How four kids from Riddle built Abby’s into an iconic chain of ‘legendary’ pizza restaurants.
Story by Doug Pederson Photo by Thomas Boyd
It’s a typical August day in the Umpqua Valley, which is to say it’s plenty warm. But Abby Broughton has irrigation pipes to move on his 20 acres of land in Roseburg, and they sure aren’t moving themselves. So the 81-year-old is out in the heat moving them himself.
Broughton certainly is no stranger to hard work. It’s a strong work ethic and a series of smart decisions that helped Broughton and his partner, Bob Harrell, build the pizza restaurant they co-founded — and which bears Broughton’s name — into the successful and “legendary” chain it is today.
“We worked 24/7 back then,” Broughton says, reflecting back on 1964 when the first Abby’s Legendary Pizza outlet opened on Stephens Street in Roseburg. “Every nickel we owned went into the place. Even some money we didn’t own. We worked hard to make sure it worked. And it did.”
Abby’s had a rather humble beginning at a local Shakey’s Pizza Parlor. Childhood friends Bob, known as “Skinny” by his friends, and Albert, or “Abby,” were working together at the restaurant chain.
“We worked full time for them before we went out on our own,” Broughton says. “The only reason we left Shakey’s is because they didn’t do things they said they would do for us.”
Those things were pay raises to go along with the young men’s newfound titles and ever-increasing importance in the company.
The first Abby’s staff consisted of Broughton, Harrell, and their wives, Connie and Loretta. The four grew up together in Riddle, and all but Loretta Harrell, who was one year younger, graduated in the same high school class.
“Abby and I were childhood sweethearts,” says Connie. “Growing up I worked as a waitress at the Old Sportsman café in Riddle and Abby worked at the local grocery store.”
The sweethearts became husband and wife at age 18 and recently celebrated 62 years of marriage.
When the Broughtons and Harrells became restaurant owners, Connie says coming up with a name didn’t require a lot of thinking.
“’Abby’s’ made sense. We didn’t think it would work if we called it ‘Skinny’s Pizza,’” she says, chuckling.
Abby’s grew quickly in Roseburg. Before long, a second restaurant was planned for Grants Pass. Harrell led the expansion, moving his family to Medford. The Abby’s team never envisioned growing much further, but that changed in a hurry.
“All of a sudden, people wanted us to open a restaurant in their town,” Broughton recalls.
“We woke up one day with 24 stores.”
As operations expanded, the Abby’s team bought the land under each new restaurant, ensuring that in the event a restaurant didn’t work, they would have equity in the property. That strategy ultimately caught the attention of a like-minded businessman named Mills Sinclair, who was looking for a successful, well-loved chain of restaurants.
“Mills came along in 1987 and wanted the stores more than we did,” Broughton says with a laugh. “He bought (the operation) in 1988, and has been absolutely great to us and everyone at Abby’s.”
Along with the sale, the four who started the legend were given special free-pizza-for-life cards.
Sinclair saw Abby’s as more than a restaurant that made a great product. “Abby’s is about values,” he says. “It’s about taking care of people who work hard. That will never change.”
Over the years, Sinclair has been reminded over and over again that he made the right decision.
“I’ll be wearing an Abby’s shirt and people will tell me about their experiences there. They’ll tell me how much they love Abby’s,” he says. “I’ve met people all over the world who either grew up with Abby’s or recently experienced it.”
Employees like Randy Riche and Keith Kathol have always played a significant role in Abby’s success. Both men started as hourly dishwashers. Forty years later, Riche manages the Winston location. Forty-five years into his Abby’s career, Kathol manages a district that includes everything from Grants Pass to Medford and Klamath Falls.
“Back in the day, a pitcher of beer at Abby’s cost 85 cents,” Kathol recalls. “You had a choice between Blitz and Blitz Dark. A giant combination pizza would cost you a whole five bucks.”
Kathol remembers times when Abby’s would pack in patrons from four in the afternoon until two in the morning with customers gladly waiting for a table if that was required.
Riche started working at Abby’s when he was 17. “I was working as a dishwasher when Abby came in, saw my long hair, and said I’d never last a week,” he says. “I’m so glad he was wrong,”
Today, under Sinclair’s guidance, Abby’s growth is continuing, with more restaurants opening soon.
“We’re just continuing what Abby and Skinny started,” the current owner says.
While Sinclair continues to build the Abby’s brand, the originators of the Abby’s legend are staying busy in their respective hometowns — Roseburg for the Broughtons, and Medford for the Harrells. The couples visit each other often, and have an annual can’t-miss date in the Abby’s Invitational Golf Tournament at Roseburg Country Club, itself a legendary event in the area.
“We’ve been doing the invitational for decades,” Connie Broughton says. “One year, the grand prize for a hole-in-one was an airplane. We had it land on the fairway. That was a fun moment.”
It was just one of many fun and memorable moments in the lives of the founders of one of the most popular chains of pizza restaurants in the Pacific Northwest. Put them all together and you’ve got something that is truly legendary.