The Arizona Republic
Organ Stop’s pizza, pipes draw crowds
Music, dining experience keep patrons returning to this Mesa restaurant
It might be the only pizza restaurant where pizza isn’t the main attraction. And the venue may have done more for the reputation of organ music than a church or ballpark could have.
Little has changed over the four decades since Organ Stop Pizza opened its doors. It has drawn locals and tourists from all over the world with enchanting harmonic compositions emitted from the 86-year-old Wurlitzer pipe organ, the star of this popular family restaurant.
In an era when trends and whimsical fads tend to rule the industry, sticking with tradition has been by design — and it’s worked.
“We like to keep it as simple as possible,” said Jack Barz, co-owner of Organ Stop, when referring to the menu. It includes pasta and sandwich dishes and a salad bar in addition to pizza. “There are always people who suggest change, but we really don’t listen to them.”
Each year, about 300,000 patrons walk through Organ Stop’s doors, Barz said. Some come from a short drive away, while others have taken a plane from halfway around the world.
Some toppings, appetizers and a gluten-free option are on the short list of changes over the years, along with the current Mesa location, which the restaurant has called home since 1995.
The locale has twice the capacity as its original Phoenix shop, where its late founder William P. Brown launched the business in 1972.
Barz joined the ownership in 2005, alongside business partners Pat Rowan and Brad Bishop, who already owned the restaurant. Barz’s professional history with Organ Stop began when he was16, when he washed dishes and made pizzas as a part-time job. In fact, Bishop was his boss.
Not giving into the temptations that proved to be pitfalls for many themed restaurants that sprung up throughout the 1970s was a key to Organ Stop’s longevity, Barz said.
“A lot of restaurants like this, when they got successful, added things like prime rib nights and fish nights and got away from the basic pizza menu. It ended up being bad for them,” Barz said.
The don’t-fix-what’s-not-broken strategy supported a solid fan base driven by the 1927 Wurlitzer and the number of talented organists that flaunted its melodic prowess over the years. The theatrical accompaniments of puppets, disco balls, bubbles and other visuals generated to complement the range of classical, Disney and popular music hits succeeded in charming even those who claimed to be anti-organ.
Barz talked about an e-mail he recently received from a man who had visited Organ Stop for the first time. The man admitted he didn’t want to go but was dragged in by his family.
“He came in, and they ended up staying all night,” Barz said. “He wouldn’t let the family leave.”
Longtime regular Madeline LiVolsi knows the feeling. In 1974, the thenhigh-schooler discovered Organ Stop while cruising around with a girlfriend on a Friday night. She ended up staying for four hours.
“It hit me. I went home and told my mom and dad about it, and we became regulars,” said LiVolsi, who makes the 30-mile drive from her Glendale home to Mesa once a week.
That first trip initiated a lifetime passion for organ music that resulted in LiVolsi’s involvement with the Valley of the Sun chapter of the American Theatre Organ Society, an organization that preserves, maintains and restores the pipe organ and its music.
LiVolsi believes the music is the restaurant’s main draw.
“It wowed me right off the bat,” she said. “Now, I love to sit and watch newcomers come in and look at everything and be wowed like I was.”
Barz was 6 when he walked into Organ Stop for the first time with friends. He recalled knowing the experience was like nothing he’d ever felt and thinking, “this place is really cool.”
After Barz earned his degree in hotel and restaurant management at Northern Arizona University, he returned to the Valley and joined his former employer on a full-time basis as a manager. He rose through the ranks.
The Wurlitzer is the one aspect of the business that is in a perpetual state of change, as the owners are always on the hunt for rare pipes. There are nearly 6,000 pipes and more than 1,000 buttons, knobs and switches — such a complex piece of art that only about a dozen organists in the nation can play it, Barz said. Once a week, the organ undergoes a full day of maintenance.
Recently, Barz said, Organ Stop has hosted birthday celebrations for a child turning 3 and a woman who turned 105.
He recalled tourists who compared the Organ Stop experience to the one they had at the Grand Canyon the day before.
And, even after spending most of his life as a customer, employee and owner, Barz continues to relish patrons’ reactions to the lights as they turn on, the power of the instrument and being in awe that just one person controls it all.
“Seeing the look on people’s faces for the first time as they see everything starting up ... that’s always a neat experience for me,” Barz said.
“It makes us feel really good to bring joy to people’s lives.”