By Harley Nefe
A new local restaurant has sprung up on Blowing Rock Road in the previous location of Hardee’s, and the owners said it brings something you can’t get anywhere else in the High Country — real Chicago style pizza.
Clayton Miller and Chris Wilcox are the owners of Boonie’s Chicago Style Pizza, and opening a restaurant was something they have talked about for a long time, as they have been working together for many years.
Their history goes way back to when both Clayton’s father and Chris’s father grew up and worked together at the Wilcox Drug Company on Howard Street as teenagers.
“Our families have a very long history,” Chris said.
Local export companies established a botanical trade in Boone during the 20th century, as dried ginseng root was the key element. The Wilcox Drug Company was established in 1900 by Grant Wilcox, and by 1976, Wilcox Drug was the largest purchaser of botanical goods in the United States. In 1982, Wilcox Drug merged with Appalachian Evergreen and became Wilcox Natural Products. The company was in business for 100 years from 1900-2000.
Clayton and Chris both grew up in Boone. Clayton first started working for Chris’s father when he was 14, and he later started the commercial collection of saw palmetto in south Florida for Wilcox Drug. A prostate medication is made out of the fruit from saw palmetto bushes, which is a product Clayton and Chris are still involved with together.
Clayton and Chris both currently work in a company that is an offshoot of the old Wilcox Drug Company called North American Natural Resources, and they have been business partners for over 26 years. They also have real estate rental properties together.
However, the restaurant Boonie’s is their latest partnership. The idea for the business all started with Clayton, whose nickname growing up in the High Country was Boonie.
Boonie was born and raised in Watauga County; however, when he was 20 years old, he followed his brother Wayne to Chicago in pursuit of better employment opportunities.
In Chicago, Wayne delivered pizzas for a restaurant throughout the 1960s. Boonie and Wayne then worked together in factory jobs during the early 1970s. In the mid 1970s, Wayne purchased his own pizza restaurant called Just-A-Pizza on Archer Avenue, and Boonie got to watch it start and take off.
Boonie would occasionally spend anywhere between a single weekend to months at a time helping Wayne with the day-to-day operations of the restaurant.
“He let me work in the basement mixing and chopping ingredients for a good while before I got to the pizza,” Boonie said. “You have to learn what’s in it before you can make it. I learned from the bottom up by making dough, sauce and prepping the ingredients.”
Eventually, Wayne sold the business in the mid 1990s and returned to North Carolina.
Boonie also came back to the High Country, bringing with him his knowledge, and he had a mission to share it with those around him. For 25 years, he has been treating friends, family and coworkers to authentic Chicago style pizza, right out of his home kitchen.
After years of talking about one day selling pizza to the public along with the continued support and encouragement from business partner Chris, the opportunity presented itself when the Hardee’s location became available, and Boonie’s became a reality.
The availability of the location was the kickstart to the pizza business idea. When Chris and Boonie had the opportunity to lease the restaurant, they did.
“With Boonie’s experience and knowledge, the timing was right with this property becoming available,” Chris said.
“Well, we thought it was time,” Boonie added, jokingly.
They signed the lease in December 2019, unaware that the COVID-19 pandemic would hit in just a few months.
“We thought if we were ever going to do it, that was the time,” Chris said. “And had Covid not come. I mean, who’s going to start a restaurant during a worldwide pandemic?”
However, Chris and Boonie were too involved already, and they took the keys over March 1, 2020 and started renovations with Enterline & Russell Builders.
“We walked in, and Tom Enterline showed up and said, ‘We’re ready,’ and we were standing there scratching our heads going, ‘I’m not so sure we should be doing this,’” Chris said. “And Tom Enterline responded, ‘I booked this time. Where are your plans?’ and we didn’t have any plans yet.”
Chris further explained that it was relatively simple going from a restaurant to a restaurant as far as the Town of Boone was concerned and the paperwork that had to be completed, but he and Boonie didn’t have a clear idea on how to use the space. Tom Enterline, on the other hand, was able to pencil it all out in about 30 minutes.
