My contributions to this blog have given me a chance to wax on about subjects I know a lot about sometimes, but more often I find myself using it as an excuse to research topics I want to know more about. However, I seem to have a knack for wanting to cover things that are not only scarce or gone in Peoria , but hard to research and not all that “Google-friendly”. This time around, it’s a bygone Northwoods Mall stalwart from a time when Colonies were Swiss, Wicks n’ Sticks were en vogue, and Chess was King.
Best remembered as a multi-leveled wooden jungle of nooks and crannies found at the end of a now extinct lower-level hallway, it served up pizza by the slice (once a novel and unheard of concept) to teens, families and stoners alike.
The Flying Tomato has landed at MBIP, ladies and gents. It’s “high time” (right Marty?) to “dish” deeply about Garcia’s Pizza in a Pan.
We take for granted the ability to grab a personal-sized, or even single slice of pizza these days. Garcia’s brought this concept to the people and this practical, economic buying method proved a viable and affordable one for kids and college students with very little money to buy an entire pizza.
Garcia’s was founded in 1971 by Ralph Senn and Joe Ream two years after receiving their degrees in psychology and advertising from the University of Illinois. Despite no prior restaurant experience between them, they realized the potential for success with an on-campus pan pizza joint after seeing the great lengths Chicago-area natives would go for such a taste from home.
Ralph and Joe first set up at Wright and Green on the U of I’s campus, re-invented themselves as “The Flying Tomato Brothers” and business (literally) took off, even commandeering their own promotional hot air balloon (they were the Flying Tomato Brothers, after all) first taking flight in 1974 and would become the most recognizable symbol for the company.
The Wright and Green spot moved to Second and Green in 1976. Location hopping became fairly common for Garcia’s restaurants through the years, which at their peak boasted at least 18 locations (that’s a lot of Flying tomatoes).
Most Garcia’s locations were on or near college campuses in several states including Illinois, Indiana, and Texas (where it was known as “Flying Tomato Pizza” due to some contractual conflict). “Home base” remained in Champaign-Urbana, but Garcia’s became a staple of every community and campus it came to.
The Flying Tomato made its way to Peoria’s Northwoods Mall in 1981, landing on the first level at the end of the hallway that formed a “U-shape” with the hall housing Aladdin’s Castle arcade (it’s gone now, and was where Express and Charlotte Russe are found today). Easily the darkest part of the mall, a heavenly pizza smell started somewhere near the original Fannie May location, then passed the portrait studio and t-shirt shop, Ferdinand’s Wigs and Tobin and Hughes Jewelry leading directly to Garcia’s staggered quarters, a unique layout remembered almost as fondly as the pizza itself. Like most kids, I’d always jet for that top level once food was ordered although upstairs was typically closed during slower times. The character of each Garcia’s location, while not identical, all carried a consistent ambience-wooden multi-levels and everywhere you looked, flying tomatoes and the faces of Joe and Ralph themselves.
For many, it became a destination, and a lot of mall traffic could at one time be attributed specifically to Garcia’s patrons. Kids dropped off at the mall (does that still happen? Doubtful) could easily afford lunch, and it was also a popular date spot.
Garcia’s slices were always served on rectangular trays accompanied by real silverware. Three kinds of salads (the Super, the Dooper, and Garden), breadsticks, cookies, beer and soft drinks rounded out a relatively simple menu featuring slices of cheese, sausage, pepperoni, and of course the signature “Gutbuster”—a 3/4 pound slice with sausage, pepperoni, mushrooms, green peppers and onion, all lined up in sight for hungry eyes to see.
Then of course there were the “stuffed” pizzas, with their heavy layers of sauce, cheese, and a charming inability to ever be fully cooked inside (or so it often seemed). The crust, the sauce, everything about the taste was different and special, and their success proved it.
In the early (or was it mid?) 90’s, Garcias’ moved upstairs in Northwoods right above their old location. They went all out for the move, replicating the multi-level lofted look of the previous spot, and installing televisions and a fireplace.
The “new” Northwoods Garcia’s also had outdoor seating and the fire hydrant directly outside was painted like a Flying Tomato. While the food didn’t change in the move, a public used to gutbusting in darker, more claustrophobic quarters deep within the mall didn’t take as well to this cold, well-lit location…it just wasn’t “the same” and Northwoods Mall’s Garcia’s called it quits sometime in the early 2000’s.
The overall needs of the company had changed and evolved over time. Garcia’s drastically downsized after decades of continuous growth, opening smaller take-out and drive-thru locations with no interior seating. Other locations came and went, went and came, and after serving the U of I campus for 32 years, Garcia's Pizza in a Pan closed its flagship location on Green Street in 2008.
If Facebook has taught me just one thing, it’s that most people can be ungodly annoying. But if it’s taught me two things, it’s that a lot of folks out there share in the mania for Garcia’s. The march of time however, seems to have also fogged and jumbled a lot of memories and facts, so for the sake of both nostalgia and research, I took a trip to the Northwoods Mall office to get some more hard info—unfortunately though they weren’t much help as Garcia’s closure pre-dated their digital filing system and any files from those days were tossed after seven years.
