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Tombstone Pizza founder enjoys annual WE Fest trip

How does a farm boy from Ogema, Wis., (yes, there's one in Wisconsin, too) end up as the owner of a travel company that specializes exclusively in booking vacation packages to Belize, Central America?

For Pep Simek, owner of Detroit Lakes-based Magnum Belize Tours -- as well as its sister agency, Travel Travel -- the answer is: frozen pizza.

Simek made his fortune as the founder of Tombstone Pizza -- which, contrary to what its name might imply, did not get its start in Tombstone, Ariz. Instead, the name comes from the Tombstone Tap, a watering hole that Simek's brother owned -- and he managed -- in Medford, Wis., in the 1960s.

Simek and his wife, Frances, had lived and worked in Chicago for 13 years after he was discharged from the army -- he was drafted into service at age 18 and served for two years in Italy -- but moved back to Ogema after his stepfather was killed in a car accident.

His mother needed help in managing the farm in Ogema until the following spring, when she hoped it could be sold at a greater profit than during the winter. A close-knit family, they worked out an arrangement where Ronnie, Pep's brother, would run the farm while Pep would manage Ronnie's business, the Tombstone Tap.

Two years later, still in the beer-bar business, Pep broke his leg while doing "The Twist" on the dance floor one evening. Laid up for 10 weeks, he went back to a lingering thought he had while living in Chicago, about what makes one pizzeria more popular than another -- specifically, what makes their pizza better.

Another local tavern in Medford had just started serving pizza, so Frances drove Pep there to try it out for himself.

"It tasted terrible," he said. From there, he went on to taste the pizzas at all the other local restaurants -- and came to the same conclusion.

So his brother Ronnie challenged him, "If you think you're so smart, why not make your own?" And that's just what he did.

He called up his old friend Angie, who worked in one of his favorite pizzerias in Chicago, and asked her what made those pizzas so good. She gave him some advice that he took to heart: when mixing together the spices for the sauce, no one spice should be so strong that its flavor overpowers the others. Instead, they should all blend together.

For weeks, Pep and Frances made a mess of their kitchen, blending spices until they found the perfect sauce. After topping off the sauce and cheese with a generous helping of beef and pork, the first Tombstone Pizza was served over the bar -- on July 4, 1962.

The pizzas were a huge hit -- and Pep had his first taste of success. But it would not be the last. After a few years of delivering the freshly-made pizzas in their cars, Pep and Ronnie took the plunge in 1966 and purchased their first freezer truck, for $5,000.

By the time they purchased the second freezer truck in 1967, they were paying for it in cash. By 1973, the business had about 1,000 employees, and had three production plants -- two in Medford, and one in Sussex, Wis. By the time they sold their operation to Kraft Foods in 1986, Pep and Ronnie were selling upwards of 72 million pizzas a year.

Now a millionaire, Simek decided he needed a new outlet to channel his energy -- and found it in the hotel and resort industry.

First, he purchased the Embassy Suites hotel in Green Bay and refashioned it under a new name -- the independent hotel known as Regency Suites. Then he built a resort in Holcombe, Wis., known as Paradise Shores.

Along the way, he acquired half of a tavern in Medford -- where he still lives -- known as the Brass Rail. He also became half owner of Enerquip, a business in Medford that manufactures sanitary heat exchangers.

In 1985 -- shortly before he sold the pizza business -- Simek met Jack Chivers (owner of Jack Chivers Realty in Detroit Lakes), who was the owner and founder of Magnum Americas Hunting & Fishing Tours. A division of that company, Magnum Belize, acquired the property that was developed into a resort called Captain Morgan's Retreat.

"It was just a small resort, with nine cabanas, a dining room and a bar," Simek said.

Wanting to get back into the real estate business -- and to follow his son Jim's Division 1 basketball career -- Chivers sold his interest in Captain Morgan's and the travel companies to Simek.

"I enjoy being in the hospitality business," Simek said of his reasons for purchasing Chivers' interest in the resort property and travel businesses.

Today, Captain Morgan's has grown to include not only a full service resort, but timeshares and full ownership condominiums as well, encompassing over 900 feet of oceanfront property. Simek's nephew, Ernie Olmstead, is now his partner in Captain Morgan's.

After he took control of Magnum Belize and Travel Travel, Simek used to visit Detroit Lakes three or four times a year -- but now, with the business in the hands of a capable manager, Cheryl Chivers, he said he only feels the need to visit once a year.

"Cheryl does such a good job of running (Magnum Belize) that I don't feel I have to come here very often," he said. "We're in constant contact. We talk pretty close to once a day."

Because he is a country music fan, Simek's annual visit usually coincides with the WE Fest country music festival -- and so it did this year as well.

With Magnum Belize and Travel Travel in capable local hands, and his nephew helping him to run Captain Morgan's, Simek returned to managing his properties in Wisconsin.

A few years ago, he also returned to his roots in the pizza business. Pep's Original Pizza, as it is called, was originally developed to be distributed only at Simek's Wisconsin restaurants and hotels. But with the original recipe and meticulous preparation of ingredients that helped propel Tombstone Pizza to success, it hasn't stayed that way.

"The pizza business is growing," Simek said. "We have six (delivery) routes in northern Wisconsin, and two distributors in southern Wisconsin were added," he said. "Currently, it's only available in Wisconsin and the U.P. (Upper Peninsula, in Michigan), but we're looking for a distributor in Duluth."

Though Simek didn't intend for Pep's Original to replicate Tombstone's success, it appears well on its way to doing just that.

Vicki Gerdes

Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers for the past 16 years, currently editor of the entertainment and community pages as well as covering city council and the Lake Park-Audubon School Board. Living in DL with my cat, Smokey.

(218) 844-1454