Twenty-five years in, Andrew McElderry allows himself an un-appetizing description of the first pizzas he ever made.
“They looked like amoebas,” said McElderry of the rough dough dimensions of March 1991, before he opened Andrew’s Pizza and Bakery with his wife, Melissa.
The pizzas’ shape is nice and round now, and the cramped storefront has grown into a far larger restaurant-theater complex known as Andrew’s Pizza and Skylight Theater.
Yet the business has come a long way since opening as a hole-in-the-wall at the then-quiet east end of Oak Street.
That first day, a man came in asking for mushroom pizza, and Andrew apologized that they had none in stock.
“He walked out and I thought that was that, but a little later he came in with a large container of mushrooms from the grocery store. It was way more than we needed for one pizza, but he said, ‘keep them all.’ That’s the way it went,” Andrew said.
“People helped out. It was a community thing, so grassroots,” he said. “It’s pretty cool to reflect back.”
A quarter-century ago, “We didn’t have it down, but we believed in what we were doing,” Andrew said. “Our base product has not changed. We’ve improved it, but it hasn’t changed all that much. When we started there weren’t that many places to get pizza, and now it feels like everyone is doing it.”
“We do a thin crust east coast pizza, which is unlike what anyone else is doing,” manager Chris Ellison said. “After 25 years we feel like we do the best job.”
The McElderrys’ two daughters, Lydia and Kat, grew up with the business, and along with their parents and grandparents — who were also instrumental from the start — the family will toss pizzas together this week during the 25th anniversary celebration.
The pizza and movies place celebrates this week in a variety of ways (see sidebar below), including inviting all former employees to come in for a slice and a drink on March 10.
The McElderrys take pride that over the years they have employed hundreds of local young people, including some who are now local teachers and entrepreneurs.
“A lot of them come back and say, ‘Andrew’s was the best place I ever worked,’” Andrew said.
Among the workers Andrew “fired” was Melissa, in 2000, to care of their children. In the opening years, she had shuttled back and forth from her job as dietician at OHSU to help out at the business. Melissa went on to form her own successful wedding cake business, which she still operates, and was “rehired” a few years ago. He said it’s Melissa who brings the creative touch to the Andrew’s menu.
“We’ve tried not to ever become stale. It’s hard being in a business 25 years and not getting stale,” he said.
“There have been lots of peaks and valleys. You keep getting recharged but it’s not easy in a small business climate.”
In 2005 the third key player in the story came along: McElderry hired Ellison as general manager.
Ellison, who earlier had managed the restaurant at Hood River Hotel for then-owner Pasquale Barone, was the guy who had originally handed McElderry the keys to the storefront. Ellison had owned Sail Away Subs, which took up what is now the counter and front kitchen area at Andrew’s. In 2005 Ellison, an avid cyclist, had just completed a 1,200-mile pedal and was looking to relocate to Hood River, learning that the McElderrys were looking for a manager.
“I asked Pasquale about the guy and he told me, ‘do not let him go,’” Andrew said. Ellison manages both Andrew’s and the McElderrys’ other business, Hood River Cinemas, which opened in 2000.
In 1990, Andrew was waiting tables for Columbia Gorge Hotel, and realized that in order afford to stay in Hood River, he had to go out on his own. Pietro’s was the only pizza place in town, so he started experimenting with pizza and decided he’d go for it. At first, his entire client base consisted of his fellow workers at the hotel, who allowed him to cook the crew meals and compensated with raw materials.
He said, “We served so much pizza before we ever sold one,” working the amoeba shapes out. McElderry credits Chris Lynn, Deb Vogel, Dave Mamouska, and his parents for technical and moral support in getting started.
The McElderrys spent $20,000 initially, with plenty of sweat equity coming from Andrew’s parents, who spent long visits from their home in Nantucket, Mass.
The Skylight Theater came along in 1994, taking the space that had been a Tae Kwon Studio. Korean letters were revealed on the walls in the 2014 renovations, along with floor markings from the old Cedar Mill Building’s earlier days as an automotive dealership.
Inside and out, that part of downtown has transformed over the years. On that stretch of Oak, Franz Hardware (now Shortt Supply) and a coffee shop were the only retail across the street; Andrew’s current neighbors, At Home On Oak and Doug’s, were a stove shop and hardware store, and Les Schwab occupied the south side of Oak at First, now home to Gorge Surf Shop, Freshie’s and Gorge Greenery. Kayak Shed and Ground were an early surf shop and later junk store, and the New Yasui building on the northeast corner of Oak and First was built in 2001.
When Andrew’s opened, its only seating was the mezzanine over the kitchen. In 1994, the McElderrys added the theater and in 2004 invested another $200,000, expanding 1,850 feet to add the dining room, arcade and kids’ playroom, in what had been a travel agency next door. They expanded further in 2013, opening Yum Yogurt just west of the dining room.
Two years ago, the McElderrys renovated both theaters and the back pub and counter area, upgrading the projection system and installing new seating.
“The market’s changed a lot; we tend to change with the market. The theater experience is a big step up,” Ellison said.
“In the old days we could pack in about 100 people, on old seats, and the line of sight wasn’t as clear but 100 people got in and had a lot of fun,” McElderry said.
The theater remodel leveled out the rake on the floor, and McElderry and Ellison created life-size cardboard cutouts of “patrons” and placed them in seats to enhance line-of-sight and projector beam clearance.
“The seats are the most comfortable you can get in the market, on par with the Cinetopia luxury theater in Portland,” McElderry said. “When we started it was a matter of doing things as inexpensively as possible to survive. Twenty-three years in, as we did the remodel, I was able to have more confidence and take on the debt to do the remodel.”
Andrew counts “Apollo 13” and “Braveheart” among his favorite films, while Ellison points to “Layer Cake,” but both agree the best film experience they’ve staged over the years is the Vancouver Island Mountain Film Festival (formerly Banff) which brings selections of a world class film series to Hood River each year in late April.
The business has sold Full Sail and Widmer beers since opening, and is one of those rare businesses whose wine cellar is out on the open floor, for diners and movie-goers to select a vintage, perhaps inspired by the wine-oriented movie quotes on the wall, which Ellison added with the 2014 renovation.
No amoeba-shaped pizzas in sight: Former employees invited back for lunch, dinner
Andrew’s dining room features a photo montage of dozens of former employees. Anyone who has ever worked at the business is invited to come in for a slice and a drink on March 10 … On March 9, enjoy an 18-inch pizza menu from 1991 for lunch and dinner … On March 11, get 25 percent off all dine-in orders, and there will be prizes and giveaways … Also, Andrew’s will also be awarding 25 people with 25 pizzas for 25-word essays on why they love Andrew’s.