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25. The Gut

Classification: Economy

Location: Maplewood, Minnesota

In what can be best categorized as a "Juvenile Witticism" our clever battalion of collegiate-aged doofuses (featuring four future Groundouts) referred to the local Pizza Hut as "Pizza Gut" and later shortened simply to "The Gut." The cuisine was covered way back in Review #66 and remains unchanged, but for many reasons, The Gut separated itself from the rest of its ilk. Sadly, it's been out of business for many years, which we certainly must shoulder at least part the blame, as each of the waitresses on staff believed they were the only one providing us with occasional freebies, when in fact, they all were. One can only speculate on the tension in the accounting office during the inventory audit that uncovered numerous pizzas unaccounted for. Over time, we took a liking to the food, the comforts, the pricing structure, and in certain cases, the staff. Our lineup:

Ladner manager Paul Johnson was the undisputed master of the Space Invaders game in the lobby, often playing for thirty minutes or more off of a single quarter—the only actual money he spent on the premises. In fact, years later he became a contract-for-hire entertainer, spinning salty jokes and covering England Dan & John Ford Coley hits during the popular "Tuesday Night Live" events. A first-ballot Gut Hall-of-Famer.

Thunder Bay manager Johnny Walbert was a constant presence, usually arriving just as the pizza arrived and always leaving a bit early in case a bill was delivered. His parents' den became the de facto hangout after business hours, and an entire basement wall was decorated with rows of empty Mountain Dew cans following many nights watching the North Stars' 1981 Stanley Cup run. Another genuine Gut Hall-of-Famer.

Branson manager Jeff Swenson grew particularly fond of not just the pizza, but also of the service, eventually landing a short-term relationship with one of the generous staffers. It didn't last, which might have put our pizza trade imbalance in peril, but we agreed that we had enough fall-back options to withstand the potential of a spiteful ex. But Swen was too chill to allow anything to escalate and desert his pizza mates. 100% Hall-of-Famer.

Steve Johnson is my college buddy who initiated me into this posse of oddballs and deserves a lion's share of the credit/blame for my involvement. He's never descended to the lowly ranks of being a Groundout, but it was upon his encouragement that I join this band of unsavory knaves. To this day, he enjoys unrivaled pizza cred for dating not just one, but two of the pixies on staff, and even more for dining at The Gut FIVE TIMES in a single weekend. An elite-level Hall-of-Famer.

And I am smallest among these giants, the outsider of the group who traveled upwards of 60 miles round-trip to hang out with these scalawags who welcomed me as one of their own. Due to the distance, I was little more than a weekender, making my Space Invaders skills develop rather slowly. And while I can't claim that my consumption levels were equal to these superstars, the concept of enjoying the comforts of a local pizza joint was cemented in me early in life, and I am grateful for that lesson.

One time, the store manager was unable to start her car in the parking lot and offered us a free pizza if we'd help her out. We looked at each other quizzically, but quickly decided to render aid, even though we already knew our tab had been covered that night. After all, we weren't monsters. I'd like to think that somewhere along the way, our principles have developed at least a little over the years, and that an opportunity to pay it forward awaits us all. There were many, many great evenings at The Gut, and though I don't remember many specifics, I'll won't forget my Band of Pizza Brothers. (9 of 10 stars)

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