Jimmy Upton was the first cook at Mario’s Pizza. He left the kitchen for the last time Sunday night.
Upton, owner of the popular establishment for nearly 42 years, ceased operations because of family medical issues that “changed my whole life.” Upton wanted to spend more time with his wife Brenda, who is battling cancer, and deal less with the business aspect of his life.
Before making the final decision to close, he approached Brenda for her blessing on the move.
“If she didn’t want to do it and she’s my partner, I wasn’t going to do it,” Upton said earlier this week. “I would have continued the struggle of an independent businessman, with all of the headaches and
the responsibilities that it takes to run a business. It’s demanding and it’s not different in 2020 than it was in 1980. When you think about it, you’ve got people, you have employees and you’ve got food. It’s no different. People are more emotional sometimes, but we’re in an emotional time in our country, and it’s emotion versus reality.”
Although he was owner of the establishment, Upton was very much hands-on, especially in the kitchen, where he spent most of his time.
“(Last) Sunday night, I was the only one cooking,” he said. “There is nobody that I would have ever hired, who would have done what I did. They didn’t have the mental capacity for the discipline it takes to be a very good cook in a busy situation.”
Upton’s offerings went beyond pizza and expanded to a variety of items from hamburgers and wings to fried mushrooms, one of the most popular items on the menu.
“I was good at what I did,” Upton said. “There are things that are going to go away that nobody can get any more. There are recipes that I have that are not going anywhere and I’m not out there trying to sell a recipe or anything like that. That’s the facts.
“The recipe for the mushroom batter came from a friend of a president of a company, a small franchise in the very beginning and he was from New York. … it was his mother’s recipe that he gave me from Italy. I’ve carried it and it’s been a staple at our restaurant from the very, very beginning.”
That beginning took place in 1978 after Upton was laid off from his job as a concrete worker following a blizzard that crippled most of the state. Upton walked into his father’s pharmacy and noticed a set of blueprints for a building originally designed for a Mr. Gatti’s Pizza. He pitched the idea of opening his own restaurant to his father, Paul Upton, longtime owner of Upton’s Drug Store, and to his wife, Brenda.
From the opening day Upton followed his mother Geraldine’s advice and never compromised discipline in his practice as a business operator.
“She said ‘Jimmy, don’t ever cut short your recipe and go cheap,” he said. “Always buy quality, follow the recipe and you’ll be OK.”
He also “felt an obligation to teach the younger generation the correct way ,and the right way, and the only way.”
“All of those things carry over into every aspect of any career,” he said. “The President of the United States (Donald Trump) would not be where he is today if he did not have discipline, and none of us would.”
Upton has sponsored numerous events in the community and sponsored many youth league teams since becoming a successful business owner.
“I’m active (in the community) under the radar,” he said. “There are a lot of things that I have done that goes unnoticed. … As far as being a civic leader or a civic person, I never wanted to have the exposure of being places I really didn’t want to be and I don’t mean that in a negative way. I felt like I was better served if I could help the kids and the schools, churches and those things.”
On the final day, Upton placed a statement on the establishment’s Facebook at 12:45 p.m. Sunday and business remained steady until closing. He ran out of pizza dough, mushrooms, cheese, hamburger buns, hamburger, potatoes and cheddar cheese.
“We ran out of everything and that’s a blessing,” he said. “It was absolutely the most incredible emotional outpouring of love and support. We had a lady that drove from Louisville and there were people from Corbin, Danville, Jackson County, Winchester … It was a challenge and my career has been a challenge. You go through ups and downs, the economy and everything that life throws at you. You just fight through it and that’s what I did.”
Upton will continue catering events through “Uptown Catering” but admitted it won’t be the same.
“Catering is fun and it’s exciting and different,” he said. “It will be more of traditional catering (offering). I will not go back into pizza, because I won’t have the ovens.”