Jodi Whitcomb, front left, and her sister, Tori Thrower, are following in the footsteps of their parents, Joto’s Pizza founders Fred and Carol Zinda. The siblings run the Zindas’ remaining two Joto’s locations in Seminole and Pinellas Park with their husbands Steve Whitcomb, far left, and Brent Thrower, far right.
Photo courtesy of JODI WHITCOMB
Fred and Carol Zinda, founders of Joto’s Pizza, with their daughters Tori Thrower, front, and Jodi Whitcomb, far right, outside one of their restaurants in 1978.
SEMINOLE – In 1973, Fred and Carol Zinda, with their two young daughters in tow, sold all of their belongings and left behind their friends and family in rural Wisconsin to open a pizza franchise in Pinellas County.
As a testament to mom-and-pop chains everywhere, Joto’s Pizza is celebrating 40 years in business. Joto’s will host special events at its Seminole location, 13050 Park Blvd., Saturday, Jan. 25, and Sunday, Jan. 26.
At 31, Fred had a steady job working in a paper mill; Carol, then 28, was a legal secretary. Neither of them had any experience in the restaurant business.
But their friends, a Michigan couple they’d met while on their honeymoon in 1966, had recently relocated to Orlando to open a Crusty’s Pizza franchise.
“They couldn’t believe how much money they were making,” Carol said.
Pizza began to really take off in the 1960s, she said. Until then, it wasn’t very popular. But by the time the Zindas considered opening a pizza joint of their own in the early 1970s, “it had become the number one food in the country.”
So they headed south in 1973, landing in Pinellas Park, where they rented a mobile home and opened a Crusty’s Pizza on 49th Street.
When they arrived in September of that year, Pinellas Park businesses were facing a moratorium on construction. So their grand opening, originally planned for October, was delayed.
Those first few months were the toughest of their lives, Carol said; most nights she’d cry herself to sleep she was so homesick. And they lived off their savings while Fred traveled to the Orlando Crusty’s for on-the-job training as they waited for their own store’s grand opening.
“We had to sell everything to move,” she said. “We went into debt to open this franchise. It was pure hell at first. We couldn’t afford groceries. We survived on our menu items.”
They eventually opened on Jan. 22, 1974. They made only $60 that first day, Carol said.
But slowly, as the Zindas planted roots in the community, the business grew.
In 1977, they decided to break away from the Michigan-based franchise.
“For the royalties [Crusty’s] got from us, we weren’t getting enough back from them in return,” Carol said. “They really weren’t supportive.”
So the couple founded Joto’s, the name a combination of their daughters’ first names – Tori and Jodi.
“We had to come up with our own recipes for sauce and dough,” Carol said. “We still use them today.”
The Zindas didn’t let their inexperience hold them back.
“Even though we didn’t know anything about the business,” said Fred, “we were very people-oriented.”
This was the key to their success and the driving force behind their growth.
In 1982, the couple opened up its Seminole location. The following year, they expanded to Gulfport, on 15th Avenue and 58th Street South.
In 1999 came a second Pinellas Park location, in the Bayou Center on Belcher Road. Several years later, in 2003, eager to take advantage of the beach traffic, they opened a Joto’s on West Bay Drive.
They also expanded their menu over the years as well.
In 1977, their first menu only included two subs and one pizza, Fred said. Today, their menu lists dozens of items, as well as a separate children’s menu.
And in order to keep up with bigger chains, Joto’s was forced to evolve the way it conducted business; it wasn’t long before the chain delivered orders to customers’ doors, accepted credit cards and sold pizza by the slice.
Fred said, “Over the years, we realized when in Rome, you do as the Romans do. You have to go with the changes.”
A family affair
Today their family only owns two Joto’s – the one in Seminole and the Bayou Center location, “the lone survivors,” Carol said.
A third Joto’s on 49th Street in Pinellas Park – mere blocks from the original location – is also still open, but it was sold to a former employee in the late 1980s.
“The economy hit us pretty hard,” said the Zindas’ daughter Jodi Whitcomb. “But these two are still going strong.”
She doesn’t rule out Joto’s opening new restaurants as the economy improves.
In the past decade, her parents, who now live in North Redington Beach, have stepped back from the business, while Jodi; her husband, Steve Whitcomb; sister, Tori Thrower; and brother-in-law, Brent Thrower run the show.
A CPA who worked for the city of Largo, Jodi seamlessly stepped in to fill her mother’s shoes, taking over bookkeeping for the company. It made sense for Steve and Brent, both with a sales background, to each manage one restaurant. And Tori, who taught at Dale Mabry Elementary School and Skyview Elementary School, assists with day-to-day operations and major decisions at Joto’s.
From day one, the Zindas intended to create a family environment, not only to attract customers but also to build a legacy.
“It’s always been my dream that we can keep this going, that it would stay in the family,” Fred said. But he “didn’t want to drive [his daughters] into it.”
“They did their own thing,” Carol said. “When they were ready” they joined the family business.
“We grew up in it,” Jodi said. As teens, she and her sister worked their way through the ranks, from dishwasher to food prep to waitressing.
Now, the family’s third generation has joined the Joto’s team. Jodi’s 16-year-old daughter, Harley, recently started working as a waitress.
She’s the first of the grandchildren to work for Joto’s, but Fred hopes she isn’t the last.
“I hope the legacy keeps going,” he said.
The Zindas embraced their new home immediately, giving back to the community from the very beginning.
When the first location opened in 1974, they sponsored Jimmy Cope, a legendary local racecar driver who competed at Sunshine Speedway. Tori and Jodi attended Sacred Heart Catholic School, and the restaurant donated pizzas to school functions, such as its Fall Festival.
“Everyone in Pinellas Park knew us because of those two things,” Fred said.
In Seminole, they donated food, time and money to the local schools, including Seminole High School and Blessed Sacrament Catholic School, First Baptist Church of Indian Rocks, and various youth sports leagues.
Joto’s has also raised over $300,000 for All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg.
In 1999, Brent and Tori had a daughter, Rachel. Born prematurely, Rachel “was only with us for five days,” Jodi said. Despite the tragedy, the family was so impressed by the care received at ACH, that it created the Dough for the Kids Golf Classic in 2004.
Held annually in May, this year’s tournament marks its 10th anniversary.
Celebrating 40 years
Joto’s will host a weekend of special events at its Seminole restaurant to celebrate its 40th anniversary.
On Saturday, Jan. 25, former employees are invited back to catch up and reminisce, while Sunday, Jan. 26 is a customer appreciation day featuring live music, children’s activities, a prize wheel and a clown, Jodi said.
“I can’t believe it’s been 40 years,” Carol said. “It really is a milestone for mom and pops to last in today’s world.”