The Free Press, Mankato, MN

September 19, 2010

Jake's Stadium Pizza spends last day in original location

By Tanner Kent
The Free Press

MANKATO — Jake’s Stadium Pizza is only moving a few blocks. But owner Wally Boyer is hoping almost 40 years of tradition, customer loyalty and one-of-a-kind Mankato history will follow when it re-opens Wednesday in the space formerly occupied by Green Mill.

“We agonized a long time,” Boyer said about the move to make way for a CVS Pharmacy, while sitting in a booth directly above the basement where he and his wife held their wedding reception some 35 years ago. “There are a lot of good memories in this building.”

And those memories tell a history of Mankato that can only be heard at Jake’s.

Original owner Vern “Sarge” Carstensen, formerly an Army drill sargeant, bought the building in 1972, turning what was then a hamburger shop into Jake’s Stadium Pizza (named after a family member who perfected all the recipes). Back then, Balcerzak Drive was just a dirt road. Jake’s stood on the last corner in town and its parking lot marked Mankato’s last inches of pavement.

Quickly came the jukebox, Pac-Man and its signature, porthole-style windows. Wednesday was “Buck Night” — a small, one-ingredient pie for a dollar — and Sunday was taco night.

Soon, the Minnesota Vikings became regulars during summer training camp, a tradition re-told on the dozens of pizza paddles lining the dining area, all inked with the signatures of Vikings greats.

Wally remembers how Fran Tarkenton liked to be left alone; and how Bob Lurtsema would walk in, stroll behind the counter and pour his own beer. He still remembers Jim Marshall’s favorite pizza — pepperoni and salami, with no grease — and how Carl Eller once took off with a half-baked sausage pizza in order to make it in time for coach Bud Grant’s nightly bed check.

Brian Carstensen, Sarge’s son, said it was Vikings offensive lineman Ed White who actually came up with Jake’s House Special. From the way Brian tells it, he was cooking one night when “this shadow passes over me.” It was White, and having once been a pizza cook himself, he told Brian that he had permission from Sarge to cook his own pizza. The resulting mixture of meat and toppings has been a fixture on the menu ever since.

“We had to let him,” Brian said. “He was an imposing presence in the kitchen.”

Wally and wife Brenda — who, as Sarge’s daughter, was part of the reason Wally became interested in the pizza business — have worked every job at Jake’s, from cooking to delivery to maintenance.

They celebrated their children’s baptisms in the basement. When the Boyer boys played football for Mankato West, Jake’s hosted pre-game meals.

Over the years, Wally guesses they’ve had about 1,500 employees. The ovens, which are still original, have cooked “too many pizzas to fathom.”

Along the way, he’s seen people share first dates and get engaged in his dining room. He’s seen the children of former employees apply for jobs. He’s watched his own family begin taking over the business and he’s seen how people will return for a product they enjoy.

People like Armond Olson and Dianne Cory, both of whom have been eating at Jake’s since it opened — but only recently together.

Both are widows, and both ate often at Jake’s with their spouses. Now engaged to be married this November, Olson and Cory see no reason to break the tradition.

“The quaint atmosphere,” Cory said, when asked about the reason she keeps coming back. “It’s not too fancy. It looks how a pizza place should look.”

Olson added: “The good pizza. That’s No. 1.”

Jake’s move was prompted by CVS Pharmacy purchasing its building as well as the strip mall next door and the former Maggie’s restaurant building behind Jake’s. All buildings will be razed.

But Boyer said they will gain more than 50 seats and a patio in the new location. The bar will be removed — Jake’s will continue to sell 3.2 beer — a private banquet room included, and the kitchen will undergo a major remodeling with slate ovens brought in to make pizza.

Plus, Boyer said, Jake’s original building will require perhaps “hundreds of thousands of dollars” in structural repairs in coming years.

“We are a little nervous,” he admitted. “But I think we have built a clientele by having a really good product and charging a fair price. ...

“Hopefully, we’re moving into a building that will set us up for years to come. We want the tradition to continue.”