By DEREK BEIGH
MT. VERNON —
To the customers of the Pizza Man restaurant in eastern Mt. Vernon, it was obvious that Kris Chamness would someday take over the family business. But that didn’t stop it from being news to him.
“There are people who remember me from when I was 12 who come in now and say, ‘Congratulations! We knew it was inevitable.’ And I’m like, ‘I’m glad you knew, because I sure didn’t,’” Chamness said with a laugh. “If you’d asked me even 10 years ago, I would have said they have good pizza and I eat it, but that’s the extent of it. I didn’t really have a drive to do it, didn’t have a drive to own it, didn’t have a drive to run it until recently. That was April 6, and it’s been nonstop ever since.”
These days, Chamness, his wife Diana and his mother, Jackie Prior, are keeping Main Street’s Pizza Man franchise a family affair. Each of them is taking a leadership role as Chamness steps into the shoes he never expected: Small business owner. Not that he’s worried.
“Owning a business is a lot to bite off, and it’s a lot of sacrifice. I just thank God for the opportunity. It’s been amazing so far,” Chamness said. “We feel very blessed and thank everybody for supporting us. It really is overwhelming,”
For Chamness, that support is tied to two things: A tradition of great service and an equally strong background in great-tasting, distinct pizza.
“We offer a unique pizza,” he said. “Because of time reasons, a lot of places have gone to conveyer ovens, and we can’t compete with their speed. We take longer, but we offer something nobody else does — a good, old-fashioned slate-cooked pizza. I never even considered changing that.”
Keeping that practice alive lets Chamness deliver pizza not only more personally, but more personalized than his competitors.
“We can give them a good-quality pizza that’s personalized; however you want that pizza cooked, I can do. That oven’s capable of it,” he said. “We do everything from the start from scratch. We have an oven nobody else in this town has, and that makes a world of difference.”
Chamness is well aware of the local pizza landscape: He remembers when the location was a Monical’s pizzeria operated by the late Bill “The Pizza Man” Houghland, years before advertising litigation led Houghland and others to rename their franchises and spread the new name across Southern Illinois. And of course, he recalls vividly the chain of events that led to its purchase by his father, Lendell Prior, and his part-time employment there some 20 years ago.
“Bill owned (the store) for 18-and-a-half years, and then he was ready to retire. In December 1989, my parents bought it, and they owned it until this month when Diana and I purchased it,” Chamness said. “I started with my parents in 1989 when I was 12-years-old, and I worked there sporadically until I was 16 or 17. Then I left to not work for my parents.”
Prior kept the business running while Chamness pursued other dreams. He joined the military, got married and became a fixture in Mt. Vernon at John Lewis’ People’s Choice Cash & Pawn on Jordan Street. Then retirement came calling to Prior, and Chamness had a decision to make.
“My family did lots of praying and lots of pondering and thinking and looking forward to the future, and we decided that it would be a good move to keep it in the family,” he said. “We felt we were blessed to be given the chance, so we did it.”
In the meantime, Chamness never forgot the personal touch his father brought to Pizza Man and Kris hopes to keep alive.
“Pizza Man has a reputation of repeat customers; once somebody likes it, they usually like it a lot, and repeat customers are a majority of the business there. After spending so much time with them from the age of 12 to 16 or 17, we had built relationships,” he said. “Even sporadically when I went back years later, those same customers were still in and out every day.”
That doesn’t mean, however, that Chamness has no goals of his own for the venture; he’s intent on keeping that familial atmosphere while acknowledging the need for the restaurant to evolve into the 21st century. He’s currently soliciting bids for wireless Internet from local providers and intends to install TVs throughout the dining room. Those efforts are just the beginning of a modernization effort Chamness hopes will keep Pizza Man competitive for years — and potentially generations — to come.
“We want to make it a lot more ‘today,’” he said. “We want to do everything better that we can. We want to be faster, better, and everything people hope we can be. We want to do that for ourselves and for the family, and hopefully get to the point where my kids can decide if they want to get it from us.”
Chamness is currently pulling double duty to keep the restaurant buzzing, working days at People’s Choice and nights at Pizza Man. Nonetheless, he seems to be in high spirits when Diana and their kids, Rhythm and Kadence, are nearby at 5 on a Monday.
Kris and Diana are still in the planning stages of a 40th anniversary celebration in June that could double as a grand re-opening celebration for the new management. Meanwhile, Kris is satisfied to help the business keep humming along after so many years away.
“At this moment (Diana and I) are extremely blessed and overwhelmed with the amount of support we’ve gotten since we opened the doors ourselves. It’s nonstop from open to close.
My wife absolutely loves customer interaction, and she’s already building those same relationships that I was so keen on,” Chamness said. “It’s amazing how much we’ve been blessed and continue to be blessed. We just want to count those blessings and stay focused on how to make Pizza Man better for the customers.”