For Pizza Mia’s Jennings, pizza is life

CHRIS MORELLI/THE EXPRESS John and Mel Jennings own and operate three Pizza Mia shops — Bellefonte, State College and Lock Haven. The Lock Haven shop will celebrate its one-year anniversary on Sunday, May 5.

LOCK HAVEN — John Jennings knows a thing or two about overcoming adversity.

Jennings, the owner of three Pizza Mia shops, sat down with The Express recently to discuss life, what it means to own a business, being a family man and of course, pizza.

Balancing Act

John and his wife, Mel Jennings, own and oversee three Pizza Mia shops. They are also parents to six children. It’s a crazy life, for sure, Jennings said. However, he wouldn’t trade it for the world.

“I have a passion for all of this,” Jennings said. “I just want to show people that you can overcome anything. It’s life. This is the life I’ve dreamed of building.”

When Jennings talks about overcoming things, he knows from experience. He’s faced plenty of hurdles – from running a business to health and family issues.

His mother was diagnosed with cancer, but beat it.

“My mother is a fighter, she’s a survivor,” Jennings said. “She’s an example for me, my family, my children and the community.”

Community, Jennings said, is extremely important to him.

“We want our pizza shops to be the heartbeat of the community,” Jennings said matter-of-factly.

Much like his mother, Jennings has endured his own health issues. During a family game of kickball, he tried to pull off a Saquon Barkley-like hurdle over one of his children. However, he landed badly and shattered his hip.

“It was my left hip … it just shattered. My wife was five months pregnant, my mother was still in chemo,” Jennings said. “You talk about adversity. But what did we do? We kept moving.”

Jennings wound up having a total hip re-construction. He was in recovery for 20 weeks. But in the end, he made it out OK. His mother went into remission and his wife had a healthy baby, their sixth child.

“All of our stores remained open and were doing well during that time. That was our goal,” Jennings said. “It was all about perseverance.”

Pizza is Life

For Jennings, pizza is, well, almost everything. His livelihood is based on it.

“Why is pizza such an important part of life? Pizza is a universally understood smile,” Jennings said. “There are 7 1/2 billion people on planet Earth. There are 7 1/2 billion pizzas sold annually on that planet. I don’t think it’s a coincidence. I think we’re all looking for a smile.”

With that in mind, Jennings sets out every day to make the perfect pizza.

There’s always competition, of course. In every town where Jennings has a shop, there are chain pizza shops. Jennings won’t name names, but some don’t use the best ingredients, he said.

“We don’t need preservatives and we don’t need nitrates because it’s all fresh, it’s all local. We don’t need to freeze anything,” Jennings said.

Jennings believes the key to any good pizza is the cheese. Crust and sauce is important, but a good cheese makes the pizza.

“A lot of shops will use cheese with fiber filler. What is filler? It’s exactly what it sounds like. It’s also known as wood pulp. It’s used because it’s a good separating agent. We don’t use that. We only use whole milk mozzarella,” Jennings said.

If you take a bite of Pizza Mia pizza and are transported back in time, Jennings said that there’s a reason for that.

“People always ask me, ‘what is it about your pizza that reminds of the pizza I ate as a kid?’ Well, it’s because we’re still using whole milk mozzarella cheese. It’s a throwback. Other (shops) are using a low-moisture part-skim blend. It’s fake cheese,” Jennings said. “We won’t use it. We take pride in our pizza. It’s our life.”

Life in LH

On Sunday, May 5, Jennings will celebrate a year at his Lock Haven location. All day, there will be games, food and, of course, pizza.

Getting through year one was not an easy task, Jennings said. The point of sale system failed, which could have been detrimental. However, Jennings said that that the Lock Haven crew made sure that the shop swam and did not sink.

“We have people like Tony, Heather, Jimmy and Gary who have been around from the beginning,” Jennings said. “Everyone in Lock Haven has been absolutely amazing. The support from the community has been overwhelming.”

Pizza Mia’s Lock Haven location is at 300 High St., site of the former Papa John’s.

“I kept hearing that nothing survives in that location. Of course, we had to take a chance. I love a challenge,” Jennings said.

Challenge accepted. Challenge met.

“Our Lock Haven numbers are very strong,” Jennings said.

Still, he refuses to take credit for the success.

“People always ask me, ‘do you run Pizza Mia?’ I say, ‘no, my wife runs it. I just do what I’m told. I was doing other stuff before all of this even started,” he said. “I started mopping floors. If you haven’t mopped a floor in awhile, mop a floor. No one will bother you when you’re mopping a floor. It brings it everything back to reality.”

And if you can, mop a floor in a pizza shop. Because, after all, pizza is life.

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