Shakey's Pizza Parlor

In the 1960s and 1970s, the taste of pizza and the sound of Dixieland jazz went hand in hand for Wacoans who frequented Shakey’s Pizza Parlor. Shakey’s, the nation’s first franchise pizza chain, would become famous for pioneering a winning combination of casual dining and live music in hundreds of restaurants nationwide. The Waco Shakey’s provided a relaxed atmosphere for food and fun at 1420 North Valley Mills Drive until its closure in 1978.

In 1954, friends Sherwood Johnson and Ed Plummer opened the first Shakey’s Pizza Parlor in Sacramento, California. After having suffered a case of malaria during World War II, Johnson earned the nickname Shakey. When the time came to open their first restaurant, both owners decided to name the franchise after Johnson’s playful moniker. Both owners dreamed of creating a restaurant in which families could not only eat, but one that offered vibrant live music reminiscent of a bygone era. During a time in which live music and sit-down dining remained largely separate in public establishments, the culinary experience that Johnson and Plummer created stood out. Dixieland jazz bands and banjo players combined with costumed staff to create a lively atmosphere of 1890s frivolity. Johnson, a banjo player himself, encouraged subsequent parlor owners to offer live banjo-infused tunes as well. Indeed, for decades to come, old-timey piano melodies and banjo strums offered a lively backdrop for pizza outings.

The second Shakey’s opened in Portland in 1956, followed soon after by dozens of new outlets throughout the United States. By 1967, the chain boasted more than 272 locations. Shakey’s began an international expansion the following year. As the nation’s first franchise pizza chain—which would later be emulated by chains such as Pizza Hut—Shakey’s charted new territory in the American restaurant world. The restaurant offered pizza, beer, and live music—a formula that proved as successful as it was simple. Restaurants in decades past had catered to wealthy fine-dining elite and road travelers. But as automobiles became more ubiquitous and families moved out of cities and into suburbs, the 1950s saw the rise of franchise dining and, later, of family casual dining. Waco was no exception. When Shakey’s opened in Waco in 1966, the restaurant offered a whopping twenty-one varieties of pizza as well as several Bavarian beers. The Waco location also catered to its university population with a designated Collegiate Room, geared toward the town’s young adult crowd.

While Shakey’s remained a local favorite for the next decade, the chain began to suffer after both Johnson and Plummer sold their shares to the Colorado Mining and Elevator Company in the late 1960s. The closure of Waco’s Shakey’s in 1978 mirrored a national trend. By 2010, the restaurant claimed only fifty-eight restaurants in the United States.But while Shakey’s locations in the United States struggled under new ownership and the shifting tastes of the American public, the franchise found much success internationally. As of April 2019, the chain boasted five hundred stores globally, the majority outside of the U.S. To this day, Shakey’s remains a bright spot in the memories of many patrons, evoking memories of lively music and lighthearted dining.

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Audio

Protests and Pizza
Baylor history professor David Longfellow recalls a 1970 student strike at the University of Virginia and the presence of Shakey's pizza amidst the disorder. ~ Source: Longfellow, David L., interviewed by Stephen Sloan, May 8, 2014 in Waco,...
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Changing Sounds
Marvin "Smokey" Montgomery, songwriter, producer, and tenor-style banjo player, talks about the evolving role of the banjo in American music culture and the role that Shakey's played in popularizing the instrument. ~ Source:...
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