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by Toad



What is it about a pizza joint that has kept its former employees so loyal to it and each other?   There have been thousands of fast food restaurants in this country and maybe millions of former employees, but you don't often see these people getting together for reunions or football games 25 years later or creating websites about their years there.  What is the mystique of GJ?


You could point out that GJ was a sole proprietorship, not a chain franchise.  Being a stand-alone family-owned restaurant makes it more unique than a cookie cutter chain restaurant; there wasn't a GJ on every corner, it was a single sought-out destination.  It was sort of a Pearce High School hangout, but there were other pizza restaurants (even sole proprietorships) within easy reach of PHS.


It was a pizza restaurant, and compared to burgers or Chinese or TexMex, pizza is universally regarded as a fun food, a kind of bread, meat, veggie and cheese all-in-one delicacy that you can eat with your hands.  The spices used are less familiar to the average diner than those used in burgers.  Making a pizza is a partly artistic enterprise, spreading the ingredients just right to look like a design; it's a challenging endeavor to make sure that they are baked evenly and to the correct doneness (at least in our non-conveyor belt ovens) compared to slapping a burger together.  GJ didn't serve large, thin-crust New York-style pizza or deep-dish Chicago-style pizza.  We called it Texas-style pizza, kind of a hybrid of the two, but using provolone cheese slices rather than shredded mozzarella.  It was good pizza, but not amazing enough to keep people coming in for the food alone.


You could say that the GJ store was an interesting experience for a customer.  You walked in and (in the old days) immediately heard and felt a wood parquet floor under your feet, not many retail stores of any kind had those.  The kitchen was in full view right up front where you got to see you food being prepared from all angles, again, rare for restaurants.  The old-time railroad/stagecoach decor of the place was fun and well-designed, from the unique floor plan to the decorations.  The outside overhang of the front kitchen was originally covered by a corrugated metal roof to simulate a rugged old train depot; the whole restaurant was covered in very rough wood paneling, continuing the motif.  There were railroad signs, old Coke advertising signs on the walls.  Walking down the hallway you saw an enclosed dark and cozy multi-tiered theatre, not many of those around.  The outside had the shadow box (a very personalized aspect of our staff) and for some reason, a urinal.  Further back, the dining room wasn't one continuous space as most restaurants of this size tend to be.  The dining area was broken up by different floor levels, partial walls, four separate booths with their own motifs (think the jail) and (again, in the old days) all of the tables were different from each other and all of the chairs were different from each other.  It really looked like an old time saloon, but one that had lost a few pieces of furniture that had to be replaced by non-matching pieces. There were a few video and pinball machines for distraction before or after your meal.  And the ubiquitous mid 70s/mid 80s rock coming in over the vacuum tube stereo.


In my opinion, all of these things added to the GJ experience, but the most important part was the people involved. When a customer came into the store, they were greeted by an employee in a personalized GJ shirt with an enthusiastic "Howdy, can I help ya?” or if you phoned in your order, you heard "Graaaaaaaaaaand Junction Pizza, can I help you?"  When you announced an order, you'd say, "Order number 58, your order's ready, number five-eight, thank you!"  And these weren't affectations, when you worked at GJ, you could genuinely feel good about giving the customers quality food and service, and that came across in how we dealt with our customers.  These were the days when the proper response to a customer's "Thank you" was "You're welcome!” not "No problem"; in the food service business (or any business for that matter), it shouldn't be a problem to serve someone, that's what you're there for.


So what made employees so happy to work at GJ?  I can only speak for myself; I started back in the Gary Jost era.  The thing stressed back then was professionalism, discipline in the ranks, and finally, quality in the food and service and gaining a genuine pride in yourself for a job well done.  It didn't matter whether you were making the pizza or bussing tables or scrubbing down the sub station: "There's never enough time to do it right, but there is always enough time to do it over"--and that was strictly enforced.  You learned quickly to put your best effort into everything you did.  There were even regularly scheduled "Scrub Parties" where every employee came in to "scrub every surface of GJ to within an inch of its life", not a common thing in the restaurant business.  All of these values continued throughout the lifetime of GJ.  And when you and everyone else took pride in the work, you felt good about coming into work and you felt good about the people that you worked with.  Employees often informally competed for who could do the best job at a given task.  You respected them for their pride in their work, so they became your friends, not just coworkers.


In some cases, they became more than just friends.  Many employees dated each other.   We were mostly teens and we grew up at GJ, and that included the first steps into romance for some.  Some actually got married.   And sadly, some divorced.


We came into GJ whether we were working or not, sometimes just to catch up with another employee or to get a quick bite, or play video games, or to watch TV (Jeopardy rules) in the theatre.  Heck, sometimes you'd be tapped to help out in a rush, even when you weren't scheduled!  Later, when Willingham introduced beer and wine, employees would play quarters in the dining room (not actually a good idea to make other customers comfortable, but hey, it's part of our history).


Many of us used our GJ wages to buy our first cars.  With this newfound freedom and independence, we began to use GJ as a base of operations.  We'd meet there before going to a movie, taking a road trip, playing sports like football, basketball, and racquetball.  In the Jost era, there was a Sunday football game every week.  We carried this tradition forward meeting annually on Thanksgiving Day, a tradition so impressive, it was deemed worthy by Sports Illustrated for publication in the letters section of the Dec '06/Jan '07 issue (thanks, Rosy).  After closing on most weekend nights, the closers (and sometimes other employees who may or may not have worked that night) would go out for "Midnight Breakfast", to JoJo's and later Denny's, to spend even more time with each other.  We even used GJ as the setting for some of our amateur animation films, as if working there weren't enough; we wanted to chronicle it, albeit as a spoof, for posterity.  And this entailed staying late!  After closing the restaurant and filming into the wee hours, you've really got to love a place to do that.


When David and his then-wife Petey took over GJ, it got even better.  They seemed to truly care about the employees.  We had Christmas parties at GJ and later David and Petey felt good enough about us to open up their own home to us for Christmas parties, pool parties, and even for parties after annual Scrub Parties.  They worked as hard as or harder than any of us to make GJ a great place to eat and work.  But remember, once and for all: "It was not a clubhouse!!”


Long since GJ went under, we've kept in touch, forming lasting friendships.  Many of us still get together regularly to play hockey, softball, soccer or just video games.  We go to each other's weddings.  We've grown older, had kids (they're now playing with us at the Annual Thanksgiving Day GJ Football Game!) and moved on to careers as parents and professionals.  Why do we always say with an unmistakable pride, "Yeah, I worked at Grand Junction!"?  You don't hear people say that they worked at McDonald's or even Pizza Hut with the same exuberance and pride.  In my opinion, GJ wasn't just a job to endure for several hours and then punch a clock.  It was a microcosm of life growing up: you learned about pride, hard work, relationships with other people, how we each could make our own life and those around us better and happier.


GJ Lives




GJ's - the time of our lives