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Center Grove area pizzeria owner retiring after 3 decades

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During the past 33 years, a Center Grove area pizzeria was home to birthday and graduation parties, first dates and wedding rehearsals, and customers grew from toddlers to become parents themselves.

Pizza King owner Ken Hansen struggles to pinpoint one or two of the best memories since opening in 1981. One college student who spent hours each night in a booth, studying and doing schoolwork for his college degrees, threw a party each time he completed his bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees. That’s not something that would happen at the average restaurant, and memories like those help Hansen see how his pizzeria became a part of the community.

At 67, Hansen is now ready to retire.30 years too long.”

His Pizza King has grown and thrived in its 30 years on State Road 135 as the area developed around it. When the restaurant opened in its own space along the state highway in 1984, Hansen and his partner expected the area to grow, but not into a four-lane thoroughfare, surrounded by huge box stores. Now he’s sold the business and sold the land to ALDI for a new store, and the pizzeria he’s run for 33 years is set to close on March 4. The shop will move up the road and reopen with a new owner later in the spring.

Some employees he hired during those first years now bring in grandchildren to have a slice of pizza. Loyal customers fought against road construction when State Road 135 was widened to help keep the business alive. The wood paneling in the booths has initials carved in it from diners both recent and long gone.

In the past 10 years, Hansen stopped looking at his restaurant as just ovens, pizzas and ledgers. He leaned in the corner of the booth near the jukebox, his legs on the cushion like he’s lounging on the couch at home.

“It wasn’t a business. It became an establishment in the community,” Hansen said.

During the first years in business, the game room, not the food, made most of the money needed to keep the pizzeria open. After not making a profit in three years, Hansen was ready to bail on the business and go back to a job using his engineering degree. After a business partner left, Hansen decided to hold on a little longer.

The first six years in business ran him ragged. When Pizza King moved to its current location at 284 N. State Road 135, near the intersection with Main Street, its only neighbors were Carpet One and Dairy Queen. Business was slow but grew each year. The store wasn’t making much, if any, profit, and some weeks he’d be working both the lunch and dinner shifts seven days a week.

Hansen would make sure he and the staff were manning the ovens the right way. A minute or two too long or too short and the pizza wouldn’t come out the right way. While other employees were answering phones, making pizzas or waiting on customers, he wanted to make sure the finished product was coming out perfect every time.

“As any small business owner can tell you, there are days you’re ready to sell. A lot of them,” he said.

As more homes went up in Greenwood and the Center Grove area and more shops started to pop up along the state highway, the business grew. By the mid-1990s, Pizza King had grown enough that he chose to buy out his partner and became sole owner. Over the next 10 years the store earned its best profits, which allowed him to back off some hours and hire new staff. He saved enough money that he was able to buy about 10 acres of land south of Bargersville and build a home.

By 2006, Hansen started to consider selling the restaurant and retiring early. He didn’t really look for buyers, and no one came forward with an enticing offer. Looking back, he’s glad no one did, even though the pizzeria doesn’t have the profits it used to.

“The business is a shell of what it was in the ’90s, but the enjoyment has gone way up,” he said.

When Hansen became content that he was making enough to pay the bills and set aside money in savings, he started to focus more on the customers who had gotten him there over 20 years, even as multiple competing pizzerias opened in the area.

Customers celebrated birthdays there as kids and now were bringing their own children in for birthday parties. People who came to eat pizza on their first dates now returned every year on that day to celebrate. He gave local high school students their first job.

Amber Irvin, who has purchased the business and will reopen it in the spring in a new location on Fairview Drive, had her first job there in 2002. She was in marching band in high school but needed money to pay for a car and spending money when hanging out with friends. Her family had been dining there since she was little, so they knew Hansen. She worked there all through high school and on weekends during her first two years in college.

Even after she left, Hansen kept her on an emergency call list if he needed someone to fill in for a few hours, she said.

The pizzeria always attracted regulars. On Sunday night, an older couple would come in and the kitchen staff would turn on the coffee maker and get to work on their 10-inch deluxe pizza. Even the people who came in often for carryout would stop to chat for a few minutes before heading back home with a fresh pizza, she said.

“It is a hometown pizza place. We don’t want anyone to ever feel it’s in and out and away you go,” she said.

David Ellis, the real estate broker who helped Hansen finalize the deal with ALDI, remembers that going out to eat in high school was a big deal, and he and friends would stop at Pizza King. Ellis enjoyed helping Hansen sell the property because he got to work with a man who sets an example for how to run a successful small business.

“He had put himself in a position not because he won the lottery or got lucky but because he was disciplined and hardworking. That’s what I try to do. I’m never going to have my name on a building. I’m a one-man small business, too, and I want to serve my customers and save up and make good decisions,” Ellis said.

The longtime customers already have been coming in and saying their goodbyes. Some have gotten teary-eyed when picking up what may be their last pizza for carry out. On Thursday, a woman who worked as a waitress in the first few years in business stopped in to wish him well, Hansen said.

“The customers will be the hard part to lose. Keeping in contact with who just had a baby, who just got married, who’s maybe not doing so well,” Hansen said.

When Irvin moves the restaurant, she’s going to try to take all of its equipment, its tables and booths, most of the decor and relics, such as bricks from the building, to the new location up the block at Fairview Road. Just about every kid in the Center Grove area has carved a name into the walls at some point, and she doesn’t want to lose those details. When people come into her Pizza King, she wants them to feel like they never really left Hansen’s.

Hansen’s Pizza King will be open for its last day March 3, and ALDI can take over the property and start demolition by mid-March. He hasn’t decided whether he’ll watch crews start tearing down the restaurant. If he does, he doesn’t think it will be a sad moment.

“The store is going on, I got what I needed and got a good tenant in here. Pizza King still lives,” Hansen said. “The average life of a small business is two to four years, with an average of three. By that standard, I’ve already been here

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