It reads: “Mike’s Pizza House will be closing on Saturday Sept. 5 after 61 years. On behalf of Mr. Mike and the Tiso Family it has been an honor and a pleasure to serve you through the years. Our heartfelt thanks to the community of Arbutus and your unwavering support.”
Mike Tiso, who died in 2004, turned the business into a family affair. His daughter, Deanna Penyak, and his son, Michael, grew up working in the shop, which opened on Labor Day in 1959.
“We started out and made sodas and wiped counters, swept floors, made pizza boxes and learned how to make pizzas,” said Penyak, who started working there at age 11, while her brother began at 12.
A combination of factors, including the coronavirus pandemic and big-name competitors, contributed to the decision to close.
“It’s very sad, it’s very sad, but you know when dad opened up in 1959, him and Leon’s were the first two places in Arbutus as far as bars and restaurants, and Sorrento’s opened up a year later and everything was fine,” Penyak said. “Since then, we can’t compete with these corporate Domino’s, Papa John’s and places like that. It’s a small mom-and-pop store.”
That family atmosphere and the pizza is what drew 1988 Lansdowne High graduate Dan Scarberry back to Mike’s Pizza even after he moved out of state.
In the early 1980s, he played in the Arbutus Little League for a baseball team sponsored by Mike’s Pizza, and he craved Friday nights.
“The deal then was if our team won, it was free pizza on Mike’s. That year I was spoiled. We were undefeated, and every night we had Mike’s,” Scarberry said.
He had two sons and moved to Pennsylvania, but that didn’t stop him and his kids from returning to Arbutus.
“At least four times a year our family makes a trip to Arbutus to eat at Mike’s, and every trip is met with talk of the undefeated season and catching up with our families. Mike’s is just as special to my boys as it was to me 40 years ago,” he said.
Scarberry and his family were scheduled to make their last trip from Lancaster to Mike’s over the weekend.
“It’s the end of an era for our family,” he said.
Penyak remembered working those busy Friday nights.
“Those boys wanted to win every Friday night and they would all be down there every Friday night. They would call ahead and say we are on our way,” said Penyak, who started pouring 20 fountain Cokes while her dad would pop the pizzas in the oven.
“What you gave away, came back to you. And as the years went on and on, the Little League season got very expensive and we just couldn’t afford it.”
“That guy (Mike) was always in there and he took care of Arbutus,” said Catonsville resident Marty Burke Jr., who also graduated from Lansdowne High in 1988. “They always had good food, always consistent, and it was a family-owned restaurant and everybody liked to support him and he supported the community.”
Patrons connected with the traditional setup that featured 1950s-style stools with an open view of the grill.
“What I like about the place is that you could see exactly how they were cooking your food,” said Rick Shackelford, owner of G.L. Shack’s Grill in Catonsville since 1993. “They have the best pizza subs.”
Bill McDermott, owner of Little Abner’s Liquors, which sits next door, admits his favorite menu item is the pizza and he enjoys sharing the customers.
“We know their customers and their customers know us,” said McDermott, whose dad opened Little Abner’s in 1964. “They will come in here while they are waiting to get their food.”
Frequent customers often become friends at both places because of the warm atmosphere.
“It’s hard to replace a place like that, that has been around for so long,” McDermott said. “You see that in the smaller businesses. People recognize their customers for years and years, and they will do whatever they can to try and do what they can for them.”
Penyak recalled a story when her dad reached out to the young workers at the ARCO gas station across the street.
“They would call in a pizza or a couple of pizzas and subs and the place didn’t close until 1 o’clock in the morning, and that’s when there were lines out the door, down the street, past the liquor store,” she recalled. “They would wait until the shop closed and my dad would say, ‘Hey guys, I’ve got some extra food here; you guys want it, and they were like sure Mr. Mike.’”
If customers were short money, he would tell them to take the food and pay him later.
He also had a list of families to whose homes he would deliver food for the kids while the parents were out, and they would settle up later.
“That’s the kind of customers we had because we knew they would come back and take care of us because we took care of them,” Penyak said.
Penyak’ s brother Michael and his wife, Melinda, have maintained that customer-friendly tradition and will do so until they close.
“Everybody thinks my brother is going into retirement; no he’s not,” Penyak said. “It’s for sale.”
Penyak is proud of the fact that the business kept its prices affordable until the end.
“It’s a working community, it takes two parents to run a household and make a mortgage payment, so we’ve kept our prices low all these years and it does turn around to come back and bite you,” Penyak said. “We do specials and things like that, and then COVID hit and then that just didn’t help.”
In addition to the assortment of subs, they sell the Party Pack of two 12-inch cheese pizzas for $14.75 or two 16-inch cheese pizzas for $16.75.
Those were deals ideal for University of Maryland, Baltimore County students, but the coronavirus pandemic disrupted the school year.
Rick Lindblade, a 1988 Lansdowne High graduate, won’t ever forget the pizza, and he put this message on the Mike’s Pizza Facebook page:
“I still talk about your pizza to this day. I grew up in Arbutus, however I moved to WV. I will be coming back before you close. I truly hope you reconsider. Mike’s Pizza House is a landmark synonymous with all the Arbutus people. The Tiso family has been and will always be respected as a leader in the Arbutus community. I’m saddened by the news you will closing up shop.”