Kathy Cobb - Associate Editor
Published January 1, 1993 | January 1993 issue
When the Simek brothers, owners of the Tombstone Tap in Medford, Wisconsin, started making pizzas in 1962, they were simply looking for a gimmick to pull customers into their tavern located across from the cemetery. That "gimmick" has evolved into the nation's second largest frozen pizza company—Tombstone Pizza.
The pizzas made in the tavern's 6-foot by 6-foot kitchen were such a hit that in 1966 the brothers took to the road in a freezer truck and sold their product to other area taverns.
The next step was to find a bigger kitchen to meet the company's growing customer base, and Medford provided an eight-acre site in the city's industrial park where Tombstone's operations continue to expand and employ nearly 600 people today.
By 1984 Tombstone was one of the three largest frozen pizza manufacturers in the country, with sales in excess of $100 million and an additional pizza plant in Sussex, outside Milwaukee.
About this time the Simeks arrived at a turning point: either they had to invest heavily to support further growth or turn the company over to someone else. Enter Kraft Inc., which bought the company in 1986.
While the product line has grown considerably since those early days at the Tombstone Tap, Kraft General Foods is committed to the same standards the Simek family established, says Cathy Pernu, senior communications associate for Tombstone Pizza at company headquarters in suburban Chicago.
Tombstone's products are distributed much the same way they were under the Simeks' ownership: shipped by the company's own trucks and trailers to regional warehouse facilities; delivered direct to the retailer by Tombstone's route sales representatives via freezer trucks.
The company's market takes in about 80 percent of the United States, and the product line includes meat snacks and 40 different pizzas that use at least 20 million pounds of Wisconsin cheese annually.
Tombstone's success has been a boon for Medford, a town of 4,200 in north central Wisconsin about 75 miles northeast of Eau Claire. While not its largest employer, Tombstone has provided jobs for more than 20 years for residents of Medford and other communities in a 50-mile radius. "The company has been and continues to be a good corporate friend to the community," says Sue Emmerich, executive director of the Medford Chamber of Commerce. And the company's status has brought national recognition to Medford, she adds. When the town's work force is totaled, "We have as many jobs in Medford as people living here," Emmerich says.
And that growth will likely continue. Tombstone installed two blast freezers in late 1991 and an additional production line in 1992, which resulted in the hiring of about 70 new employees since November 1.