By Mike Sakal
For the Miami Valley Sunday News
WEST MILTON — Anyway you slice it, one of the most iconic pizzerias in the Miami Valley has survived the test of time.
Tom’s Pizza at 690 South Miami Street (State Route 48) in West Milton, recently celebrated its 45th anniversary with Jake Stevenart – a fourth generation pizza maker and baker taking the orders and piling on the pepperoni with the help of family and friends. The business was started by Jake’s great-grandfather, the late Thomas “Tom” Henry Manning and his wife, Beulah, in a small storefront building at 26 Lowry Drive on Feb. 13, 1974.
When Tom Henry Manning passed away at age of 90 in December, 2009, nine years after Beulah, the 1937 graduate of West Milton High School held the distinction of being the oldest pizza delivery boy in the United States, according to Pizza Today Magazine.
But in a town filled with four places to purchase pizza – Tom’s, Clark’s Pizzeria, Fox’s Pizza Den and Skipper’s Bar and Grille, Tom’s remains as popular as ever with the Haworth and Stevenart families at the helm to heat up the ovens. Part of the recipe for their success is strong customer service, providing a quality menu with top-shelf ingredients (provided mostly by local businesses) and greeting most of their customers by name.
“We know more customers than not,” said Stevenart, 22, the son of Shannon and Randy Stevenart. “You don’t get that in a big place. A lot of our customers come in and share stories. We’re thankful for all our customers, many who have come in here for several years.”
“The tradition and serving the customers is what it’s all about, said Sheri Haworth, 51, Manning’s granddaughter who rides shotgun for drivers to help deliver orders in the area. “I always like to help the drivers and see the customers. I always liked to see “Grandpa” laugh when customers would come in and tell jokes or share stories.”
Carol Haworth added, “Our workers are our family; our customers are our friends.”
The lighted Tom’s Pizza sign out front and the red neon “Open” sign in the front window serve as beacons on cold winter days or warm summer nights, summoning those who are hungry and craving a pizza or sub, beckoning to the time when Manning’s trademark saying was, “Just give me about 15 minutes,” when customers would order a pizza.
As the inside of the shop pays homage to the man who started it all as evidenced by pictures of Tom Manning on the wall inside the door, Tom’s fast-paced environment of cranking out pizzas, subs, soft pretzels and appetizers, continues to move toward its future. Tom’s, which celebrated its 45th anniversary on Feb. 13, 2019, shows no signs of slowing down inside the building that also houses the NAPA Auto Parts store that used to be Russ Norris’ Oldsmobile auto dealership.
The worn-brick tile floor and the crowded bulletin board of family pictures and the Milton-Union Recreation Association sponsored baseball teams hanging on the wall underscore the pizzeria’s popularity that Tom Manning humbly called “A little old country pizza house.”
Other pizza places such as Huddles, Opera House Pizza, Bulldog Pizza and Cassano’s have come and gone from the town known as the home of the only American to win an Olympic Gold Medal in the 5,000-meter run (Bob Schul in 1964), and the world’s first airplane passenger for the Wright Brothers – Charles Furnas. Tom’s remains a constant, steadily floating down a river of time. The staff at Tom’s estimates that they have sold about 1 million pizzas in its near half-century of business.
The storied history of Tom’s, now owned by Manning’s daughter, Carol Haworth since 1997, is deep-rooted in dedication and customer service.
Back in the early 1970s, Manning was building homes and owned H & M Sanitary Trash Route business that served West Milton, Union and Englewood and other areas near West Milton, but was looking for something else to do. When he saw the “For Rent” sign on the storefront building on Lowry Drive, his brother, the late Calvin Manning (who started the Dairy Queen on the south end of town) thought West Milton needed a pizza shop. Calvin talked Tom into renting the space behind Lawson’s Dairy Mart (later Dr. Bill Ginn’s office) and next to Gene Kleather Insurance. So, Tom sold his H & M Sanitary Trash Route business, opened Tom’s Pizza and the rest is history.
The pizzas (small, medium and large), steak and ham subs, soft pretzels and bread sticks remain a popular item for a long line of loyal customers.
In the beginning, the price of a 16-inch deluxe pizza was $5.65, according to a menu that appeared in an advertisement in the West Milton Record newspaper. Today, that 16-inch deluxe costs $18.
In 1974, a ham or steak sub cost $1.35; today they cost $6.
Tom’s Pizza is closed on Mondays, but Tuesday through Sunday, the business remains in full swing. Carol Haworth’s sister-in-law (Tobe Haworth’s sister), Jackie Manning, also works in Tom’s during the lunch hours (11 a.m. to 2 p.m.) on Wednesday through Friday. The signature special is a whole sub, small bag of Mike-sells Potato Chips for $6.
Tom’s also provides fund-raisers for schools, churches, sports teams and 4-H groups, and recently donated to the “Bulldog Bags” containing a snack and fruit for needy kids and their families in West Milton.