Alright, enough messing around: I know for a fact there’s still a Ralph and Joe owned Garcia’s in Champaign, illinois, just a few miles from U of I’s campus (the other known location, licensed by a different owner, is in Decatur near Millikin University). I’m not sure if any others are still operating and couldn’t tell you much else because the internet contradicts itself all over the place. As much as I love you all, I don’t have it in me to drive all over the Midwest fact checking.
But, I do have it in me to drive 90 minutes one-way for pizza. Strap on your tomatoes, let’s ride.
When searching for flying tomatoes, it’s best to have a WINGman (rimshot). I stop halfway in Bloomington to pick up my friend Jimmy, whose family boasts numerous U of I alumni, all of whom were “Garcia-crazy” in the Flying Tomato’s heydays.
And then faster than—you guessed it!—a flying tomato, we make it to Champaign, anxiously awaiting to step inside Garcia’s Pizza in a Pan once again.
I’m quite starving, as I’ve intentionally not eaten anything all day…
Parked along the building’s backside, we see the Flying Tomato “Balloon Chase Van”. I get the impression she hasn’t see much action lately. The back windows are covered in collegiate decals, I’m guessing from old campus locations?
As I snap these photos, I get an odd glance from a familiar looking guy passing through the parking lot...more on him later...
At last, inside. While the current Champaign location is devoid of any multi-levels, it does have just about every other detail that we all remember about Garcia’s…
Video and pinball games were quite common in the bigger locations…
It’s an entire wall of Flying Tomatoes, all a bit distinct and different! We assume these came from various past locations. Anyone recognize if one was the Peoria signage?
Hanging directly above our heads, it’s the Flying Tomato Brothers—Ralph and Joe (sort of).
Garcia’s still remains incredibly affordable after all these years, and as you can see the menu hasn’t really changed at all. One difference from the past is you don’t get to see that line of pizzas waiting under heat lamps, instead the slices are all prepped and cooked to order (at least this is the case during dinner hours).
Actual sizes of their pan and stuffed pizzas are affixed to the walls.
Dinner has arrived. I opted for a sausage “Slice Special” (pizza, breadsticks and drink). Jimmy goes for the Gutbuster “Flying Feast” (comes with salad).
That didn’t take long. The famous rectangle plate/trays are left for dead, and yet we are still hungry...
Jimmy goes for a round two of the Gutbuster (should I be concerned that he’s the one driving?) and I go for a couple cookies. Just as Jimmy dives into his second slice, that guy I spotted in the parking lot walks by again, and now I realize who it was…
IT’S RALPH, one half of the Flying Tomato Brothers! The fact I was star-struck shows what branding geniuses these guys have been for decades. It was great to talk to Ralph and get the info I had been desperately seeking—when the mall can’t help you, go straight to the source! He said that Joe is also still involved, and in fact we had just missed him. Picture the mess I would have been to meet both Ralph and Joe! Maybe next time…
Ralph’s memory about Peoria seemed tentative like the rest of ours (“we opened in Peoria in ’81 or ’82, I think”) but he definitely looks back fondly on their time in Northwoods, adding that the mall lease got too expensive as time went on. He confirmed the upstairs move happened in the early 90’s, but in 1998 they sold the Peoria operation to “a guy named Frank” who kept the place running until about late 2002...now that I can confirm, as I started working in the mall in November, 2003 and was bitter that Garcia’s had recently closed.
I mentioned my hour and a half drive just to come here and he said that maybe they should look into returning to Peoria in some form, since there’s obviously still Garcia’s love around here (so stop writing to Congress and drop them some “tomato mail” instead!). We also discussed their efforts of bringing their pizza to the masses since downsizing. One concept that’s caught on is selling take-home microwaveable slices in three “County Market” grocery stores in Springfield, Rushville, and on the U of I campus.
Take-home he says?! Looks like we’ve got another stop to make.
In the back of the County Market, you find this counter, in which you can order up Garcia’s pizza to order for either dining in or take-out.
Just opposite of the counter, there’s what we are looking for! These slices come “85% baked” and you finish the job in either your microwave or oven. Not too many slices left, but just enough to take home!
I cleaned them out. This should hold me for now.
And as my own tribute to the MBIP Pizza Tour, here we are firing up Garcia’s Pizza in our very own home oven.
Garcia’s has reorganized, downsized and changed over the past 40+ years but it still proves to be a popular stop for U of I tailgaters and it’s evident all over the internet that their cult status is kept alive and well by college alums, former employees, and grown-up kids like yours truly who hope to still one day see a Flying Tomato drop out of the sky. The appetite is there, and you can be sure many guts will bust if that day ever comes.
A tip o’ the hat to Jimmy, Dorie, Jana, and anyone else who contributed memories and assistance. And especially to Ralph.