Merry Pizza, Happy Toppings: No Lack of Ambience at Bob's Pizza
The roadhouse on U.S 1 in Vass might be called Bob's Pizza and Toy Cars. Or Bob's Pizza and Bertha's Paintings. Or Bob's Pizza and Extraordinary Christmas Decorations. Or Bob's Pizza and No Beer.
"When we opened this guy told me we'd never make it unless we sold beer," Bob Newcomer says. "Never served a beer -- and we've been here 37 years. This is a family place."
Whatever works, works, especially the annual Christmas display -- part sacred, part Disney; part manufactured but much homemade -- that stretches from the restaurant to the Newcomers' enlarged mobile home and draws onlookers from around Moore County.
Often, after viewing, they come in for a pie.
The peasant pizza concept -- baking bits of food on scraps of leftover dough -- has been around since Biblical times. Twentieth-century Americans created a cult differentiated by dough. Newcomer, unlike the stereotypical Giovanni in the window, rolls his dough through a press. The result has elements of matzo, Saltine crackers and the crispy thin darling of gourmet pizzerias -- which Bob's certainly is not.
Gourmet pizzerias don't sell ham sandwiches for $1.50. Or half-gallons of sweet tea for $1.50.
And how many Pizza Huts have hosted a wedding supper?
Newcomer and his product are iconoclasts. He's a self-described "Hoosier with tar heels," an Army sergeant who, in 1959, learned pizza from a Sicilian in Phoenix, where you can bake 'em right on the sidewalk.
"I took what I liked about his and came up with my own," Newcomer says. "If you get your crust and sauce right, everything else comes together."
Beginning the Business
Life hasn't always been so logical for the 79-year-old with twinkling eyes and a sharp wit. Newcomer was born in industrial Elkhart, Ind., a hot dog-and-hamburger town where, he says, nobody ever heard of pizza. His parents worked in a factory producing organ parts. Newcomer already had experience assembling mobile homes when he joined the Army in 1948.
Newcomer served 11 years in Korea, Japan and Europe, rising to sergeant -- the rank that still follows his name in the Moore County Telephone Directory. It was at an NCO Club in Germany where Newcomer first attempted pizza. He transferred this skill to Fort Bragg, where he was approached by prospective pizza-parlor partners who, Newcomer surmised, just wanted to steal his recipe.
Something else happened at Fort Bragg, something ripped from a paperback novel.
Bob noticed a sweet, spunky lady at a club dance. Bertha, a Sandhills native not yet free from a brutal marriage, attended the events with a girlfriend.
She saw Bob dancing with her friend. They became acquainted. Bob listened to her story of remaining in an unhappy marriage until the children were grown and said, "I'll be waiting when you get free."
He sealed the promise with one red rose.
Bertha left her husband, moved in with her mother and obtained a quick divorce.
"An hour and 20 minutes later we got married," she says with a broad smile.
The chemistry is still obvious.
Bob was working at Proctor-Silex, but couldn't shake the pizza notion. This, after all, was 1967, when pizza was fairly new to the South -- and an opportunity.
He rented a gas station on Morganton Road in Southern Pines for the original Bob's. When Bank of America purchased the location Newcomer had to move.
He and Bertha were living in a mobile home on U.S. 1 in Vass. Why not build adjacent to his home, since many of his downtown customers drove that stretch every day?
Newcomer needed $17,000 for construction. "I went to Jim Gambrell at the bank," Newcomer says. "He picked up a pizza, called me and said you can have it -- the pizza is that good."
Bob's reopened in 1972, with Newcomer making pizza by day, working as a plumber by night.
The classic sign out front comes from the former Clam Box on U.S. 1. Its marquee reads "Happy Birthday" because, Newcomer says, every day is somebody's. Might as well celebrate with a pizza.
A Style All Its Own
The interior -- which has been enlarged but not renovated -- could be a Federico Fellini set with Stephen King overtones.
Wooden booths are hard and straight -- no upholstery to replace, which might raise prices. Other fixtures are 1950s dineresque.
Every inch of wallspace -- even ceiling tiles -- are covered by Bertha's untutored but sincere art with subjects ranging from harvesting tobacco to camels she encountered in Egypt and local squirrels.