“Tom Enterline was key to the renovation,” Chris said. “ We didn’t really have a vision for what it would look like, and Tom really helped lead us along with his knowledge and experience in the building business. He was able to ask us the right questions and lead us along because we didn’t start up with any plans. He helped us work through all that, and they did a nice job; it’s a great space.”
Boonie was able to set up the kitchen himself, and he said that it is a big kitchen.
They were ready to open Boonie’s in mid July 2020, but they said they chose not to open at that time because the harvest season for their saw palmetto business in Florida is from August through the first few weeks of September.
“We decided rushing to get Boonie’s open and then leaving would have been a bad idea,” Chris said.
Therefore, Chris and Boonie opened the restaurant on Oct. 1, 2020 for delivery and takeout only.
“That first week when we first opened, we were so slammed,” Chris said. “A lot of people waited and watched our renovation and were really excited to give us a try. Our point of sale (POS) system hadn’t really been tested, and we really got tested. I know we stubbed our toe here and there. You only have one shot at making a good first impression. It was a lot our first week. We had a lot of sales, and it kind of smoothed out.”
When Boonie’s first opened, the restaurant had its own drivers; however, now it transitioned to working with DoorDash.
“This has worked out really well because they do a lot of marketing,” Chris said. “If you’re thinking about dinner tonight and you’re within where DoorDash delivers, you probably have their app on your phone and you’re going to look at it. So, that’s a plus for us. We’ve actually seen a lot more deliveries than we did have when we were just doing it ourselves. Their marketing effort works.”
Customers can also order their pizzas online or phone it in and then receive it from the building’s pickup window.
On Dec. 21, 2020, Boonie’s opened for dine-in services.
“We had gotten the kitchen under control, and the takeout and delivery was going well, and we had space, and we finally got our furniture,” Chris said. “That was the real thing that held us up.”
The restaurant can seat 120 individuals inside; however, due to COVID-19 restrictions, it is at 50% capacity and has about 60 seats inside with tables socially distanced.
The building also has a private dining room with its own TV, so customers can call and book that room for meetings.
The Town of Boone also allowed Boonie’s to have picnic tables outside. When the weather was nicer, Chris said customers would order and if they chose to sit outside, staff would take their food to them and get them drinks.
“That worked out really well,” Chris said. “We’re hoping in the future that will continue. When it’s pretty, I think people will really embrace sitting outside more so now than ever before.”
During the week of Feb. 8, Boonie’s also received its ABC license to sell alcoholic beverages, as inside the building, there is a bar.
Chris’s wife, Melanie, stained all the boards that are located inside the restaurant around the bar area in their garage and brought them to the restaurant where they were cut. She also decided where each board was placed, as Chris said she had the design idea for the bar. There are pillars by the bar that have chalkboards where lists of beers and specials can be noted.
“What’s nice is when you’re sitting at the bar, you got all the glass windows in front of you,” Chris said. “It’s neat at night with the outdoor lighting coming through the windows and the high-top tables looking out at the traffic going by; it’s got a good feel to it.”
Chris added, “What is actually nice too, is when you get people sitting at the high-top tables, cars that are driving by can see we’re open. That’s one of our biggest issues: people don’t know we’re here; people don’t know we’re open.”
So, what exactly have customers been receiving? Boonie said it’s something people couldn’t get in Boone before — a different flavor, a different looking pizza, just something different, a real Chicago style pizza.
“You just need a taste of it and try it,” Boonie said. “It will pretty much explain itself. It’s not like a pizza most people are used to. In our opinion, it’s just better.”
Chris explained that the real Chicago style pizza is a stuffed pizza with toppings on the inside and the sauce on the top. Boonie’s also has a thick deep dish cut style and a classic thin crust style. The stuffed and thick options are cut pie style and take more time to cook, whereas the thin crust is cut into squares and cooks faster.
New York has its style of pizza, Detroit has a style of pizza and Chicago has a style. And as Chris mentioned, “It’s not fast food pizza. It’s Boonie’s pizza.”
“We source quite a bit of our ingredients and supplies directly from Chicago,” Chris said. “This allows us to achieve the flavor and specific taste you can only find in Chicago and at Boonie’s.”
