 to find Melissa in their driveway, her car stuffed with her belongings and a college-no-more declaration.  Greg, a roll-with-the-punches kind of guy, shrugged at Melissa in his pajamas, asking her what she wanted to do.  Melissa, who had been working in pizzerias for over five summers, responded, “Why don’t we do pizza?”  Greg answered back, “Why not?” And in April of 1994 Sam & Louie’s opened at the 120th and Blondo location, which is now celebrating its 22nd year. 

After deciding to open a pizza place, two things needed to happen; a name for the new pizzeria and the perfect pizza recipe, the rest Greg felt, would fall into place.  The name, much like the decision to open a pizza place, came on the fly.  Driving around town the name Sam & Louie’s hit Greg like a bolt. “My father’s name was Sam and my wife’s father Louie,” Greg said. “I loved keeping in line with the family operated business and choosing a name with real family meaning was key.”

Pizzeria name in place, next on the menu was the perfect New York style pizza recipe. New York Style pizza, by definition, is one with a hand-tossed, thin crust pie with a crispy crust, yet dough soft enough to fold in half to eat. That is exactly what Greg and Melissa wanted to serve to guests. 

“Melissa worked in a pizzeria that served New York Style, we took what she knew and made our own recipes through trial and error,” Greg said.  “The dough needed to be crusty on the outside, chewy on the inside.  It was fun over the years to create our pizzas with input from customers and staff, the favorite by far is Sam & Louie’s Best.”

The Sam & Louie’s menu has since expanded to include Italian comfort food, an upscale catering and special events division and over 20 specialty pizzas.  And the Nolan’s it seems, were way ahead of their time by introducing gluten-free pizzas.  “We didn’t realize it at the time,” said Melissa. “But we were one of the first restaurants in Omaha to offer gluten-free.” Melissa, who has gluten health issues, had trouble finding food in restaurants that she could eat, including pizza.  “I would go to a vitamin store and pick up gluten-free dough and make my own pizza in the restaurant. Then we found a crust that we could use for our customers and they love it, I love it!” Their gluten free and low fat menu success has earned Sam & Louie’s a spot in the book Gluten Free Guide to Chain Restaurants written by Adam Bryan.

After opening their first location at 120th and Blondo, it didn’t take the Nolan’s too long to realize that they were on to something.  “Blondo opened and we had a very successful first few years,” said Greg.  “Our yearly sales went up 20%. That’s unheard of.  I think that was due to the fact that we were family orientated, we knew all customers by name. And we were one of the furthest restaurants out west at that time.  They only other was Vincenzo’s on 144th.”

The Blondo location was armed with a tight knit group of family and key employees.  Michael, who was rather young at that time, worked alongside of his parents and sister, and was destined to lead the charge for expansion.  “I started working at Sam & Louie’s in 1994 at age 16, I had to get a job anyway so I figured why not work there,” he joked. “It was fun, really fun.  All of my friends worked there, my sister’s friends worked there, my parents were there.”  That fun and festive environment seemed to be contagious and soon the Nolan’s were being approached by friends, neighbors and customers who all wanted to be a part of the Sam & Louie’s family.

In 2000, the first Sam & Louie’s franchise was sold, although they had set up a licensing agreement the year before.  In 2001, they were officially a pizza franchise.  “We sold about 12 franchises by accident up until about 3 years ago,” Michael said.  “We never advertised, we sold all franchises to customers, even the one in Billings, Montana. Then we began to advertise, we began to trust in ourselves.”  There are now franchises in Colorado, Kansas, Iowa, Montana, Nebraska and Wisconsin.

And here they are, the Nolan’s, 22 years later. Greg is president and CEO and Nancy is vice president and consultant.  Melissa is director of sales and operations and Michael Director of franchise sales.  They have a corporate team and restaurant staff, many of whom have been with them since the beginning. “Our employees, they just don’t leave,” said Melissa.  “They move away and then come back, unless Greg scares them off!  They become family.”  As one could have predicted, the third generation of Nolan’s is coming on board as Melissa’s teenage daughters; Isabella and Lillian are now working in the restaurants and at catering events. 

As they reflect on the past and how they got their start in the pizzeria business, the Nolan’s take time to discuss how they have endured working together, so closely and for so long. “Working with family, they drive me crazy every day!” said Michael.  “But I get to speak my mind more directly than I could in a more, let’s say PC environment.”  Greg quickly followed Michael’s comments with his own; “It’s really exciting to be me, I get to cause trouble for someone else then go on my way,” he grinned at his kids.  Melissa, ignoring her father and brother said that working with her family means a little more to her. “When people come into one of our restaurants, it’s more like our house, we have all of our family and friends working with us. Besides, I have no choice but to work here,” she laughed. “What else would I do? What else could I do that keeps me doing what l love to do each day?”

All fun and frolic aside, the Nolan’s also know and recognize that their success comes from the loyalty of their customers. “Our customers are family, our neighbors, they are suits and ties to lawn mowing crews and construction workers,” said Michael. 

“Our customers, they are our friends, people we have known for years, they come in go, to their booth and we know just what they want to order,” added Melissa.

“That is why community involvement is such a big thing for us, especially after we opened the Elkhorn location in 2008,” said Greg.  “It was a natural thing to do; I know people in the community, my kids are here, my granddaughters go to school here.  People need things and we are happy to give to those who supported us over the years.”

As for the future of Sam & Louie’s, Greg gets the last word, most likely as one would expect.  “The future, it looks so exciting and bright to me.  We have a lot of really good franchisees. And we have Omaha.  I cannot thank everyone enough for all of the support, thank you for giving us as a franchise, thank you for your loyalty.  We work for you.”

The Sam & Louie’s Corporation is headquartered in Elkhorn, Nebraska.  For more information, visit www.samandlouiespizza.com.

 


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