“The town supports us, and we like to give back,” Carol Haworth said.
At age 94, Nelda Small of West Milton, religiously comes in every Friday to get her piping hot soft pretzel after her hair appointment.
“I gotta have my soft pretzel,” said Small as she clutched her soft pretzel in a small bag. “They’re the best.”
Patricia “Pat” John, who passed away at age 83 in 2013, would bake a batch of cookies for Tom’s workers just for delivering her dinner down the street at Richlyn Apartments where she lived.
“Whenever the phone would ring and we would see Pat’s number come up on the caller ID, we’d say, ‘Oh Great! We’re getting cookies!’,” Jake Stevenart said.
A group of four guys who used to work at the former Emery Worldwide air freight shipping hub next to the Dayton International Airport, would get pizzas every Friday.
Another time, a guy from West Milton who lived in Alabama, brought in a cooler to take 12 steak subs back home in.
Tom’s workers even sometimes get creative.
Owen Lewis, who just graduated with Milton-Union’s Class of 2019 and works at O’Reilly’s Auto Parts across the street from Tom’s, has fond memories of the time he competed in the Middle School State Wrestling Championships in Columbus.
“I knew I was going to be gone for a few days, so I ordered a pizza from Tom’s, and someone wrote on the pizza box, ‘Good Luck at State,’ and drew a stick figure of a guy lifting weights,” Lewis said.
“I love Tom’s pizza,” Lewis added. “It’s a really good pizza. They’re not stingy with their ingredients. I love their food, and they’re good people. What more could you want in a pizza place?”
Bailey Stone, who manages O’Reilly’s, said, “What Jim’s Donuts is to Vandalia, Tom’s Pizza is to West Milton. Workers at Tom’s treat everyone like their own family. If Tom’s ever disappears, I’m moving away.”
The whole ham sub with everything on it has remained a favorite for Bruce Siler of West Milton since the late 1970s.
When Siler was in the hospital after a motorcycle accident as a young adult, he had the subs brought to him many times during his residency for a broken leg.
“Tom and Beulah treated me like I was one of their own,” Siler said. “Beulah was the best! The Mannings are salt of the earth people and the subs are great.”
In the early 1980s, Tom’s briefly rented VHS movie videos for its customers. Never mind that people didn’t return a lot of the videos, and Tom never checked on them, Carol Haworth laughingly said.
The shop added delivery service in 1997.
The West Milton Municipal building also is across the street from Tom’s, and has the stamp of approval of one West Milton’s top officials.
“Tom’s definitely has an established reputation in town,” said West Milton Service Director Ben Herron, a big fan of their ham subs. “From a fire department standpoint, we’ve had emergencies in town, and Tom’s has donated pizzas. They are super supportive of local organizations, and we often order their pizzas when the fire department makes waffles on Friday nights. I give Tom’s an A-plus on community involvement and being there when you need them.”
Early on, when things weren’t busy in the shop – which wasn’t that often – Tom Manning and his wife would play Yahtzee, or he’d relax in his purple recliner in his office while smoking a pipe and watch “Wheel of Fortune.”
When things got cooking in the main area of the pizzeria, Tom would roll up his sleeves, and pile on the cheese and pepperoni with his crew.
“He loved the customers more than anything,” Carol Haworth said. “We enjoyed watching him laugh at peoples’ stories or jokes. He liked to keep the workers on their toes by joking with them, too. He’d tell a new worker they were putting the pepperoni on upside-down or they were putting the cheese in the wrong place – after they put in on the sauce.”
Nearly all of the ingredients used in Tom’s pizzas or subs comes from local suppliers: The sausage comes from Landes Meats in Englewood, the lunch meats for the subs come from Chasteen’s IGA Store in West Milton, and the mushrooms, pepperoni and gravy for the steak subs come from King Kold in Englewood.
The cans of Full Red Fully Prepared Pizza Sauce come from California.
And the main ingredient in the pizzeria were the people who started it all.
Like Tom Henry Manning, Beulah Manning’s presence also is missed in the shop where she used to be a fixture behind the counter and at the front door where she greeted customers by throwing her arms around them.
But the rest of the family knows the show must – and does – go on.
Jake Stevenart has been working in Tom’s most of his life. He started making his own soft pretzels at age 3, and his own pizzas soon after. He’s been “officially” working in Tom’s since he was 15, starting at Jake and Em’s, the pizza place Haworth’s used to own in the former Dairy Liner on State Route 49 in Phillipsburg from 2008 to 2010.
Now, Jake’s a senior at Wright State University, majoring in accounting, but said he plans to always be a part of the family business as long as it’s around.
“As long as Tom’s Pizza is around, I’ll be a part of it,” Jake Stevenart said. “Not too many 22 years olds get to run a business. With the experience I’m getting, I’m learning more here than I am in college.”
“I hope Tom’s is around another 45 years,” Stevenart said. “We have something to uphold.”