In 1973, LJ and Lenore Moser uprooted their family from Indiana to Arizona, selling everything they owned to open a pizza franchise.
It was a huge gamble for a couple who’d never worked in a restaurant, but their LJ’s Pizza would eventually have customers lining up around the building to lunch on the popular buffet.
But hard times have fallen on the west Mesa restaurant, which will serve its last pizza in May.
The news has trickled out but owner Clay Moser hasn’t made an announcement about the restaurant founded by his late parents.
“Every one of my customers would come up and say, ‘Why is that?’ ” Moser said. “It would take a half-hour to tell everybody.”
The reasons: LJ’s is losing money. The lease is up and the landlord won’t lower the rent. Food prices are soaring. The surrounding neighborhood is in decline. The number of pizzas served at the buffet alone fell from 69,000 a year in the 1990s to 18,000 last year.
“Dad always told me, when it quits being fun, get out,” Moser said.
The business was always a family affair, with Moser first working there as a teen with his brother and sister. Family pictures from years past greet customers at the entrance, along with autographed photos of customers like G. Gordon Liddy, Merle Haggard and other entertainers and athletes.
“It’s like a family member dying,” said Moser, 52. “It is sad but I’m so relieved. I’ve been doing it since I was 14. I’m ready to move on.”
The business began as a Pizza Inn franchise but the Mosers became independent in the late 1970s, at a time when many of LJ’s competitors didn’t exist or hadn’t entered the market yet. Moser said his father was a truck driver of 20 years who ate in restaurants constantly, and decided to run his pizzeria based on how he liked to be treated as a customer. Even today, customers remember LJ greeting them at the door and checking on their visit.
Customer Steve Ehle of Mesa began going to LJ’s in the 1970s as a teenager and now brings his grandchildren there. His favorite memory involves a family gathering where some of the kids pulled a prank by loading his mother’s purse with silverware along with salt and pepper shakers.
“When she got home and saw it, she was so embarrassed and went back the next morning and apologized to LJ and asked him not to call the cops on her,” Ehle said.
LJ laughed, Ehle said, and treated her to a free buffet.
Moser will continue the catering side of LJ’s and may also consult new restaurant owners. He’s starting a guided tour company called Sonora Jack’s, taking customers on outdoor excursions with walk-in tents, beds, homestyle meals and entertainment.
As the closure news spread, customers have urged waitresses to revive the business at a new location, said Debbie Moser, Clay’s sister-in-law and an employee there since 1973. She’s looking into it and has been assembling an email list of supporters at Dmoser56@gmail.com. She got 150 addresses in just days, which bolstered her idea of keeping the business alive.
“When you have that kind of customer love or customer concern, that’s a big asset,” Debbie Moser said.
The stretch of Main Street by LJ’s has lost many stores in recent years, including Mervyn’s, then the POOL marketplace that replaced it, a bowling alley, Matta’s Mexican restaurant and more. Moser had LJ’s, at 1038 E. Main St., for sale for 18 months but got no offers even after cutting the price in half. Clay entertained various ways to close and determined the end will come unceremoniously in May.
“So one Monday morning, I’m just not going to be open and I haven’t decided on that date,” he said. “I really don’t want the fanfare. I’ve knocked it around for so long.”
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