Joplin native John Gilbreth arrived in Columbia as a college freshman in 1999. Two weeks after unpacking his bags, he dropped out of school and scored a job at a pizzeria downtown.
“I had some friends who already worked at Shakespeare’s, who came up from Joplin before me,” Gilbreth, 32, says. “I started as a driver and a dishwasher, and then I eventually worked my way up through the ranks. I was a manager and bartender for a few years. I worked there for seven years, and I loved it.”
He eventually quit Shakespeare’s, lived in South America for four months, returned to Columbia and invented Deep Dish Tuesdays at Broadway Brewery. Somewhere along the way, Gilbreth fell in love with the culture of pizza spots — the rush of quick decisions, the thrill of managing an oven on a busy Friday night and the laughter of happy customers. An idea took root in his mind in June 2012: opening his own pizza place.
“We got going really fast,” Gilbreth says. “I got the idea for a fun pizza shop, and then I pretty much quit my job and went on my pizza trip, where I ate at pizza places for a month all over the country. Then, I came back and started putting together plans for it. And I just did it. I didn’t plan enough; I wasn’t funded well enough. I just did it.”
Gilbreth came up with the shop’s name while planting vegetables in his garden. He told his roommates he needed to leave room for the pizza trees. The name stuck, and on March 18, Pizza Tree hosted its grand opening inside Mojo’s at 1013 Park Ave. More than 100 people attended the pizza party, which featured the Tree’s square slices and a large following both on-site and online.
“I don’t know how we got such engaged customers on social media,” Gilbreth says. “It was a total accident. I’m a social marketing genius, apparently. Somebody told me that once. It’s just totally dumb luck, outside of me and the relationship I have with my customers.”
Most frequent slicers know him as Johnny G., and he’s always hanging around the so-called treehouse in Mojo’s, interacting with customers, cracking jokes and singing along to the music in the extra-small kitchen. His close-knit staff embodies Gilbreth’s philosophy of relaxed but considerate customer service, partly due to the fact that most of his employees are his close friends.
“I absolutely hire friends, because it feels like they’re family,” Gilbreth says. “We’re all on this ship together. The business is so tight right now moneywise that the success of one shift really impacts everything; it determines how far we’re going to be in the red or the black next week. I guess that’s why I try to hire my friends and family, so that they can feel it too and can be empowered to make good decisions for the company.”
Staff members decide every day to include quality ingredients in every item, particularly on the Tree’s specialty “pizza art” pies. Weekly specials and Pizza Tree favorites such as the Banh Mi, Get It While It’s Hot, Ranch Hands and El Cuban all feature fresh, locally sourced ingredients.
“Our ingredients are easily of higher quality than anyone else’s in town,” Gilbreth says. “I like to get my ingredients locally because flavor is king, and 99 percent of the time, the best-tasting produce and meat comes from right down the street. I love Columbia, and I want to keep my money here.”
Gilbreth has established roots in Columbia and at Mojo’s, and he doesn’t plan to uproot Pizza Tree from its current location anytime soon. This fall, with the help of Mojo’s owner Richard King, Gilbreth is expanding the kitchen to allow enable higher volume and eventually pizza delivery. The pizza shop is only going to keep growing.
“In five years, I want Pizza Tree to be the ultimate family, pizza-party restaurant,” he says. “The ultimate pizza party restaurant with a dozen different types of pizza available around the clock, open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We’ll have breakfast pizza. I got a menu written out for it, but I can’t reveal it quite yet.”
When John Gilbreth found out that Sunflower Waffle Co. was leaving its Mojo’s home in the fall of 2012, Gilbreth called his former boss and Mojo’s owner Richard King to ask if he would hold the space for his future pizza restaurant. King agreed and gave Gilbreth until January to set up shop. Gilbreth officially opened Pizza Tree’s doors in February.