On Fridays, a lot of families order pizza to celebrate the weekend’s arrival. In the 80s, we often went out for pizza instead. And while for a lot of Gen Xers that meant Pizza Hut, it wasn’t the only game in town. In eastern Missouri, including St. Louis, the dominant pizza chain was Pantera’s. Let’s take a look back at Pantera’s Pizza and its history.
Pantera’s Pizza is a mostly defunct pizza chain that specialized in a 5-pound pizza it called The Hunk, and its commercials featured two characters named Betty and Mario, often containing the catchphrase, “What a hunk!” It was up to the viewer to decide whether Betty was referring to the pizza, Mario, or both.
Pantera’s Pizza: the toast of St. Louis
Pantera’s was a regional chain, co-founded by Robert C. Walker and Arthur R. Anderson in St. Louis in 1977. By 1981, it was a rapidly growing chain, with franchises opening up all over eastern Missouri and southwestern Illinois. The St. Louis area had 55 locations on the Missouri side and another 15 in the Illinois suburbs. At its peak, there were 120 Pantera’s locations in the midwest. In 1986, Walker and Anderson sold their ownership stakes to Concept Development Inc., who took the company public. Its stock soon reached $15 per share. Walker personally owned six franchises, which he kept.
Even though the chain thrived in St. Louis, and once controlled more than half of the St. Louis market, it didn’t serve what we now call St. Louis-style pizza. It was a traditional hand-tossed pizza with mozzarella. It wasn’t as greasy as Pizza Hut and its sauce was tangier than Domino’s, but it was much more similar to those national chains than it was to the local chains that dominate St. Louis now, like Imo’s.
Pantera’s was a co-op, with the franchisees dividing up the cost of advertising. And it worked until it didn’t. A combination of factors did Pantera’s in.
The failed merger with Pizza Inn
In March 1987, Pantera’s acquired Pizza Inn, a larger regional chain based in Texas. Pizza Inn’s founder had attempted to take the company private, and his failed attempt left the company ripe for takeover. $48 million later, Pantera’s owned Pizza Inn. During the same timeframe it also acquired part of the Godfather’s chain, the pizza chain that made the conservative activist Herman Cain rich. And for a fleeting moment, the combined company was the fourth largest pizza chain in the country, with 160 company-owned and 420 franchised restaurants. Management promised to keep the combined company in St. Louis.
The merger soon started to look like a reverse merger. Jack Harris, the chairman of Pantera’s who oversaw the merger, soon broke the promise and moved to Dallas along with company president R.E. Smith. Puzzlingly, Harris soon quit his job and disappeared. But with the executives ensconced in Dallas, pressure started building to convert Pantera’s locations to Pizza Inn. The problem, Walker said in 1990, was that Pantera’s was profitable while Pizza Inn was not, and Pantera’s enjoyed good name recognition.
And while a Texan might argue with me, I had both Pantera’s and Pizza Inn in the mid 80s. On a good night, Pizza Inn might have been better, but Pantera’s was more consistent. On a bad night, Pizza Inn wasn’t as good as Pizza Hut, the king of mediocre pizza. Turning every Pantera’s into a Pizza Inn wasn’t going to make the world a better place.
That wasn’t the only problem. Other national chains like Domino’s and Little Caesar’s were expanding. Objectively, neither Domino’s nor Little Caesar’s were really any better, but for people who’d been eating Pizza Hut and Pantera’s for the last six years, the newcomers were different. I lived in a small town in eastern Missouri in the mid 1980s that had a Pizza Hut and a Pantera’s and nothing else. The town five minutes away had a Pizza Inn. Once Domino’s came to town, Pantera’s lost a lot of business because Domino’s was something new and unfamiliar, and it was cheaper. Domino’s, Little Caesar’s, Pizza Hut, and Pantera’s all engaged in a price war, but with $87.1 million in debt, Pantera’s wasn’t in a good position to participate in the price war.
Pantera’s filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in September 1989 after Lloyds Bank and Kleinwort Benson Ltd., the financiers of the merger, called in $35.5 million in unsecured loans, and its share price fell to just 37.5 cents. The bankruptcy court brought in a fast food executive to consult in liquidating the company, and the consultant, Jeff Rogers, decided to try to revive Pizza Inn. The Pantera’s name didn’t play into his plan. As far as he was concerned, Pantera’s Pizza was history.
The advertising dispute
In 1988, the management in Dallas replaced the distinctive Pantera’s advertising featuring a mustachioed Sicilian muscleman named Mario and the catchline, “What a hunk!” which referred both to the pitchman and their large pizza.
The replacement ads, which featured Texans in cowboy hats, played poorly in St. Louis, and led to a loss in market share. Making matters worse, Dallas soon informed the St. Louis franchisees that their advertising fund was short by $200,000. This came after a year of being assured the advertising fund was solvent. The remaining franchisees investigated, but were cut off when they found a discrepancy. In retaliation, the Pantera’s franchisees stopped paying their royalties.
