BUCKHANNON – At just 18 years old, Sam Nolte took the Main Street exit and drove into Buckhannon, West Virginia for the first time.
He didn’t know a soul, and he didn’t have a place to live. But he did have a destination — a pizza shop he hoped to one day call his own.
At the time, Nolte was working 70 to 80 hours a week as manager at a Maryland pizza place, and his boss asked if he was interested in buying a pizzeria in Upshur County. So on one of his few days off, Nolte headed west on a four-hour trip into the mountains to scope out the pizza shop, then called Pizza Man.
The rest, as they say, is history: Nolte officially moved to Buckhannon that January and opened Sam’s Pizza on February 1, 1991.
Thirty years later, that leap of faith has grown into an Upshur County staple, with 32 employees and a menu known across North-Central West Virginia for its consistency and quality.
“Our main items, our base items, are the same items that we were serving 30 years ago,” Nolte said. “We make our dough fresh every day, we grind our cheese, and we slice our meats. We still do everything the old-fashioned way. We haven’t gotten caught up in trying to make it easier. People get used to how you do things, and if you change too much, it’s going to be noticeable.”
That’s not to say the Sam’s Pizza menu hasn’t grown over the years — the Eby sub, for instance, features chicken with fresh basil, bacon and parmesan cheese. Among the most popular items are the classic pizzas, steak hoagies, calzones, cheese sticks, pepperoni rolls and chef salads.
Nolte, himself, is a straight-up cheese pizza fan.
“My favorite pizza is just cheese,” he said. “I grew up with it, and it’s still my favorite. When we order pizza at my house, we either have a whole pizza that’s just cheese, or at least a half of one.”
As a kid, Nolte used to hang out at a local pizzeria, and he started working in the food service industry at age 15. Originally from Maryland, he worked at a hardware store after graduating high school and picked up an evening job at a pizza shop. He was promoted to manager, but eager to start his first semester at Hagerstown Junior College, he gave his boss several-months-notice of his departure.
“I told him I was going to be leaving so he needed to find someone, and I remember making the comment, just off-the-cuff – ‘That is, unless you want to sell me that pizza place in Buchanan,’ and he just kind of chuckled and said, ‘Uh-huh.’”
Nolte would soon learn the correct pronunciation of Buckhannon. Not too long after making that spur-of-the-moment remark, his boss called him out of the blue to offer him a unique opportunity.
“He had gotten me this bag phone so he could get ahold of me whenever, so this one day, he calls me and he says, ‘Hey, I’ve been thinking about that. Why don’t you take a trip to Buckhannon on your next day off?’”
Nolte made the journey and liked what he saw – particularly West Virginia Wesleyan College, the friendly feel of the small town and the busy, developing Southfork Plaza in which Sam’s Pizza would eventually open.
“This was the happening side of town then, because there was no Sheetz and Burger King,” Nolte said. “When I came here, I drove straight down Main Street and ran right into the college, and I thought, ‘This is beautiful.’ I finally found the pizza shop, saw the plaza and thought, ‘Wow, this is actually really nice.’”
The 18-year-old Nolte walked into the pizza place, sat down and ordered some food. He wasn’t wowed by the food or the service, but he was taken with Buckhannon’s small-town charm and the prospect of owning his own business.
“I get the question a lot about, ‘How did you do this when you were so young?’” Nolte said. “Although it was difficult because of my maturity level, in some ways it was easier because I was a younger person. I wasn’t a 30-year-old with a wife and two children. I was kind of just going for it with not a whole lot of money, and if I failed, at least I gave it a shot. It was exciting.”
It was a gamble, but Nolte says he felt all along like the folks in Upshur County were cheering him on.
“A lot of people were rooting for me, and for not knowing anyone in this community, I felt at home really quickly,” he said.
From Ethel Andrews, who rented him an apartment, to A.G. Trusler, who rented him a space in the Southfork Plaza, to Connie Tenney who offered him sage advice, to a man named Phil who he would call for business guidance in the early 2000s, Nolte said he’s grateful for the local support in those early years.
Since then, he’s learned a lot of lessons about what can make – and break – a small business.
“The best lessons I’ve learned about businesses have come from some of the hardest times I’ve had,” Nolte said. “I had to make the decision on a couple of occasions about whether I was going grind this out, and I didn’t want to fail. That was probably one of the single biggest things for me – I did not want to fail, and that kept me going for a long time through some ups and downs.”
Now, with 32 total employees and six managers, Nolte says maintaining consistency, being fair, and creating a positive working environment are some pieces of advice he’d give to businesses just starting up.
“Consistency is probably one of the biggest things that you have to have as a business owner, and it’s not just consistency in your product,” he said. “That’s important, of course, but paying your bills, being consistent with your vendors, paying your taxes and just staying on top of everything – that’s the key. I didn’t make all the right choices when I was younger, but by the time I hit my fifth or sixth year, I started to get it.”
Treating employees fairly and cultivating a positive work environment has turned out to be a plus for Nolte, who says he can devote time to his community responsibilities – such as serving as an Upshur County Commissioner – because he can depend on his employees. In fact, Nolte is known for having retained several of his employees for 20 years or more, including manager Jason Eby, assistant manager Melanie Riffle and office manager April Gillum, Melanie’s daughter. Other longtime employees include assistant managers Bob Rowan, Jeff Winemiller and Jamie Smith.
“This is a tough industry to work in,” he said. “It’s not a nine-to-five job. We have fairly long hours, so you have to be flexible and fair. You don’t want to overwork people. The burnout portion of the restaurant industry is real, and just like with any job, if you’re expecting your employees to work 50-plus hours a week, you don’t expect them to hang around for too long.”
Giving back to the community is crucial, too. Nolte has coached youth sports as well as middle school and now high school sports, and he tries to help out with as many local organizations as possible.
“I think it’s key for businesses to do that,” he said. “It’s not just sports, but it’s 4-H, the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, any of these organizations that keep kids involved and keep them on the right path.”
Nolte also credits his wife, Kathy, and children, Ben, Maggie and Joey, for their unwavering support.
Today, as Sam’s Pizza hits the 30-year mark, Nolte and his team are adjusting to the pandemic, which has changed Sam’s Pizza’s from a popular buffet location known for its all-you-can-eat pizza bar to one that offers more delivery and carryout. Per state health protocols, indoor dining is only permitted at 50 percent capacity.
“We offer a free garden salad [for indoor dining] since we had to shut down our salad bar, which was really popular,” Nolte said. “Some people would come here just for the salad bar.”
As the restaurant embarks on its fourth decade, Nolte said he’s been reflecting on the milestone lately.
“It’s hard to believe it’s been 30 years. When I was 18, I remember thinking, ‘Wow, if I can make it, I should be retired by the time I’m 40.’ So yeah, there are a few things that have been a little reality check,” he said, laughing.
Sam’s Pizza is open from 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday; from 10:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday; and from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday. Order online, download the Sam’s Pizza’s app, or call 304-472-0281.