Photos by Rick Daugherty
Tucked among the sand dunes and high-rise condos on Pensacola’s Perdido Key sits a squat, unassuming restaurant known by the locals as Lillian’s Pizza. Inside, however, there’s a vibrancy to the restaurant that can only be described as comfortable. Owner Lillian Walsh greets family and friends, members of the Chamber of Commerce and even a handful of distributors who sit down and share a table and a slice or two with her. After all, being featured in the pages of Pizza Today has been a goal of sorts, and it’s one that seems to resonate among the locals who call Lillian’s home.
Lillian’s first opened in 1990 less than a mile from its current location. “That was a great spot,” Walsh laments. “We had bought this piece of property and we opened up a yogurt shop (but) we weren’t able to make any money there. It was like $20 a day –– I’m serious –– and like $200 on the weekends. So we started serving the pizza and sandwiches and it just caught on. That’s how we started.”
Daughter Kathryn Hammack, who now owns a snack shop down the street and pitches in at the restaurant when possible, has a different take on her parents’ initial success. “Didn’t someone smell you making a pizza and say, ‘Well, will you make us one?’” she asks her mother (Walsh confirms it) and continues: “They were like ‘This is the best pizza we’ve ever had! Can you do it again next weekend?’ ”
Calls started coming in for orders, and the Walshes found themselves out of the yogurt business and into the pizza business.
At the same time the family took the plunge and bought a bona fide pizza oven, Domino’s Pizza entered their market, “and I was shakin’ in my boots,” Walsh says. “I thought ‘What am I doing?’ But it worked out okay.” Says Hammack: “It’s totally different than Domino’s.” Soon, word-of-mouth got around, and Lillian’s had beach traffic, locals and even skydivers landing for pizza.
The original location weathered Hurricane Ivan in 2004, and although much of the area received devastating blows, Lillian’s reopened just six weeks later. “Ivan put sand up above the height of the bar,” says Hammack. “The whole restaurant was full. We had to dig it out.”
Following Ivan, Lillian’s now-deceased husband, Dave, realized the gulf-front property’s rising value and sold it.
In 2005, the company moved into its current location, a freestanding, custom built restaurant tailored for Lillian’s operations. “At the time, believe it or not, there was a real estate boom here and it was the only lot left on Perdido for sale,” Walsh says. Still, it’s surrounded by condos, across the street from the beachfront, has ample parking and –– best of all –– air-conditioning. It’s no longer a beach shack selling slices to tourists but a year-round venture serving snowbirds and the region’s 10,000 residents alike.
Still, summer is their high season. “By March, when the Spring Breakers start coming down from up north, it’ll be crazy,” Hammack says. Many summer visitors are repeat business as well.
It’s at this point in our interview that Walsh excuses herself. The lunch buffet, it seems, needs her attention. “Let me just check this out. We’re running out of pizza,” Walsh says. Within minutes, new pizzas are flying out of the kitchen and filling the line.
“We had done a pizza buffet for about 12 years, and then we stopped,” says Walsh. “But, with the economy like it is, we started it back. I think it’s a really good thing (at lunch) because (locals) come in and eat and then go back to work. Before, we took too long to get the food out for lunch.”
Lillian’s original pizza is dubbed “The Real McCoy” –– it is a thick Italian-style pan pizza with dough made in-house. But the variety doesn’t end there. “We started out with just the pan pizza,” Walsh says, “and then we learned how to make thin crust. Then someone taught us how to make stromboli. We just kept adding.”
Favorites among the long list of specialty pizzas include Big Dave’s Meat Pizza, named after Walsh’s husband who passed away in 2006, the shrimp-topped Pesto Pizza and the Ranch Pizza, which they sourced from the pages of Pizza Today.
“They all sell,” Walsh says. The Spicy Crabmeat Pizza even placed for best seafood pizza at an International Pizza Expo competition.
“Whenever you add a new pizza to the menu, it keeps growing in popularity every year,” she says. There’s no reason to downsize the menu because the ingredients are interchangeable on pizzas, sandwiches and plated dinners.
In fact, much of the menu is scratch made, including fettuccini and pesto sauces, lasagna, salad dressings, potato salad, meatballs –– even the salsa and margarita mix. Is it worth it to be so labor intensive? Walsh says it is, adding that fresh seafood is brought in everyday by a local fish market.
“That’s why we might not have something. If they didn’t have a good catch that day, then we won’t have it,” Hammack says.
Dough is made twice daily and up to three times every day in the busy summer months. “It depends on when you go in the kitchen what you’re smelling,” Hammack says. Is training difficult with so much made in house? Walsh says yes, but “right now we have enough people to cover everything ,and in the spring and summer we can just hire seasonal help to just make pizzas and do other things.”
As a result of the company’s focus on fresh food and community, sales have increased steadily. Today, Lillian’s Pizza sits on Pizza Today’s Hot 100 Independents list with annual sales over $2 million.
Some days, delivery makes up to as much as 50 percent of business with a delivery area that stretches to the nearby Alabama border and encompasses about a 10-mile radius. On average, Lillian’s employs six to seven drivers in the busy season. “I like to make sure the food gets there hot,” she says. “We were letting drivers take like three deliveries at a time, but we cut it down to two because we got some complaints (that) the food was getting there cold … They’ll take five if you’ll let them, but we only allow two.”
In all, Lillian’s can employ up to 50 employees in the summer. “My Sysco rep says I have a little army. ‘You can do it for less!’ he says. We have reduced it this year during the off-season. We have reduced it greatly. But it’s pretty efficient, still. It gets so crazy here that you have to have so many people to get good service.”
A full bar is available because “when you’re on the beach, everybody wants drinks,” Walsh says. She lucked into a liquor license for sale in the newspaper, but “it only supports the restaurant. We don’t have people coming in here to drink.”
With its single-store success, have they considered opening a second location? Walsh said she had looked at a place in Orange Beach, but ultimately her CPA and banker advised against it. “That’s when all the restaurants were closing,” Walsh says, “so I didn’t. But I wanted to. I really wanted to. “But we probably will when the time is right. I’m just trying to make this better all the time.” ❖
Mandy Wolf Detwiler is managing editor of Pizza Today.
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