Justin Duty did not fall far from the pizzeria. Mom and dad, Mary and Roland Duty, are celebrating 50 years in business operating Poppa Rollo’s Pizza, a rambling joint on Valley Mills Drive replete with “Laurel and Hardy” and “Three Stooges” clips on the big screen, laughter, casual chatter and memories.
It became a classic venue for first dates, first jobs and supposedly Waco’s first big-screen TV, where customers watched the Roger Staubach-led Dallas Cowboys back in the day. Roland Duty was not above hoisting a bawling baby to his chest for a walk around the premises, giving relatives a break.
The personal touch became Poppa Rollo’s not-so-secret to success.
The pizza has helped, too. The place for years won the Waco Tribune-Herald Reader’s Poll under the category “Best Pizza Restaurant.”
Justin Duty, 36, is now an entrepreneur in his own right. He and brother Caleb Duty opened a second Poppa Rollo’s location on Hewitt Drive. They also operate 900 Degrees Pizzeria downtown, with a food truck at Magnolia Market at the Silos and a brick-and-mortar spot on University Parks Drive.
“What did mom and dad teach me? I guess ‘everything’ would not be a good answer,” Justin Duty said with a laugh. “I was just having lunch with a friend, a longtime customer, and we talked about the same thing. Above all, take care of your customer and serve a good product. Giving back to the community always pays dividends. I remember once, working with the American Heart Association, we offered a discounted pizza or maybe a straight free pizza for each pint of blood donated. Such promotions have been commonplace.”
Mary Duty on Thursday was planning for an evening come-and-go party at Poppa Rollo’s.
She invited former staffers and said a cake would be cut. McLennan County Commissioner Kelly Snell and Waco City Councilwoman Andrea Barefield gave a proclamation. And, more important, she and Roland would thank Waco for its patronage.
Duty, 68, said she started the day visiting friends at Central National Bank, which has provided financial backing “with a hometown face.” She said she and Roland will use their 50th-anniversary to spotlight worthy causes.
“Sunday nights will become Poppa Rollo’s pizza night at the Family Abuse Center. We’ll treat everybody,” Duty said. “This fall, we’ll be working with Heart of Texas Veterans One Stop, accentuating and publicizing what they do for veterans. Next spring, we will help promote the Shriners’ Love to the Rescue benefit for children with orthopedic problems. Roland has one of those funny hats. Also in the spring, we’ll work with (McLennan Community College) on a concert to support the Fritz Kriegel Scholarship Fund.”
Ernst Friederich “Fritz” Kriegel died in 2011 at the age of 44, having been employed at Poppa Rollo’s more than half his life.
Poppa Rollo’s hit the local dining scene in 1969, the year Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong took man’s first walk on the moon, a feat near to Roland Duty’s heart. Roland told the Tribune-Herald in a previous interview that as a youth in 1957, when the Russians launched the Sputnik satellite that circled the earth, he predicted people would visit the moon in the future.
A teacher bet Roland $500 he did not know what he was talking about.
“In July 1969, it happened,” Roland told the Tribune-Herald. “I was in the process of buying a restaurant (Pepe’s Pizza, which became Poppa Rollo’s) for $5,000, and an extra $500 would have come in handy.”
He did not press the wager, he said, as his teacher then was dying of cancer.
Perhaps as a nod to interplanetary travel, and Poppa Rollo’s potential place in it, Roland said in his advertising Rollo’s served “the best pizza on earth.”
Roland and Mary Duty both attended Baylor University, where she pursued a master’s degree in philosophy after working in Washington, D.C., for the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, now the Joint Committee on Religious Liberty, and in the office of longtime U.S. Congressman Les Aspin, who later served as Secretary of Defense under President Bill Clinton.
A car crash wrecked her finances, and her search for work ended at Poppa Rollo’s, where she became a waitress. It was there she met Roland.
“And the rest, as they say, is history,” she said with a laugh.
The Dutys have five children — Justin, Caleb, Susan, Faith and Hope — and Roland entered the marriage with two from a previous marriage, Ryan and Kevin. Mary Duty joked that the Dutys have their own voting bloc.
She serves as chairwoman of the McLennan County Democratic Party and advocates for progressive causes. Roland gets up on the right side of the political bed, she said, while the children fall somewhere in between.
“It’s a fun way to have a marriage,” she said. “I’m much more out there than Roland, but he lets me get away with it. He’s even loaned me chairs to use at party headquarters. Democrats have no money, you know.
“Has my activism affected our business? Probably. There are people who don’t listen, who have heard I’m a crazy socialist. No, I’m a capitalist. People with differing political views need to be civil, to live with one another. Even ol’ Jon Ker (Republican Party chairman), we do not agree on things, argue all day long. But we give each other hugs. People just need to calm the heck down.”
Poppa Rollo’s earned the 1994 Family Values Award, presented by Baylor’s Hankamer School of Business, and was named 2007 Texas Family Business of the Year. All the Dutys’ five children have worked at the pizzeria, joining thousands of staffers who wet their feet in the world of commerce, so to speak, by cleaning tables, taking orders or preparing pizza pies, the large pepperoni being the all-time favorite of generations, Mary Duty said.
Prominent Waco Realtor Stewart Kelly said he was exposed to the Roland Duty school of management as a high school student in the 1970s.
“Actually, I worked next door to Poppa Rollo’s at a place called The Whistle Stop located in the Golden Triangle shopping center, where Triangle Tower is now,” Kelly said. “It had a railroad theme, and Roland owned it. I came in early and cleaned up the restaurant, made burgers, made salads, did a little bit of everything. I did whatever Roland told me to do.
“I remember having a lot of fun that summer.”
Kelly said he was always impressed with Duty’s attention to detail, his rapport with customers and his constant presence whenever the doors were open.
“Some of the most wonderful young people have worked here,” Mary Duty said. “I know a dear woman whose five kids all worked here at one time or another. Toddlers who ran around the place have grown up and come back.”
The ceremony Thursday was scheduled to include the arrival of a “carload” of former employees from the Dallas area making their way to Waco.
“We love what we do,” Mary Duty said. “We’ve had a small part in making Waco a better place to live. We feed people and share our hospitality.
“What a racket,” she said with a laugh.