Belly’s Take-N-Bake Pizza, Thief River Falls, Minn., is owned by Bill Johnson (left) and his sister Kelly Magner (not pictured). Kelly takes care of bookwork and advertising while Bill works at the store. Working with Bill on this occasion is his son, Will. Bill’s other children, Kaleb, and Shamirae, along with other part-time employees also work at the store. (Enterprise Photo by Linda Andersen)
By Linda Andersen
Choices of frozen pizza for Kittson County residents have typically been limited to those made by large companies located at least a few hundred miles away and often out of state. For the past few years, however, another frozen pizza option has been available – one made right in this area.
“We’re trying to make a good, hearty pizza that people are going to fill up with,” stated Bill Johnson of Belly’s Take-N-Bake Pizza of Thief River Falls, who explained that Belly’s Frozen Pizzas have been available in Kittson County for the past “five or six years” at such locations as the Eagles Club in Hallock, Bronson Market and the American Legion in Lake Bronson, the Frog Pond in Halma, and the liquor store in Lancaster. They are also available at a couple of bigger grocery stores in area towns – Super One in Roseau and Hugo’s in Thief River Falls.
Bill and his sister Kelly Magner (who was unavailable at interview time) went into business in 2005 when they bought a concession trailer (an “experimental kitchen,” as Bill called it). What’s particularly interesting and inspirational is that they are making a go of a business in spite of the fact that they went into it with limited business and food preparation experience – Bill had been trucking with his father for 13 years and Kelly had worked for the postal service for a number of years.
“We’re Norwegian and we like hearty meals,” said Bill in explaining their reason for wanting to create hearty pizza. Bill and Kelly grew up in a family of five children on a farm near Viking.
Put together the names ‘Bill’ and ‘Kelly,’ eliminate a few letters, and one ends up with the name ‘Belly’s.”
Kittson County residents involved with athletics may have brushed shoulders with Bill and Kelly, as the brother and sister have been involved with Freeze athletics over the years. Bill once helped coach junior high football and Kelly has coached various levels of volleyball. She now has a granddaughter who is involved with Freeze athletics.
“We liked take and bake pizza,” said Bill as he described the beginning of Belly’s. At first, they sold only “normal concessions things,” such as hot dogs and nachos, from their concession trailer but, in the fall of 2005, they parked on streets in Newfolden, Warren, and Thief River Falls on weekends and sold take and bake pizzas. “What we saw was a lot of repeat sales,” stated Bill.
While parked near Twice But Nice in Thief River, on Highway 59 across from McDonald’s, they noticed the building that would become Belly’s Take-N-Bake Pizza was for rent. They opened their establishment there in February of 2006.
Bill said that beginning their pizza business involved a lot of experimentation with products provided by their vendor and pizza recipes. Though both he and Kelly came up with ideas for pizza varieties, he credits Kelly with actually making most of them, which they tried with family members. One of Kelly’s first creations was topped with Italian Sausage, Canadian Bacon, and crumbled bacon. Bill suggested calling it “3 Lil Piggies,” a name which lasts to the present.
They enjoy coming up with interesting names for their pizzas, ones which often reflect their farm backgrounds. A few names of their frozen specialty pizzas include Slop Bucket Jr., Cow Pie, and Morning Chores. Bill said that Morning Chores is a breakfast pizza which is unique in that it has sausage gravy. He added that one of their newer frozen pizzas is Nacho Macho, which has a nacho cheese sauce plus pepperoni and Italian Sausage.
Both Bill and Kelly worked at the Highway 59 location in the early days of the business. Today Bill mans that location along with five part-time employees and assistance from his children – Will, Kaleb, and Shamirae. Kelly does the bookwork, helps with advertising, and “still has ideas for new things.”
Bill and his crew make frozen pizzas Monday through Thursday during the day and open for take and bake pizzas in the evenings. They devote weekends to the take and bake part of the business. They are USDA inspected.
Like their take and bake pizzas, their frozen pizzas are created from their homemade dough, which is made from scratch daily. For frozen pizzas, they partially bake the crusts, cover them with sauce, and freeze them. The next day, they put the toppings on, vacuum pack and freeze them again. They make some of their frozen pizza varieties exactly the same as their take and bake counterparts. They modify others, making some variations in vegetable toppings, for example. Bill said their frozen pizzas average about four ounces bigger than those of their major competitors.
Today “roughly 35” businesses offer frozen Belly’s Pizza. In addition, a wholesaler, who serves businesses in the Devil’s Lake area, distributes their pizza. Schools, churches, and other organizations have sold frozen Belly’s Pizzas as fundraisers.
What advice would Bill offer to others who would like to start their own businesses? “We learned so much along the way,” he responded, adding that researching, getting advice, and learning from “trial and error” are all important. “Expect to put in a lot of hours,” he concluded.