A pizza tradition ended in Tillsonburg Saturday night when Bill's Pizza closed its doors.
"We're done – we're retiring," said Irene and Don Baxter Friday afternoon.
It was Don's father, William Harold Baxter (1923-2014), who opened Bill's Pizza at 45 Broadway in 1972. Don and his wife Irene started working there that same year. They later took over when Don's dad retired.
On a Bill's Pizza Facebook page they asked 'what is your favourite part about Bill's Pizza?' The three top answers in the poll were real bacon, old-fashioned thin crust, and the sauce. Large deluxe with extra mushrooms qualified as 'most popular.'
"We make our own dough," said Don.
"It's unique, it's fresh all the time," Irene nodded, adding with a laugh, "and lately it's been four batches a day."
Traditional is another word they used to describe their pizza. You would never find 'modern' ingredients like feta or goat cheese... or broccoli.
"Mom and pop's," she said. "We're not trying to be like the chains. Never have been. They do their thing, I do mine. Keep it simple. You want fancy, you go some place else, right?"
After 43 years in the business, Don, 72, and Irene, 68, decided it was 'time' when their building, adjacent to Broadway Lanes, was sold.
"We were thinking about relocating, but we chose – at this point of our lives – to retire," said Irene.
They had offers to sell, but none met their requirements.
"We had a lot of tire kicking," Bill nodded.
"You have to realize, this is not a business for people with small children," said Irene. "You have to be here seven days a week. You can't just say 'okay it's a weekend I want to go away...' You've got a business to run here."
It was busy sometimes, Don smiled, that he didn't know whether he was coming or going.
"I would get out of bed in the morning and meet myself coming home," he joked. "That's about what it was like."
As retirees, they have the freedom to travel now when they want, where they want.
"We've made a lot of sacrifices over the years," said Don.
"And our kids (Kevin and Christopher) sacrificed a lot, too. We were here and they were home, or they were here for work. They missed parties and stuff," she added with a chuckle, "which maybe was a good thing."
"People are sad to see you go," said a customer leaving with her pizza.
"I know," Irene nodded. "We hear it all the time."
When word started to spread on social media the Baxters were retiring, more and more people started coming in for pizza. Some from as far away as Toronto.
"We were always busy," said Irene. "But it's just been an over-abundance pouring out. A man came in today, he's been getting pizza three or four times a week – he's putting them in his freezer. And he said he's coming back tomorrow to get another one. There was a lady from St. Thomas, she said 'I just have to get my last Bill's pizza. I grew up on Bill's pizza.' When the orders started coming in for this weekend... never in a million years did I think it was going to be like this. Never."
"We're into a lot of third generation customers," Don noted. "We've had a lot of different generations coming in."
"They were coming here when they were teenagers," Irene nodded. "They're married now, and they're bringing their kids in. Some of the customers who come in every week, we've seen them grow up."
The same is true for employees. Don figures they hired nearly 800 students over 43 years.
"It was good money for school," he said.
"The kids started working here in Grade 9, some in Grade 8," said Irene, who would start them as box folders and dish washers before 'graduating' them to pizzas. "And they'd stay until Grade 12-13."
"It was like a family," said Don, "watching them grow up."
Glancing up at their sponsor wall, full of ringette, soccer and baseball team photos, they could say the same about teams Bill's Pizza sponsored.
"They asked if we would sponsor – and we did it every year," said Irene. "And we always try to sponsor the little kids."
Tillsonburg Mayor Stephen Molnar, who came in to order pizza Friday, described Don and Irene Baxter as 'real, genuine people.'
"We don't toot our own horn," said Don. "We're just two common people, making a living. And enjoying every minute of it."
With the final night just over 24 hours away, Don and Irene wanted to express their thanks to the community.
"Everybody," said Don. "Staff, everybody..."
"I'm going to write something up for the paper," said Irene, who wants to prepare a formal thank you. "When you've been here for 43 years... a lot of people need to be thanked."