Since 1983, Pizza Barn has been a staple of the Princeton community. Founder Noel Paulson picked to grow his business in Princeton as it was a small city without a pizza restaurant outside the Twin Cities. Over the years, he and his family-run operation garnered the love and respect of the people from in and around Princeton.
Paulson died on March 15 at the age of 74. Up until he began hospice care, he was a fixture at the Pizza Barn, and even during his time in hospice, he spoke in detail with his daughter, Jody Paulson Stay, who carries on the family tradition running the restaurant, about the future of the business. The Union-Times caught up with Jody and discussed Noel’s impact on the community, the Pizza Barn legacy and what the future holds.
Q: What are your earliest memories of working with your dad, Noel, at the Pizza Barn?
A: My very first memory of working with my dad, was actually doing dishes. My “career” at the Pizza Barn started in the dish room. Since we were open on weekends until well after midnight, I recall the last thing to get done at the end of the workday was the dishes. Since we didn’t have a dishwasher in those early days, I have memories of myself standing at the dish sink with him as we tag-teamed the endless sink full of dishes. I remember him telling me, “Make sure to get all the cheese off the forks.” He wanted things done right ... no matter what area of the restaurant it was. He wasn’t nitpicky, that was never how I perceived him. He just had “his way.” And you trusted it.
I eventually graduated to the dining room where I primarily worked with my mom waitressing. Somehow, I kept gravitating toward the kitchen though. My dad was in the kitchen primarily and the memories are endless. Absolutely every menu item and every detail on how to make each menu item comes from him. Again, he was very precise on how he wanted things to be prepared, especially the pizza. Sauce to the edge, cheese spread evenly, plenty of toppings, no food waste, make sure the cheese is browned. Tons of details because he was a detail-oriented person. Obviously, it worked!
There is a picture of my dad and I working ... in the kitchen in the early days. It was taken by Joel (Stottrup) and printed with the original article. It is now on the front of our menu. I remember that day well!
Q: What are some of the lessons, not only in terms of business, but also some of life’s lessons that you learned from your dad?
A: The main lesson I learned from my dad ... because he said it and he practiced it: “Treat people how you want to be treated.” He practiced that in the business, and he lived it outside of the business. That’s just who he was, so I really don’t think it was a hard lesson to try to set an example for. He was just so personable with everyone! He honestly loved to chat and get to know people. You call that PR, but to him, it was just genuine to who he was. That made his business successful because I think the customers saw it as genuine as well. It gave him lifelong friendships outside of the business because people that had the good fortune to befriend him knew it was genuine.
There are so many things I’ve learned from my dad through the years, but they pale in comparison to that lesson.
Q: The Pizza Barn has been an integral part of the community for a long time and built up a following. How do you view its legacy?
A: His (Noel’s) legacy is what I mentioned in the second question. Who he was. But being a nice guy will only get you so far. He and my mom and my grandfather created a great product. The three of them worked so hard to create something that tasted wonderful. They wanted people to have a great experience so they would come back and the business would flourish. They succeeded because Pizza Barn has a distinguished taste. We make our own sauce and dough, so it’s unique to us. My dad speaks to this better in the original article. He lived the creative process while I was on the sidelines. I have come to realize that if you were raised in Princeton and you stay, you become a regular. If you leave, it’s a destination when you come home. Everyone has their favorites with us — maybe it’s the pizza, could be the cheese bread, some love our sub sandwiches where others love our salads with our house salad dressings. After 36 years, that’s our following ... people who have had their go-to favorites. Some for 36 years, some newer ... maybe only 25 years.
Q: You mentioned you had some conversations with your dad before he had passed regarding the future of the Pizza Barn. What were those conversations like, knowing that he was still so passionate about the family business?
