Busch, Danforth, McDonnell—these are some of the names that put St. Louis on the map. And then, there is Imo, the barons of provel, and the name that’s synonymous with St. Louis-style pizza.
Sure, we all grew up with a local pizza joint that made that thin, crispy crust with the melt-in-your-mouth provel that characterizes our local pies. But there is little debate that today, Imo’s Pizza is the heavyweight champion of them all. More squares of Imo’s are sold here than any other locally owned pizza chain.
It was 50 years ago when Ed and Margie Imo opened their first pizza place at Thurman Avenue and Shaw Boulevard, not far from the Missouri Botanical Garden. According to their son, John, the couple never intended pizza to be their full-time, lifelong pursuit. “The first store cost my mom and dad $500 to get started—and Dad had to borrow the money,” John explains. “He was in the tile business full-time. And when they opened up the store, they were thinking if they could make an extra $2,000 a year on pizza, their prayers would be answered.”
It definitely turned out to be more than that. Imo’s success came from what was—at the time—a novel concept: pizza delivery. Ed knew of Helen’s Bar near his house on The Hill that sporadically delivered pizza, but he set out to make delivery his specialty—which obviously worked. Imo’s family members now own 23 stores, with the rest of the 94 locations operated as franchises with an estimated 3,500 to 4,000 full- and part-time employees across the St. Louis region, as well as in Springfield and Kansas City.
Even though Ed and Margie started building Imo’s Pizza in the 1960s, it wasn’t until the ‘80s that the company’s growth really accelerated. It took even longer before their children realized what was unfolding. “My parents didn’t show off—they don’t flaunt much—so we never even realized how big and successful it was getting. It was always just plug away and keep going,” John says. “It was just in the past five years or so that my brothers and sisters started thinking, Ya know, this is pretty big."
Imo’s still is run by the family: Ed and Margie, and their four sons and two daughters. John says Mom is still the boss, but the leadership roles are spread out pretty evenly. “We never believed in titles; we have our family meetings and everyone gets a vote for the major decisions,” he says. “It’s incredible and it’s all due to my parents.” John says that while they may have differences from time to time, the family works as a team and has gotten along from the very beginning. “We talk it out—it is our old family ways.”
One of those old family ways also is one other reason Imo’s stands out: the sauce. John says Imo’s sauce is slow-cooked before it is spread on the crust. “It’s a four-hour process, which reduces the acidity in the tomato paste. That was one of the reasons that Imo’s was more palatable in the early days because it didn’t have the acidity from the tomato sauce,” he notes. “It wasn’t by design, it was just how my Grandma Imo on The Hill did it.”
And then there’s the provel cheese. Just like we ask almost everyone we meet, Where did you go to high school?, provel really is (to steal a phrase from Aaron Mermelstein) a St. Louis thing. If you get too far outside of the 314, 636 or 618, you simply won’t find provel. It was developed in St. Louis at the Costa Grocery downtown in the 1940’s, a blend of Swiss, cheddar and provolone.
Ed Imo became Costa’s biggest customer; and according to the family, eventually got control of the patent, only to let it expire without trademarking it. Who knew? Even without the ownership rights to that tangy, melted, sweet pizza goo that we know and love, Ed and Margie did pretty well with that first $500-dollar investment in 1964. And their son says they did it with hard work and staying true to the family’s golden rules. “Don’t cheat anybody, make the pizza like you want it made, and stick with helping local people,” John says. “We want people to know that the money stays in St. Louis.”
A native St. Louisan, Paul Brown is a lifelong journalist, and previously served as a broadcaster for KMOX and KTRS radios and ABC 30. His Paul Brown Media specializes in public and media relations.