“We didn’t hold up our end of the bargain and neither did they,” Jim Wolters, the owner of the Pantera’s franchise in Jefferson City, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in November 1990.
The franchisees attempted to arrange their own advertising, but the St. Louis TV and radio stations wouldn’t give them credit because the parent company still owed them money. Six of the franchisees, including Walker, attempted to buy back the Pantera’s name from the new parent company, but failed. They then recruited two investors to attempt to buy the name, but that effort also failed.
When that effort failed, Walker closed the last of his Pantera’s franchises, ending an era. The struggle with the parent company left Walker and several other St. Louis area franchisees bankrupt themselves, or nearly so.
Jeff Rogers’ turnaround plan included selling off all the company owned stores and another effort to convert the Pantera’s franchises to Pizza Inn. In October 1990, he visited St. Louis to try to convince the surviving Pantera’s franchisees to convert. In a November 12, 1990 article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, several Pantera’s franchise holders said Rogers threatened to sue them for back royalties if they didn’t convert. Rogers denied the threat, though he acknowledged many of the franchisees owed more money than they had.
Over the course of 1990, the number of Pantera’s locations in the St. Louis area dwindled from 60 to fewer than 20. Bob Reese, the owner of a location at 4214 S Broadway, went from selling $1 million in pizzas per year to having to close his store once he couldn’t advertise. He closed in October 1990, with $142,000 in debt. At least one other franchise holder lost their home in bankruptcy.
Some of the franchise holders considered converting to Pizza Inn. This effort was unsuccessful. Today there are six Pizza Inns in all of Missouri, none of them in St. Louis. Rogers’ plan saved the Pizza Inn brand, but left a lot of franchisees with wrecked finances. And, ironically, there are more Pantera’s locations in St. Louis today than Pizza Inn locations.
Pantera’s Pizza history: Not quite gone, definitely not forgotten
As far as Pizza Inn was concerned, Pantera’s Pizza’s history ended in 1990. But that’s not how it ended up playing out.
Some of the remaining franchise holders changed the names of their operation to avoid legal trouble. I accidentally found Wolters’ pizzeria in Jefferson City in October 1998. I remember it because it was still using the old Pantera’s serving trays, and seeing the logo threw me for a loop.
Pantera’s didn’t require much from its franchisees. They owed a 4% royalty and had to buy the spice mix for the sauce, but other than that, could use whatever suppliers they wanted. That meant any survivors could carry on indefinitely, as long as they could replicate the spice mix.
Six holdouts resisted and ultimately triumphed, surviving and even thriving for several decades. Three of them still operate today, one in O’Fallon, Mo., one in Edwardsville, Ill., and a drive-through in Hazelwood, Mo. A location in Maplewood, Mo. lost its lease in 2014, forcing it to close after about 33 years in business. A fifth location in Fairview Heights, Ill., under the same ownership as the Edwardsville location, survived at least until 2008. A sixth location on West Florissant Ave in Ferguson also survived until at least 2008.
The surviving stores operated as independent entities, with only the common name tying them together, and since they’d been abandoned by their parent company, they didn’t owe anything to continue using it. Jeff Tolliver, the owner/operator of the Edwardsville and Fairview Heights locations, continued to use the original recipes and suppliers to keep the experience as close to what people remembered.
The survival of those six locations into the 21st century suggests that if the St. Louis franchisees had succeeded in buying back the Pantera’s name, the chain probably could have survived, though likely in a much smaller form.
Why Pantera’s Pizza failed
Pantera’s Pizza is like Central Hardware, another bygone St. Louis giant, in reverse. Central Hardware became vulnerable due to fighting off a corporate raid. Pantera’s acquired a company that was afraid of needing to fight off a corporate raid, and thus left itself vulnerable. That was high finance in the United States in 1980s. It was easy to get high-interest loans and go on spending sprees, but like the housing crisis of 2008, these companies learned the hard way making the payments wasn’t as easy as getting the loan.
It was 1987, and I think Pantera’s upper management got greedy. In 10 short years, Pantera’s had gone from an idea to a chain of 120 locations that controlled 50% of the pizza market share in St. Louis, a city famous for its Italian population. They saw a chance to buy their way into being the fourth largest chain in the country, so they did it.
And then they compounded the error by morphing the combined company into Pizza Inn, rather than sticking with what had made Pantera’s successful. Express Scripts, another company founded in St. Louis in 1986, also followed the acquisition model to grow rapidly. But when Express Scripts bought a company, it looked at everything both companies did objectively, and kept the better practice. The assumption was the acquired company did some things better, because they were bigger. But they didn’t do everything better, because they got acquired.
Pantera’s didn’t do that. To the extent that they moved the headquarters to Dallas, kept a bunch of the Texas management, and even ran ads of Texans in cowboy hats telling St. Louisans about pizza. St. Louis has an inferiority complex about a lot of things, but believe me, St. Louis does not want to hear about pizza from someone from Chicago or New York, let alone some loudmouth Texan.
And the result wasn’t pretty. It only took a few short years for the chain to dwindle to 5% its former size, at significant cost to its franchise holders.