The LaRocca's Pizza Story
The story began when both founders, Vince & Irene LaRocca along with Irene’s son Oskar all worked at a Mom & Pops Pizza & Italian Restaurant in South Carolina in 1985; while Vince was on active duty in the US Air Force and the family was stationed there. The Mom & Pop folks (Greg & Peggy) remain friends today. Our family learned so much from them and also works very hard to help them succeed. It was a great relationship! The business there grew very well and remains strong as we speak!
Several years later and a couple of Air Force assignments later, our family wound up at Lakenheath, England. When we arrived, we checked into a hotel for our temporary living until base housing was available. While checking in, we were told by the hotel owners (Greg & Sonya) that they were “trying to open a restaurant” in the hotel and they were waiting for a 5-Star Chef to come from Ireland to help with that. At that time, we asked: “Do you want to open an Italian Restaurant?”
They said: maybe! We then prepared an Italian dinner of Chicken Parmesan for them to sample! That did the trick! They were sold! We then contacted our original restaurant friends and told them we were planning to open an Italian Restaurant in England and they provided us with information to help us get started! They only asked that we never open one anywhere near them and we promised them never to do so!
Within about one month of being in country, our first restaurant (#1) was open inside the Lakenheath Hotel. It was a 50/50 partnership between us and the hotel owners. The original restaurant name was: The Charles Dickens Italian Restaurant! (That was Greg's idea). Soon after, we changed it to LaRocca’s Italian Restaurant. (Much better - our idea)
The first couple of months were not busy at all, but still were serving a purpose in the hotel. Some nights we would just sit around chit-chatting with only a few total customers. By the time the six-month mark came around, we normally had people waiting in the lobby 2-3 hours for a table!
I believe this is where we came up with our main company vision:
“We don't care how many people come in on any given day, 10 or 200, as long as they ALL come back, that's all that matters.”
We have continued this same philosophy to this day!
Following a couple years or so of success the hotel was sold and our agreement wasn't working well with the new owners, so we left!
At this point, we figured we were done with the restaurant business in England even though many of our customers missed us and we missed them!
About six months later there was a “big sale” on the base. They had built a new NCO Club and were holding a sale at the old club! Anyone that knows us, knows that we have always enjoyed these type sales. When the base has sales like these, they bring all kinds of things from all over the base to liquidate!
We had only planned to pick up a few miscellaneous “thing” we couldn’t live without! Lol!
We waited in line for a while and when we entered we were told that the way the sale was being conducted was that every item had a two-part tag on it. All you had to do is pull off one-part of the tag if you wanted it and it was yours! Well, one thing to keep in mind is this sale was only open to US Base Personnel, (sale not open to the British public) I was basically the only person at the sale that had any interest in the actual restaurant equipment!
The first thing I seen was a very heavy duty 9' stainless steel table. It was tagged for $5!
At this point, I started taking tags off all restaurant equipment and told Irene: “We are going back in the restaurant business!” I really didn't know how or where, but I bought a large truckload of equipment for only a couple hundred dollars!
Now I had to figure out where we were even going to store this equipment or try to set up shop somewhere! There was a local British pizza place in the neighboring town of Mildenhall, England in the middle of an industrial estate. This place didn’t have very good food at all in our opinion. I went there and as they were sitting on a couch watching TV waiting for any orders to come in, I told them that I had just purchased some equipment and wondered if they had any interest in becoming partners. They knew of us from our previous restaurant. They decided not to do so a couple of days later. Very close to that pizza place, I seen a “garage type” unit that had a “for rent” sign on it. I inquired about it and I told the owners our story and that for now we just needed a place to store the equipment and it would be possible that we could actually open a take away & delivery only pizza place there! They rented this unit to us on and we wound up turning it into a 40’x20’ kitchen that had was nearly exclusively delivery mainly due to its location. (#2) This was the first restaurant that we owned on our own. It took off very quickly and about one year later, we were award a contract to operate a LaRocca’s Restaurant on RAF Feltwell. (#3) We operated these two restaurants until we left for reassignment with the Air Force to Eglin AFB, Florida in 1998.
After retiring from the Air Force and spending one year living in the Chicagoland area, Vince was hired by Frito Lay and the family relocated to Topeka in 2001.
The first LaRocca’s Restaurant (#4) in the Topeka area was open for one season on Lake Perry @ DJ’s Rock Creek Marina. Had a fun / busy time there, but again, it was only for the one season.
Next up was in the Plaza Inn Hotel on SW Topeka Blvd. (#5) In this one we had a full buffet. The majority of the support for this one came from all our friends / co-workers at Frito Lay!
We then took a break for a few years before opening at 21st & Urish. (#6) This was the start of making the LaRocca’s Pizza concept a successful business operation. At this store, our customer base grew beyond expectations! From the first day this one opened, our customers have been so loyal and supportive! Most days we were at capacity, so we opened up our current store on SW Gage (#7) in an expansion effort. At the time of opening Gage, we had no intention of closing the Urish store, but after one year of operating both in addition to the full time position at Frito Lay, the lease was up, and we unfortunately did close the Urish store. The worst part of this was that we really disappointed many of our Great customers! Fortunately, most of them followed us to our Gage store and it has done extremely well since opening!
In 2015, we lost one of the heart & souls of our business when Irene passed away. The outpouring of support from around Topeka and especially from our “family like” customer base has helped ease the pain and we certainly appreciate it!
In 2016, we shifted gears and LaRocca’s out on South Topeka Blvd opened as a “franchise type” operation. It is owned and operated by Jeff Burnett and his family. Jeff was a LaRocca’s Gage employee and also has years of restaurant management experience.