Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.
Pizza Sam’s new owner is a familiar face to customers of the eatery which has been a fixture in Battle Creek for more than 40 years.
Tim Wygant, who managed the restaurant for 15 years and worked there on and off after that, bought the business last week. As he pulled pizza dough out of big mixer bowl and put it onto a massive wooden cutting board, Wygant says the decision to buy Pizza Sam’s was not a difficult one for him.
“The owners’ son had been managing and he wanted to move on,” Wygant says. “It was the right opportunity at the right time. The former owner has helped us tremendously with having a smooth transition.”
His relationship with the eatery, located in the Post-Franklin neighborhood, began when he started working there right out of graduation from Harper Creek High School.
“I started working here right out of high school,” he says. “A friend of mine was working here and he said they needed someone to work,” he says. “He eventually left for the military and I stayed. When I first started working here, I didn’t know what I was doing. One month later the owner asked me to be the manager. We were a lot slower then.”
He did take a few classes at Kellogg Community College, but almost everything Wygant learned -- from making the dough, to piling on the ingredients, to making sure customers leave happy -- he learned by doing.
That learning curve was fast and steep. “I was making pizzas when I first started and I had never done that before,” he says. “Not long after I started we were part of a contest where three teenagers were judging pizza places around town. We knew it was going to take place and we knew they were going to be coming in. I told the owner that maybe he should be here that night and he said, 'No, I know you can do it.'"
While they didn’t win the contest, the experience was beneficial, he says, because it showed him the importance of perseverance.
In 1986, the former owner was diagnosed with blood clots and he turned over the day-to-day operations to Wygant.
The restaurant had its roots in Alma, Mich., where it was started by a man named Sam. He started six different restaurants and eventually sold them off. Wygant’s former boss managed a Pizza Sam’s in Midland and when he found out the one in Battle Creek was for sale, he bought it in 1980.
Wygant managed the restaurant from 1981 to 1996. When the owner brought his son on to take over for him, Wygant was at a point when he wanted to explore some other options guided by his strong faith.
He prayed to God to give him a sign and opened the Bible to a passage that gave him the encouragement he needed. The next day a friend from Post Cereals came into the restaurant and said Post was hiring and that his mom could get him in. However, the following day there was a story in the newspaper about his friend's mom hiring friends that closed the door on that opportunity.
“So, I came in for a hand dexterity test and they said if I did well on the test, I would get hired,” Wygant says. “I did well because making all of those pizzas gave me good hand dexterity.”
The normally humble Wygant says he broke all kinds of records on that test, essentially “blowing it out of the water.” Then the company came to question whether the test was a fair one and ultimately he did not get hired.
But, he didn’t give up in his search for other employment. The following week he received a telephone call from a youth minister with Garrison Hills Wesleyan Church who said they were looking for someone to do work for Youth for Christ in the schools on a part-time basis.
Although he was involved in his church and took classes there, he said he never thought he wanted to go into the ministry. But, people told him he was good at it and he ended up taking online courses for three years through Liberty University
Between the two jobs, he was working 70 hours a week. During this time, his job with the church went from part-time to full-time and back to part-time. He eventually took one year off from Pizza Sam’s and then went back to help his son, who by this time, had started working there.
“It was all pretty manageable if I wasn’t working and falling asleep,” Wygant says. “You do what you need to do. With kids, youth ministry, and homeschooling, it’s not like you’re neglecting your kids.”
He and his wife have four sons two of whom who work at the restaurant. Six years ago the couple adopted three children from Colombia, who also help out.
The adoption came about at the urging of the pastor’s daughter. Wygant says he initially resisted.
“Then I prayed and said, 'God, we have four boys and I’m putting an order in for two girls,'” he says. “My kids went on a mission trip to Colombia and there were these three kids who wouldn’t leave them alone. They were up for adoption and we were trying to adopt them, but that fell through.”
So, the Wygant’s tried again, trying to adopt the same children, and learned that it would cost $50,000 which they didn’t have. “We prayed and got the money and adopted them,” Wygant says.
He and his wife didn’t speak Spanish and the children didn’t speak English, but somehow, they managed. As part of the process, the couple spent two months at a dilapidated house around the corner from the adoption agency in Colombia they were working with through Project Hope.
“The people at the orphanage told them that if they didn’t get adopted, the only way to solve their problems was to fight it out. They were 10, 9, and 6 and they were told to fight it out.” The youngsters were being told to do whatever they had to to survive.
The family has maintained a relationship with Project Hope and they heavily support an annual fundraiser that takes place this year on Saturday (April 13) at Calvary Baptist Church to provide financial support for the agency. Last year’s event raised about $17,000.
Efforts like this are an example of the deep roots Wygant has planted in the community. He says he never thought about leaving because he has family here and enjoys the life he has built for himself and his family.
“The grass is always greener until you get on the other side and have to mow it,” he says. “It’s just different dirt rearranged."
Now 56, Wygant says he plans to work for another 15 years and hopes to have one of his sons take it over the business. He continues his job with Garrison Hills because he likes it and it means a lot to him. This means 70-hour weeks with virtually no time off. But he manages.
is open seven days a week. No matter what day of the week it happens to be, Wygant and his staff of six maintain a steady workflow, with some customers dining in and the majority ordering multiple pizzas “to go.”
He usually has two people working on Mondays and five people on Fridays with more of an all-hands on deck approach on Saturdays which is easily their busiest day and night.
“It doesn’t matter what the weather is like or what sports event may be happening, we’re always busy,” Wygant says. “I can’t remember a day when we were not busy.”
The majority of his customers come from within a 10-mile radius and are regulars. He says he thinks the popularity of Pizza Sam’s has a lot to with the number of years it has been there and the quality of each pie made.
“Some people say we have the best pizza. We do have a very unique pizza. I think we almost put too much on it,” Wygant says. “We have a lot of people who have a lot of memories of this place. Several of them come in to celebrate anniversaries because this is where they had their first date. We are also seeing the grandkids of people who came in here as kids.”
Since he’s been with the restaurant, he says he knows he’s had a hand in making more than one million pizzas.
Although there are several standard pizzas on the menu, customers have the option of creating their own. A few of the pies are named for regular customers, including the Big Daddy Supreme, which is one of the most requested.
As he was prepping dough for another busy Saturday night, he says he’s not sure how he came to be the owner of a place that he could never quite leave.
“I don’t really understand that, but when I look back I understand that God does have a plan,” he says. “Now that I own it, it doesn’t feel like I’m any different of a person. It’s just that I have to pay the bills now.”