A: The conversations with my dad originally started with updating. When I stepped in four years ago to take over, I had some “interesting” ideas (his word). I wanted to remodel our dining room, get an updated computer POS (Point of Sale) system, have a website, offer online ordering, outdoor seating, and get our beer and wine license. He completely wanted nothing to do with learning new technology as a 70-plus-year-old man, so he sat back and let me push forward with the website, online ordering and new POS. The concept he had the hardest time visualizing was the remodeling of the dining room. When my brother Chris and I explained thoughts and ideas, he just scratched his head. Our interpretation of that was “well, he didn’t say no, so let’s do it!” So we did. In the end, he loved the changes and we breathed a huge sigh of relief. We haven’t completed the entire project yet because his cancer diagnosis forced us to put our plans on the back burner. Our time was spent with him rather on construction projects at the Pizza Barn. We do have plans to finish the dining room, however, and Dad has spent many, many hours with us just sitting in the dining room trying to visualize how to complete our project. In the end, he wasn’t scratching his head as much anymore!
More recently, our conversations focused on growth and expansion. In the early ‘80s when we first came to Princeton, we were the only pizza place in town. We had to do minimal in terms of marketing and advertising. Now, we have much more competition. We have to think outside the box more and get more creative. We don’t want to expand in terms of more brick and mortar locations, but we do want to expand forward in getting the Pizza Barn name recognized statewide. We discussed moving forward with food trucks so we can travel statewide and offer our menu items at special events, festivals, breweries and private parties. We also want to capitalize on Highway 169 and the millions of travelers that go right along the outskirts of Princeton as they are traveling. We want to give them a delicious reason to bump off the highway. We want outstate Minnesota residents to connect the name Pizza Barn to Princeton and come see us. There are so many little towns in our state that when you hear their name, they are synonymous with a great place to eat — Betty’s Pies in Two Harbors, The Hubble House in Mantorville, King’s Place in Miesville are just a few examples. I’m sure everyone born and raised in Minnesota has that special place they have to go to when they are nearby. That’s what we want the Pizza Barn to be for Princeton.
It won’t be just the Pizza Barn, but the city of Princeton that would benefit from a following like that.
In order to start getting the Pizza Barn name recognized, we need a statewide audience. We didn’t know what that was until we stumbled across “Preps Today w/ John Millea.”
John had originally followed the Pizza Barn on Twitter. I noticed he liked some things I had posted regarding the concession stands and teams we provided food for. I in turn followed him back, found out what he did for the MSHSL and promotion of prep sports statewide. I then became a fan of his show and shared it with my dad. Dad was even brave enough to put a podcast app on his phone (that was huge)!
At the time, John’s show was sponsored by a frozen pizza distributor out of Royalton. I told my dad if a sponsorship opportunity ever became available, we should jump on it. Fast forward to a year later and we found out the show was on hiatus because they didn’t have a sponsor. Once Dad found out John’s show was owned by Jim Souhan’s Talk North network who also co-hosted, he was even more receptive to the idea. My dad read the Minneapolis Star Tribune daily and the first section he went to was the sports section. Being Jim was a sports journalist for the Star and the Tribune, my dad was on board. The last conversation with my dad before his passing was to tell him Jim and I had been e-mailing and we were moving forward with sponsorship. The deal was done. I only wish he could have heard the first podcast.
Despite my dad’s failing physical health due to cancer, his mental health and understanding of all things going on around him was sharp until the very end. He may not have been able to physically get to the Pizza Barn the last six weeks of his life, but he was still very much a part of it. He wasn’t only passionate about the business, he was passionate about me carrying it forward. He made a point to tell each of the reps we do business with “thank you for being so helpful to Jody while she learns.” He didn’t leave one word left unspoken to anyone.
Q: What does the future of the Pizza Barn look like and how do you plan to be involved in carrying on his legacy?
A: Some ideas I’ve revealed and in some cases the wheel is in motion to carry those (ideas) forward. Other ideas I’m still working on and will wait to reveal until I can carry them forward a little more. I did take over partial ownership as a partnership with my parents in mid-2018. That being said, the future of the Pizza Barn will stay in our family for the foreseeable future. All three of my children are just becoming part of the business as well, so if they choose to have the Pizza Barn as a part of their future, I welcome it. Hopefully I’m as good of a mentor to them as my dad was to me.