On the menu, Boonie’s has a set of special pizzas titled ‘Pizza Our Way,’ which includes the restaurant’s recommendations.
“For example, the Hawaiian BBQ has a barbecue sauce base as opposed to a red sauce, and a lot of Hawaiian pizzas are just offered with a red sauce at other places,” Chris said.
Boonie’s also offers ‘Pizza Your Way,’ where customers can design their own pizza with a list of toppings. The different sizes of pizzas include 6, 10, 12, 14, 16 and 20 inches that feed five to six people.
The restaurant has other items on the menu as well including standard appetizers, pastas, salads, sandwiches and wings. Chris said Boonie’s manager Patrick Burke is the wing guy, and he’s responsible for a lot of the sauces. Patrick used to own and operate the Town Tavern.
“I’ve been throwing chicken wings longer than I can describe,” Patrick said.
Patrick said he really likes Boonie’s Dry Rub and Mango Habanero flavors for the wings.
“If a customer comes in and says, ‘You can’t make them hot enough,’ I got something for them, in a good way,” Patrick said. “There’s something for everybody from Mild to Voodoo. They’re like, ‘Why do you call it Voodoo?’ and I’m like, ‘Really, you have to ask?’ It kind of speaks for itself. Even the non heat ones, there’s going to be something there for everybody for sure.”
Boonie’s will also start adding some more sandwiches like a Chicago style Italian beef sandwich, which is specific to that area. Chris said Boonie has been experimenting in the kitchen to really dial that sandwich in, and it will start out as a special and ultimately get added to the menu.
There are other specials that are going on like a burger and a beer for $7 Tuesday through Friday. Boonie’s also has a special for one slice of cheese pizza and a drink for $3.25 or two slices and a drink for $6.25, with toppings being extra.
“We’ve been kind of waiting for the bar to get open, so we can unleash the whole arsenal and have certain specials on certain days, so people get into a routine,” Patrick said. “We have such a big kitchen that there’s a lot of opportunities to do more stuff that some places don’t have, just because they don’t have the space or the capabilities. These guys did a super job building this place. I wish I could take credit for any of it, but I came in after.”
Chris said the location has plenty of parking, and it’s a good size restaurant with all kinds of apartments within walking distance, and he thinks it will do really well. In addition, he said the prices are reasonable, and they’re comparable to other prices and cheaper than some of the other pizza restaurants in town.
“We’re determined to make it work, and I’m fully confident that had it not been for Covid, we would be in a totally different situation,” Chris said. “We’re not seeing as many of the local people as we would like, but some folks just aren’t eating out yet due to Covid. On the weekends, the tourists have found us. They have been here, and they found us no problem, but the local people and students are just beginning to find us.”
Chris further said they have already received a lot of good feedback.
“People like the food; people like the stuffed pizza, which is the classic Chicago style. So, a lot of people haven’t had that,” Chris said. “We’ve had really good feedback with food quality. I’ve seen a lot of faces here that are repeat people. Once they’ve been here, they like it and seem to come back.”
Overall, Chris said it’s been interesting starting a new restaurant because he’s never really been in the restaurant business before whereas Boonie and Patrick have.
“I’m having a good time,” Patrick said. “Food is what I do.”
“I’m happy,” Boonie added. “Although, it doesn’t take much to make me happy.”
As his first time in the restaurant business, Chris said it’s just about the details.
“There are so many details that you have to get right, and so we are striving daily to get it right and to get it right more and more,” he said.
As the restaurant’s slogan states, Boonie was born here, raised here, lived there and brought the pizza back, and that’s how Boonie’s came to be.
Boonie’s is open for lunch and dinner Tuesday through Sunday currently. If customers are doing pickup, they can begin placing orders at 10:30 a.m. The doors open for dine in at 11 a.m. Boonie’s takes the last food order at 8:30 p.m., and everybody has to be out of the restaurant by 9 p.m. because of North Carolina’s curfew.
Chris said the hours will adjust as COVID-19 restrictions change and allows them to stay open later. For more information about Boonie’s, visit its website at https://www.boonieschicagostylepizza.com/ or call the restaurant at (828) 335-3033.
Pictures of the restaurant:
In the kitchen: