A Decade After the Fry Street Fire: An Oral History of The Tomato
A Decade After the Fry Street Fire: An Oral History of The Tomato
For 23 years, The Tomato — owned by two of Denton’s finest, Becky and Robert "Ski" Slusarski — was one of the city's go-to pizza joints for local students and families. Ask around town and it won't take you long to find a former employee of the establishment — but you might never find someone with anything but positive things to say about their time working with the Slusarskis.
1984: Welcome to Texas
Becky and Ski moved to Denton to open The Flying Tomato franchise. They worked at a shop called Garcia’s Pizza in Illinois, which was the chain that brought The Flying Tomato to Texas. After training at a store in Indiana for six months, they brought an assistant manager with them and opened a store in Denton.
A year prior to the Denton store opening, The Flying Tomato opened a location in Dallas. In 1985, the third Texas location opened in College Station.
“The district manager would be down here, I don’t know, every three months,” Ski said. “The owners would come down once a year and that kind of continued until they closed down the Dallas store in 1991.”
1991-1994: The Flying Tomato's Last Location
The Flying Tomato closed its Dallas location in 1991. Ski recalls the pizza shop being inside a mall. In 1993, The Flying Tomato in College Station closed.
“It was hard to be profitable. A&M students are A&M students. They like what they like,” Ski said.
Former Denton City Council member Kevin Roden worked at The Flying Tomato for about six months in 1994 while studying at the University of North Texas.
“I started UNT in ‘92. I had another job doing landscaping at the time,” Roden said. “I worked there during the height of the Denton goth scene. Fry Street was pretty riddled with a lot of local goth kids. They’d hang out on the second floor of The Tomato and play Magic: The Gathering," he said. “The music I remember that kept coming back on was the Lost Boys soundtrack.”
1995: A Pizza Joint of Their Own
The Tomato (business, not building) was put up for sale in 1995 because the owners didn't want to have one restaurant 800 miles away from the others, even though the Denton location was profitable. A year later, Becky and Ski found enough loans and support to buy the business from the owners.
“They gave us two years of free usage of trademarks and logos and things like this,” Ski said. After the two years were up, they decided to make one tiny change.
1998: Out With the Flying, In With the Pizza
With the change in ownership came a new name: The Flying Tomato became The Tomato Pizza.
“The recipe was the same, there were no restrictions on supplies or distribution from where we were getting our things from,” Ski said. Same pizza, slightly different name.
2002-2004: Remembering the Good Times
Leslee Becker started working at The Tomato in 2002. She worked there until it closed in 2007.
“Everybody did everything. I cooked, I drove, I spent some time managing. 'Bohemian Rhapsody' would play two, three, four times a day, “ Becker said.
Longtime Denton musician Richard Haskins worked at The Tomato from 2003-2007.
“This was definitely my most favorite job besides being a musician,” Haskins said. “Becky and Ski were the best bosses I’ve ever had.”
Haskins and Becker aren’t alone in speaking highly of the work Becky and Ski did for the community through their pizza shop. Local screen printer Tom Cochran recalls his job at the Tomato as one of the greatest he ever had.
“The pay wasn't great, and I spent most of my time washing dishes, but it was a fun place to work and I loved being a part of it,” Cochran said. “Seeing how much passion and love Becky and Ski put into their business was a huge life lesson for me, and has helped me immensely since then as I grow my own small business.
“The camaraderie was the best part of working there — I still have friends to this day from when we worked together,” Cochran said.
2005: The Lease Expires
The building The Tomato occupied had a 21-year lease that expired in 2005.
“We attempted to solicit a longer term lease but [the building owner] kind of stalled,” Ski said. “I think at that time he was thinking he was going to sell or he already had inklings he was going to sell the buildings on the block.”
2006: United Equities and the Hickory and Fry Exodus
United Equities, a Houston-based real estate company, purchased the 100-block of the historic Fry Street area. Several buildings were set for demolition and there were whispers of a major pharmacy moving in.
“We were informed that he sold the properties on the block,” Ski said. “They tried to get us to close in January and there was such a big uproar that they delayed that.”
Many local businesses closed. Others relocated. Mr. Chopsticks moved a few blocks over to Scripture. Naranja Cafe ended up on Avenue C, and TJ’s moved to Carroll before settling into its current spot on Elm Street. (Only one building from this era managed to escape demolition: Cool Beans. A tried-and-true Denton watering hole, we hope to see Cool Beans open for-ev-er.)
A grassroots organization called Save Fry Street formed to work with developers in an attempt to preserve the historic buildings. Nearly 9,500 people signed a petition supporting the preservation of the 100-block of Fry Street.
“There was really nothing we could do,” Becker said. “The guy who bought it, nobody knew. No one had any connections to him; he was unreachable. Nobody could do anything.”
2007: The Tomato Closes
The Tomato officially closed its doors for business on May 13, 2007, the Sunday after finals.
“We all used to smoke weed in the walk-in,” Becker said. “We’d call it counting tomatoes. I remember the closing party. A bunch of us were in the walk-in because we had to do this one more time. Ski walks in — we never did this while they were there, of course — while we are smoking a bowl, he goes and checks the thermostat, leaves."
“He asked us what we were doing when he walked in and we told him we were reminiscing. Ski responded — Yeah, I can smell that."
“I was standing there later next to Bryan (another employee) and asked if he thought Ski was mad that we were smoking weed in the walk-in,” Becker said. “He said, ‘Nah, look at him,’ and pointed to Ski who was chugging a pitcher of beer.”
“I had ten days to get everything out of the building,” Ski said. “We didn’t own the building, but we owned all the equipment and stuff inside. I think we had everything out within a week or two. They weren’t real sticklers.”
With the 1920s-era structure empty, Tim Sandifer of United Equities confirmed the inevitable to the local press: the one-time home of The Tomato would be demolished before the end of June. At the time of his statement, Sandifer couldn't have known just how correct he was.
On June 27, 2007, at approximately 11:00 p.m., flames engulfed The Tomato.
“The fire was spectacular," Ski said.
2007: The Tomato Burns
“It was kind of disheartening to see it go that way,” Ski said. “We got more press then.”
“I was playing poker at my house with a bunch of the Midlake guys,” Roden said. “I think someone on Facebook mentioned it happening. We went down to watch it from the street.”
“I never heard someone say, ‘Hey, the Tomato is on fire and nobody knows who did it,’” Haskins said. “I was having a band rehearsal that night in my studio over here off the square, and someone came in and said, ‘Dude, dude! Taylor Moseley just lit the fucking Tomato on fire!’”
“He was out singing songs about it after the first week,” Haskins said. “He talked about it pretty frequently.”
In July, fire marshals obtained an arrest warrant on an arson charge for Moseley, who was later cleared of all charges due to lack of evidence. To this day, no one has been indicted or formally charged for the fire.
Later in the year, local filmmaker Christopher Largen released a film called The Burning of Fry Street with footage he captured during the burning of The Tomato. In 2009, Largen released Bohemia Rising: The Fry Street Story, which highlights the week-long demonstrations leading up to the fire. You can rent this film from the Denton Public Library or you can buy it here.
2011-2012: The Sanger Year
Four years after the Denton location burned down, Becky and Ski opened up a new restaurant in Sanger on May 13, 2011. The Sanger location of The Tomato closed on October 25, 2012.
Header image by Marcus Junius Laws.
Contributing photos from Marcus Junius Laws, Alec Williams, and Tricia Kay.
Header image design by Sara Button.