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August 25, 2004

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, August 25, 2004

All in the family All in the family (August 25, 2004)

Round Table restaurant chain creator passes love of pizza, and pizza-making, to son

by Andrea Chang

Longtime Round Table Pizza customers have no trouble recognizing Bob Larson: The owner of three local Round Table restaurants is the spitting image of his father, Bill, when he served as president of the Palo Alto-based pizza empire he founded in 1959.

The elder Larson, a native Palo Altan, is just shy of 6 feet tall with a short buzz cut, sharp features and large frame -- "pleasantly round, like Round Table," he describes himself.

Bob, handsome with thick, dark-brown hair and brown eyes, seems to have inherited his father's easy-going, chatty personality. They even dress alike: Bob's shirt bears the company logo while Bill proudly sports a matching hat with the company's signature three banners.

For Bill, watching his business remain in the family after he retired in the mid 1980s has been a father's dream. He started Round Table Pizza in his 20s when, as driver of a cheese-delivery truck, he noticed the pizza business booming.

He got a job managing a pizza parlor in San Mateo and a year later -- with just $1,800 in operating cash -- opened the first Round Table in the old Menlo Park waterworks building at 1225 El Camino Real.

"We built all our own tables," said the elder Larson, now 71. "One was round so I called it 'The Round Table.'"

He developed recipes "by trial and error," trying different spices and ingredients in the dough and sauce. Most recipes are still used today.

Round Table is now the nation's fifth-largest pizza chain, with more than 500 locations -- in a $32 billion industry.

In 1962, Bill began franchising restaurants to independent owners. In 1978, he sold 75 percent of the company to a corporation, which held it as a privately owned company until 1998, when it was bought by employees through a stock-ownership plan. Independent owners/franchisees now operate two-thirds of the restaurants while the rest are owned directly the Round Table Franchise Corporation.

From the beginning, the business was an integral part of the Larson family. Most of Bill's nine children have been in and out of the business over the years. Bob made pizzas, cleared tables and helped serve customers by the time he was 12.

"I wanted to follow in my dad's footsteps," he said.

After graduating from Palo Alto High School and attending De Anza for a year, Bob, with his sister Linda, purchased the original Menlo Park business in 1987. They later added two Palo Alto locations, at 702 Colorado Ave. and 405 California Ave.

Today Bob carries on the family pizza tradition by introducing his own children to the business.

"My kids come in to work all the time," he said. "They know the restaurants, they know the managers. It was almost the same thing when I was growing up. When you're a kid, it's like a candy shop." His wife, Susie, is an accountant for the business.

The company has made many advances in its pizza production over the years -- including the switch from stone ovens to conveyer ovens and the addition of delivery services in 1994.

"There isn't a day that goes by that I don't learn something new about this business," Bob said. "It's changed a lot in the past few years. It's a different time nowadays. Back then everything was done with a handshake and on a napkin."

Even though a large pepperoni pizza no longer costs $2.35, Bob said he still maintains the same honest, community-based principles he learned from his dad, whom he describes as a down-to-earth, "very normal guy." The only extravagant purchase Bill ever made, Bob said, was a Mercedes he bought after he sold the company.

"Success didn't change my dad. I don't think my dad ever forgot anyone who helped him in the business. His mentality was, 'You do right by somebody, they do right by you.'

"That's something I'll always follow, in my business and in my life."

Bob said he gives back to the community that has been so supportive of his family's business by holding fund raisers for local schools, catering to corporate businesses and donating to nonprofit organizations such as Habitat for Humanity, which builds homes for low-income people.

"Pizza and community go hand-in-hand," Bob said.

And even after so many years making pizzas, the Larsons said they still eat pizza about twice a week. Bob's favorite is the King Arthur Supreme while Bill is split between the vegetarian and the pepperoni.

When they have free time, Bill and Bob play golf together and stay at their family home near Portola State Park. Both said they hope the business stays in the family.

"It's my dream to see my kids enjoy the fruits of my labor and to go on with my dreams -- to perpetuate Round Table the way I did," Bill said.


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