Feb 10, 2024

📸 Flashback Friday: Salina Post - Tony's Pizza - Vol. 28

Posted Feb 10, 2024 2:02 AM

Salina Post proudly presents Flashback Friday in partnership with the Smoky Hill Museum. Enjoy a weekly tidbit of local history from the staff at Salina Post and the Smoky Hill Museum as we present "Salina-Flashback Fridays."

Tony's Little Italy restaurant in downtown Salina, c. 1960s.<b> Image courtesy Smoky Hill Museum</b>
Tony's Little Italy restaurant in downtown Salina, c. 1960s. Image courtesy Smoky Hill Museum

By SALINA POST

The sprawling footprint of Tony's Pizza feels like a feature of the landscape for most Salinans, but the multi-billion dollar company began small with an entrepreneur at a tiny eatery in downtown Salina.

Tony's Little Italy opened in 1960, serving homemade pizza and Italian dishes from the recipes of Dick Barlow and Tony Paglia.

As the business grew in popularity, Tony's Little Italy looked for a new side venture and decided to sell frozen half-baked pizzas to local taverns and bars.

Unbeknownst to the new restaurant owners, this was only the beginning for Tony's Pizza.

According to the Smoky Hill Museum, Barlow purchased Tony's from his brother-in-law Paglia in 1963 and began selling pizzas to local establishments.

Downtown Salina, c. 1960-1970. <b>Image courtesy Smoky Hill Museum</b>
Downtown Salina, c. 1960-1970. Image courtesy Smoky Hill Museum

This side-venture was simply the beginning for the new entrepreneur.

Within a few years, Tony's demand began outgrowing its production, and just in time for Barlow, Schilling Air Force Base closed and left a 19,000-square-foot building open for purchase alongside other large structures.

READ MORE: 📸 Flashback Friday: Salina Post - Schilling Air Force Base - Vol. 15

The expansive building became just the first step for the small business, with sales reaching further into Central Kansas.

Soon, Barlow stumbled across an advertisement in the Wall Street Journal titled "Wanted: Frozen Pizza Manufacturer."

According to the Schwan's Company website, Marvin Schwan, the late brother of Schwan Enterprises Board Chair Al Schwan, purchased Tony's Pizza in 1970.

Tony's manufacturing capacity was a new leap for Schwan's since, throughout the 1960s, the company's customer demand had outgrown its production capabilities.

Once Schwan's had its own pizza manufacturing company headquartered in Salina, the company quickly grew, with new buildings popping up yearly to expand the manufacturing site.

Tony's footprint grew continuously for two decades, with new construction every year until it sprawled across more than 500,000 square feet near the Salina Regional Airport.

<b>On the left of the concept drawing is the 400,000-square-foot manufacturing space. On the right is the cubelike distribution center that is expected to be completed in 2025.&nbsp;</b>
On the left of the concept drawing is the 400,000-square-foot manufacturing space. On the right is the cubelike distribution center that is expected to be completed in 2025. 

READ MORE: 'Pizza Capital of the World': Schwan’s celebrates pizza plant expansion

Years before Tony's hit half a million square feet of production, Tony's became the best-selling pizza on the market, and with the future in mind, Schwan's aimed to find new ventures.

With rising competition from fellow frozen pizza manufacturers, Tom Caron, a former Schwan's leadership team member, had an idea to begin another line of frozen pizzas for the company — Red Baron.

The new pizza launched in 1976 and introduced the same way Tony's was in 1963 through sales at local taverns complete with a beer stein branded across the box.

Once the new pizza line gained popularity, Schwan's introduced it to grocery-store freezes and a new look with its recognizable mascot, "Pizza Baron."

Today, Tony's Pizza only continues to grow, making Salina the “Frozen Pizza Capital of the World.”

According to the Smoky Hill Museum, reported sales reach more than $2 billion annually, and the company employs more than 2,000 workers at the giant manufacturing site.