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My First Restaurant Job: Panhandler's Pizza

Panhandler's whole pizzas are served thick, round and loaded with toppings.
Panhandler's whole pizzas are served thick, round and loaded with toppings.
Courtesy of Panhandler's Pizza
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As restaurants reopen at full capacity and scramble for employees, we're sharing the stories of people who got their first jobs at eateries around the area. Have a tale you'd like to share? Email cafe@westword.com.

Mark Antonation was the Westword food and drink editor from June 2014 to May 2021. He shares his experience working his way from delivery guy to manager at an iconic Fort Collins pizza joint some thirty years ago.

Where: Panhandler's Pizza, Fort Collins

When: 1988 to 1994

About the place: Panhandler's Pizza opened in 1975 as a deep-dish specialist at 1220 West Elizabeth Street in Fort Collins. John Olson bought the place from the original owners, Steve and Pam Foster, in 1981. The popularity of Panhandler's — known to Fort Collins residents as Pan's — can't be overstated. The unique style of pizza, especially the square slices served in individual boxes until the early 1990s, made it a magnet for high school kids during lunch hour and for families and college students at night, lured by beer specials and filling pizzas served in the steel pans they were cooked in. The original Panhandler's closed in 2017 after the landlord sold the property to developers (who put up boxy apartment buildings where the red-brick pizzeria once stood), but a former manager, Louann DeCoursey (who I worked with), bought the business from Olson and reopened it at 2721 South College Avenue in 2018. DeCoursey salvaged the fireplace mantle and some of the brick from the original location and incorporated it into her new restaurant, which she runs with her husband, Mike Piotraschke.

How did you get the job? Truthfully, this wasn't my first restaurant job. I worked at McDonald's in my teens, but this was the first time I worked for a local, independently owned establishment — and the experience was far different than that of a corporate fast-food chain. After jobs in apartment painting and hotel conference-room setup, the idea of delivering pizza seemed glamorous and potentially lucrative. I was hired in the fall of 1988 to help handle the seasonal uptick in business marking the return of students to CSU.

What I did: I drove a metallic-brown 1977 Pontiac Astre Safari station wagon until it gave out, and then I switched to pizza prep and the "baker" position, which was the person responsible for pulling pizzas from the oven, slicing them and boxing them or serving customers at tables in the dining room. Because the pizzas were built on a thick, bready crust, evaluating each pie was a skill learned through experience; sometimes pizzas needed a little more time in the oven and sometimes they needed to be pulled a minute or two early. Bakers had to serve the pizzas, bus tables, wash dishes and deal with customers in the dining room (even though guests rarely tipped — it was counter service, after all). From there, I switched to day shifts — prepping toppings, making dough and readying the restaurant for the lunch rush. I was in and out of college during that time, so having a full-time job allowed me to save money for tuition between semesters or to scale back from forty-plus hours to thirty or so when I was taking classes.

The square pizzas by the slice at Panhandler's look as good as they did in 1990.EXPAND
The square pizzas by the slice at Panhandler's look as good as they did in 1990.
Courtesy of Panhandler's Pizza

What I learned: Over six years, I worked every job in the restaurant, including dough maker, where I learned to sense the difference between good and bad batches (made with only flour, water, yeast, salt, oil and a secret spice) from touch, sight and smell. To this day, I attribute my bread-making skills to the daily chore of mixing pizza dough. I eventually moved into management, where I did hiring, inventory and ordering, scheduling and basic accounting. I even got to help with a little recipe development. I developed long-term friendships with a crew of misfits trying to make a living and college students making a few bucks while on the four-year path, as well as a deep understanding of the industry and the people who fuel it. I wasn't always the best employee or manager, but I had the backs of my employees and busted my ass more often than not for loyal customers who had chosen Panhandler's as their favorite night out as well, as for the ingrates who stole Parmesan shakers (and sometimes more), wrecked the dining room and caused drunken disturbances after too many pitchers.

My most memorable experience: I was managing a closing shift (Panhandler's stayed open until 2 a.m. back then) the night that a disgruntled customer at the nightclub next door decided to open fire with a pistol. We were forced to stay inside the building until the police had questioned everyone in the vicinity, and we ended up feeding pizza to many of the traumatized people who left the club after they'd been questioned. After that, the owner changed the closing time to midnight on weekends to protect the safety of the employees. About a year later, I had drinks with the bouncer on duty at the club the night of the shooting, and he pulled off his T-shirt to show the scars of the several bullets he took while wrestling the shooter to the ground. That bouncer never paid for another pizza while I worked at Panhandler's.

I haven't visited Fort Collins much since moving back to Denver in 1997, but it gave me tremendous joy to see that DeCoursey had reopened Panhandler's — and I'm certain that many longtime Fort Collins residents felt the same way. If you go, don't miss the Chicago-style sausage pizza, which isn't quite the same as a traditional Chicago-style pizza — in fact, it's probably better. The sausage is made in Larimer County and stands out as flavorful and delicious above and beyond typical pizzeria sausage. The California artichoke and the spinach-ricotta pies were also developed during my tenure, though I can't take credit for their creation — except perhaps as a taste-tester. See the Panhandler's Pizza website for details, hours and menus.

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