By David Hazledine
WARSAW — Patrick O’Connell is leaving the pizza business after more 50 years as an owner and general manager of Pizza King restaurants throughout Kosciusko County and beyond. As of March 31, his six locations will be owned at the corporate level.
A longtime supporter of youth athletics, O’Connell, who turns 71 March 21, also coaches basketball at Wawasee schools.
“If my body allows me, I’ll continue coaching,” he said. O’Connell also enjoys cards, especially bridge, and looks forward to improving his “horrendous” golf game.
“Growing up I’d always worked in restaurants,” remembered O’Connell, a native of Peru. In 1970, after “slinging burgers” at The Car Hop and RR Donnelly’s, he went to a bank for a loan with the intention to buy Moore’s Pizza, located not far from his current Pizza King at 1039 E. Winona Ave. Instead, he was introduced to the owners of Pizza King, who hired him as general manager of stores in Warsaw and Columbia City. “I started the Thursday before Labor Day weekend in 1970.”
“I didn’t even like pizza at the time,” O’Connell quipped. That soon changed.
His first bonus was five shares of stock. During the next decade, he said, “I kept buying into it,” making him one of several owners at that time.
O’Connell then opened a “brand new” Pizza King on Lake Street near the Moose Lodge and a drive-in movie theater, and around 1990, while keeping his part-ownership, O’Connell decided to venture out on his own, opening Pizza King locations in Goshen and Nappanee.
However, whenever O’Connell turned his attention away from the original “Warsaw/Columbia City group,” business suffered, and his partners came to him with what he called “an offer I couldn’t refuse,” an increased ownership share, with the stipulation he close the Goshen location (the Nappanee restaurant had closed previously.)
In 1996, O’Connell accepted the head baseball coach position at Tippecanoe Valley High School. While maintaining his ownership position with Pizza King, he also opened a diner, which lasted around two years, followed by a stint at Gordy’s Sub Pub.
In 1999, O’Connell stopped coaching baseball and purchased the Syracuse Pizza King, followed in 2000 by the North Webster location, which, partly as a result of its proximity to the Dixie Paddlewheel Boat dock, became wildly successful, even opening at 7 a.m. to serve breakfast. It is there O’Connell has spent the majority of his time since 2000, working all day, seven days a week, largely due to the difficulty of training employees to cover three shifts.
At North Webster, O’Connell began noticing customers coming from Warsaw. Again, the original stores were suffering financially. After sampling the product himself, O’Connell realized they were not maintaining corporate standards, and in an effort to save money were “cutting corners … using cheaper ingredients.”
After first refusing his offer to buy them out, the Columbia City/Warsaw owners eventually came around. As of 2004, O’Connell was sole owner of four locations: Columbia City, Warsaw, Syracuse and North Webster. The Lake Street location, which had been sold to a Japanese restaurant, was also brought back into the fold, bringing the total to five. In 2006, he bought Shamrock Pizza in Silver Lake, and turned it into his sixth Pizza King location.
In spite of his successful career in the notoriously difficult restaurant business, O’Connell stated, “My true love was coaching … working with kids and trying to get them up to the next level.”
In 1970, after his first season coaching Little League, his father asked him to assist with football for Sacred Heart in Warsaw. Then the head coach resigned three weeks prior to the season opener. “I said, ‘Whoa.’” But he took the job and went on to also coach basketball and track for the next 15 years.
O’Connell had coached Little League since 1969, some including his children, and in 1994 his all-star team finished third in the state. He also coached Warsaw American Legion baseball for eight years. His Big League team reached the regional round in Chicago and came within two games of the World Series.
O’Connell also enjoyed officiating five different sports: 23 years of football, 12 years of basketball and 10 years of softball, baseball and volleyball. A personal highlight came when he umpired a baseball game between Notre Dame and Bethel University
Following his three years at Tippy Valley in the 90s, O’Connell’s family got him back into coaching, first as an assistant to his son-in-law at Fort Wayne Heritage’s seventh grade basketball team and then as an assistant to Doug Ogle with Warsaw’s freshman team until 2020. He now works with his son, Nathan O’Connell at Wawasee schools, head coaching eighth-grade basketball and assisting the varsity squad.
O’Connell and his wife, Jonelle have six children and 17 grandchildren, who he looks forward to spending more time with after retirement.