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Imo's Pizza moving HQ, distribution to downtown St. Louis

Imo's Pizza moving HQ, distribution to downtown St. Louis

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ST. LOUIS • The folks who turned square slices of pizza topped with Provel cheese into a local tradition are about to deliver a big investment to downtown St. Louis.

Imo’s Pizza is renovating two vacant buildings on Delmar Boulevard at 17th Street, where the company plans to move its corporate headquarters and open a distribution center.

The $5.2 million rehab also is designed to turn the four-acre site into a tourist destination, where visitors will be able to shop for Imo’s branded merchandise and pick up a frozen, St. Louis-style pizza as a souvenir.

It’ll be hard to miss. Imo’s is moving the 25-foot tall red, white and green sign that towered for decades over the restaurant on Hampton Avenue at Highway 40 to the new location.

About 50 employees, who work at the company’s longtime base in the Hill neighborhood and at other offices in the region, will relocate downtown.

The investment reflects a desire to be more efficient while setting the stage for future growth, founders Ed and Margie Imo say.

“This is where we can bring everyone together,” said Margie Imo, company vice president.

Imo’s is petitioning the city to change the address to #1 Imo’s Square, a nod to the square shape of Imo’s Pizza slices.

The facility, set to open this year, is located near some of downtown’s popular attractions, including City Museum across the street. With a restaurant, event space and a store to purchase Imo’s merchandise, the location is designed to attract tourists.

“That’s our goal,” said Ed Imo, co-founder and president.

After running the business for 51 years, the Imos are investing in the new facility as their six children and other Imo family members take on more oversight at the business.

“It’s significant to be doing this at this time, so Ed and I can do other things,” Margie Imo said, adding more than a dozen family members work at the company. “This whole investment is about the second generation and third generation. We think it’s a starting point for them.”

Their son Carl Imo said more jobs may be added in a later phase to make some ingredients. Imo’s plans to keep a manufacturing facility in Waterloo, where meat and other ingredients are prepared, but all of its other operations are moving downtown.

Imo’s has grown to nearly 100 restaurants in Missouri, Illinois and Kansas, and the privately held company’s revenue grew 9 percent in 2014 to $109 million. In addition to its restaurants, Imo’s supplies pizzas to supermarkets under store brands, and its pizzas are sold at some convenience stores. Industry publication Pizza Today ranks Imo’s as the 32nd largest pizza chain in the country, based on 2014 gross sales.

But the company hasn’t sought out new franchisees for a decade because it lacked the ability to adequately service new stores and its retail customers. The Hampton Imo’s is the only company-owned restaurant, and the rest are franchises. Although the sign at the Hampton Imo’s is moving, the restaurant there will remain open, and a larger sign already is in place.

“Nearly 90 percent of the customers we deliver to are within a 30-mile radius of the downtown property,” Carl Imo said this week in a tour of the 72,000-square-foot downtown distribution facility. Members of the Imo family recently purchased the properties on Delmar for more than $2 million. “We’ll be able to grow much faster because we’ll be better able to service our customers,” he said.

The Imo’s corporate office isn’t the only pizza-related business that’s moving downtown.

Roma Grocery, a retail store on the Hill owned by the Imo family that sells Imo’s salad dressings, Provel cheese and other products, will also move to Imo’s new downtown headquarters. And Ed Musen, a partner at Olivette-based MSW Marketing, said his company — which counts Imo’s as its largest client — is relocating its offices with 10 employees to leased space at Imo’s downtown property.

The entity that ships frozen Imo’s pizzas to customers across the country, Imo’s Pizza Nationwide — led by Bill Jennings and his son Tim Jennings — also is moving from Illinois to the downtown property.

One of the brick buildings Imo’s is moving to was formerly a distribution center for CarQuest Auto Parts and the other was a mail sorting facility. The property includes a parking lot for the planned restaurant and event space, and the distribution center will have separate access for trucks.

“We chose downtown because Imo’s started in the city, and if it wasn’t for the city, Imo’s wouldn’t be what it is today,” Carl Imo said.

Imo’s recently added a new loyalty program to reward customers and is planning on adding new digital menu boards at every restaurant, where prices and menu items can be updated from the corporate office.

NEW CHAPTER

Ed and Margie Imo opened the first Imo’s Pizza in the Shaw neighborhood at Thurman Avenue and Shaw Boulevard in 1964, and all four of their sons and two daughters help run the business today.Ed Imo, a former tile setter, cut the pizza slices into square shapes, which ultimately led to the chain’s slogan: “The square beyond compare.”In addition to its thin crust and square slices, Imo’s is known for its use of Provel cheese — a processed blend of Swiss, provolone and cheddar that has its fans and critics. Some servers at another local rival chain, Pi Pizzeria, wear T-shirts with the word Provel crossed out with a red slash.

But Imo’s also has a large following of ardent fans. In 2013, actor and St. Louis native Jon Hamm professed his love of Imo’s Pizza on the late-night TV show “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” calling it “delicious pie.”

“It’s an acquired taste,” Margie Imo said of the cheese. “But (the criticism) is only from those who aren’t familiar with it. They just don’t know any better. We would never change it. In St. Louis, it’s Provel.”

Lisa Brown • 314-340-8127

@lisabrownstl on Twitter

lbrown@post-dispatch.com

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