"I wouldn't hang it if wasn't good," Bob says with a smile.
Bertha's paintings are not for sale. Once she succumbed to a $150 offer, then tried to buy back the cornfield landscape that represented an important part of her past.
"I had a chance to go to art school but Daddy made me get married," Bertha says.
Instead, she became a renaissance woman who builds shelves, installs roof shingles while pregnant, quilts, collects all manner of things and spins stories about world travels financed by $50,000 won playing five-buck slots in Atlantic City.
Until she met Bob, Bertha had never left North Carolina. Now they have flown in a hot air balloon over Egypt's Valley of the Kings, climbed Masada in Israel, traveled to Mexico, Bermuda, Greece, New Zealand, Holland, Brussels and Scandinavia.
They have snorkeled in the Red Sea and sampled pizza in Naples, birthplace of the modern genre.
Bob wrinkles his nose and says, "Nothing special."
Almost every horizontal surface in the restaurant is crowded with toy cars, from tiny Matchbox trucks to special edition liquor-bottle sedans to a ride-on Oscar Meyer Weinermobile, a collectors' item for which he paid $375.
His first car was a red Avon after-shave bottle shaped like a sports model, purchased at a yard sale, still resting on a shelf near the door.
Bob does not seem concerned with the value of his collections, which include Beanie Babies, thimble cups and more than the eye can take in.
"When I'm gone, that's the kids' inheritance," he says.
Meanwhile, back at the parlor (notice the wall-mounted coin phone box and heavily frosted ice cream chest), expansion became necessary.
Bob purchased a portable classroom for $2,500, which he hooked up to the main building. Now, customers walk from the small restaurant into a party room, a game room and a pool room.
On the south end, Bob built the Dolls' House for Bertha's monumental assortment of theme and other dolls, many new, in original boxes, which increase value.
She is an enthusiastic docent, pointing out Lucille Ball, Bruce Lee, Marlo Thomas as "That Girl," Winston Churchill, Eleanor Roosevelt, Bob Hope and incarnations of Barbies, including a N.C. State cheerleader.
Bertha moves on to her quilts (one a 9/11 memorial) and a scrapbook which contains a note on Buckingham Palace stationery from a lady-in-waiting to Princess Diana, thanking Bertha for an ink drawing of the royal couple.
Her accumulation fails inventorying.
"I'm an oddball," Bertha admits. "Ain't nobody got a life like me."
The 83-year-old attributes her energy/stamina to God.
Her mantra: "Anybody that wants to do anything can do it."
What a couple they make, Bob -- with his Caring for Others award from Woodmen of the World, Bertha -- who carries poinsettias to shut-ins at Christmas, and their thriving business where a lonely widow feels comfortable spending afternoons chatting with employees and a handicapped child is allowed to dress her own pizza.
Bob, still the entrepreneur, operates several side businesses and Bertha speaks up on local affairs, like commercial development in her beloved Vass.
"They messed it up good," she says. "Now people are either leaving or dying."
Although Bob's opens only Wednesday through Saturday, retirement isn't a prospect.
"I'm here. I cook the 'touch of the master hand'," Bob says with a grin, then bristles: "Papa John says 'better ingredients.' You can't get better than mine. Mine's not precooked. I shred my own cheese."
Besides, Bob's has dcor not available from restaurant-supply catalogs. Something else, too: history.
"I used to ride my bike up after school," says Ed Nicely, who owns a nearby gun shop. "We'd have pizza and play out back."
Now he brings his family or stops by for a hot dog at lunchtime.
Pizza has been called the antidote to holiday fare, yet strangely appropriate since many pizzerias adopt the red and green of Italy.
Not Bob Newcomer. His remains an all-American, down-to-earth eatery where, besides anchovies and spicy sausage, you can get barbecue on or off the pie. The salad cart features iceberg with trimmins'. No gelato, either, just hand-scooped chocolate, vanilla, strawberry and Milky Way.
Recession, depression, election, bail-out, fallout, whatever -- Bob's customers eat it up.
"That's all that counts, that they keep coming back," he says.
Contact Deborah Salomon at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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