Gene Camp doesn’t make the pizzas that much anymore.
But when he does, it easily comes back to him.
Inside his restaurant — Geno’s Pizza in Preston, Iowa — Camp assembles the pie using the same steps he started out with 1974. He stretches the dough, sprinkles the cheese to the edge of the crust, starts with raw meat and is generous with toppings like onions and mushrooms before sliding it all into the oven. He always cuts it in squares.
This is the way Camp’s six kids and hundreds of teenagers, across three generations, learned to make pizza.
“It’s pretty much muscle memory,” Camp said. “My life has been about making these pizzas and showing kids how to do it.”
Soon, life is about to change for the 70-year-old and his wife of 29 years, Marcia. They’re ready to pass Geno’s onto another generation — Camp’s grandson Josh and his wife, Whitney.
“It’s hard to let go of,” Camp said. “But you like to think you’ve built up business that people will keep coming back.”
The only place to go
In the small town of Preston, with a population of about 1,000 people, Geno’s Pizza is the only locally owned restaurant.
It opened in 1968 by a different owner. Over the following six years, three other owners came and went.
After Camp served four years in the U.S. Marine Corps, he returned home to Preston to help his father on the farm.
“I was farming with my dad and it wasn’t profitable at that time,” he said. “I thought owning the pizza place would be good for extra money.”
In 1974, Camp took over Geno's in downtown Preston, which housed four dining tables. He made the pizza dough by hand.
“I remember that being the only pizza place,” Marcia Camp, 63, said. “If that wasn’t here, where else would people go to get pizza?”
Two years later, as business picked up, Camp moved the restaurant to a building on White Street.
“I got to a point where I figured I could quit farming,” he said. “People were liking my pizza.”
Over the years, the restaurant expanded to offer more and bigger dining rooms and an outdoor patio. There's space for over 200 people to sit. In the 1980s, Camp built three softball diamonds and started a variety of softball leagues “because nobody else was going to.”
“Preston is small town where everybody knows everybody,” he said. “If you come here, you’ll see a lot of them.”
The shop opens at 5 p.m. daily (except it’s closed on Mondays) and closes by 10 p.m. on the weekends. They tried later hours, but didn’t want to turn into a bar.
“I wanted it to a family place and a gathering place,” Camp said.
And for Preston, Geno’s has been the only one for several years, he said.
“This is where people here go out to eat,” Marcia Camp said. “Other than drive 20 miles, where would you go?”
Geno’s has survived for more than 40 years — competing against frozen pizza and chains that deliver and bigger area franchises — by sticking to the basics, Camp said.
“I’m real proud of my pizza,” he said. “And I think it’s different than any other pizza.”
Marcia Camp says the secret is in the sauce because “it doesn’t leave that taste in your mouth forever.”
“We make everything from the beginning,” she said. “We shred our own cheese, make the sauce and the crust. Nothing is processed."
It’s a style customers continue to crave.
“If people have moved away and they’re visiting, they say they have to come here for dinner,” she said. “It’s different enough that people remember it.”
On a busy weekend night, Geno’s will serve 250-300 pizzas. On the busiest night — June 26, 2011 — they broke the record with 355 pizzas in a span of five hours.
“Some nights, you might wait an hour because there are so many pizzas ahead of you,” she said. “It can get pretty crazy in the kitchen.”
They say it’s about the basics, but it’s also about being creative.
The pizza options, coming in thin, medium and thick crusts, have familiar combinations such as the taco or veggie. But others, such as Rissa’s Reuben or Eric’s Special, have landed on the menu because an employee made it up and customers kept ordering it.
“Every pizza is good, but each one is different, because it depends on who is making it,” Marcia Camp said. “They’re not made by a machine. They’re made with care.”
A rite of passage
The six Camp kids and nine grandchildren have worked at Geno’s. And Gene Camp expects his five great-grandchildren to join that list.
“Growing up, this is where you’d see aunts and uncles everyday,” Josh Feddersen, 25, said. “It was just what the family did.”
He started out when he was 12.
Outside of his family, working at Geno’s has become a “rite of passage” for Preston teenagers.
“I had people work for me 40 years ago and now their grandkids are in my kitchen,” Camp said. “It’s a great tradition.”
People get engaged at Geno’s and Camp has sent pizzas to rehearsal dinners and wedding receptions.
“The kids who work here become a family,” he said. “They come back and see me first thing when they get to town, and I visit them.”
His grandson said a majority of his classmates worked at Geno’s. That includes his wife Whitney, who started making pizzas at Geno’s when she was 16.
“Everybody who worked here in high school probably has a story to tell,” Feddersen said.
Stories include pranks, like the time someone accidentally threw a bucket of water on Gene’s head and the time a group of teenagers threw leftover dough all over town.
“It’s pretty much a rite of passage to work here,” Marcia Camp said. “It gives them a work ethic and teaches them to talk to people. Even if it’s just about the weather, we always tell them it’s important to be personable.”
Taking it over
Gene Camp used to say he’d stay at this pizza place until the day he died.
But he’s starting to see a future beyond Geno’s.
“When you’ve had a business for so long, his whole life is this place,” Marcia Camp said. “A lot of small town places can’t find anyone to take it over and you can’t imagine closing it, so you’re stuck. We’re so happy we don’t have to worry about it."
“And Josh is the only one brave enough to actually do it,” Gene Camp said.
He said his grandson knows just about everything there is to know, from pizza-making to “service with a smile," about Geno's.
Josh and Whitney, who met in kindergarten, have an 18-month-old daughter, Carleigh, and a newborn. And they’re ready to own the place that brought them together as teens.
“It’s a big undertaking,” Feddersen said. “Everyone knows Geno’s, so there’s a little bit of pressure.”
But Gene Camp will still be around to offer tidbits of advice. He’ll still pop by to see former employees and send pizzas across the state for a special occasion.
“This pizza brings people together,” he said. “I’ve seen that first hand.”
Feddersen said something else has brought people together -- the man behind the pizza.
“For 40 years, you could come here and see Gene,” Feddersen said. “In 40 years, I hope people are still coming and I can tell them all about Gene.”