Downriver is not exactly known as a culinary destination. There are plenty of coney islands, some Applebee’s, and a lot of fast food chains. Folks who like a few more options tend to have to leave the area for non-chain choices and something a little more … edible? A new restaurant is hoping to change that perception a bit. In December 2014, Paul Laginess opened Major Tomato with his two sons. He was kind enough to speak with us.
Metro Times: Where did the name Major Tomato come from?
Paul Laginess: Well, that’s derived from a David Bowie song [“Space Oddity”]. “Ground Control to Major Tom.” So Major Tom-ato. My son came up with the idea. He got the idea from another place — Sgt. Pepperoni. So, we took that concept and ran with it. It’s not quite as obvious as Sgt. Pepperoni is, but that’s where it came from, Major Tom-ato.
MT: Tell us a little bit about your background and before you opened Major Tomato. Were you already working in the culinary world?
Laginess: No, I worked at the Ford Motor Company for 25 years and retired at the end of 2013. And, basically, all the expertise I had was in the form of my two sons, who had both been in the pizza business for quite a few years.
MT: So, you just decided to open up a restaurant?
Laginess: Well, I had it in my head for quite a while. For me to eat anything healthy, if I want to get into a restaurant, I pretty much had to drive a long distance because just there’s not anything at this end of town. So if I wanted it, I’d go to Inn Season Cafe in Royal Oak, or Seva downtown, I guess that’s about the closest place that’s anywhere near healthy. But Downriver, there’s nothing. So I thought, “Well, let me get ahead of that curve.” I think I know how I want to approach it. It’s more of like a healthy-junk-food kind of thing, so we’re basically taking hot dogs, burgers, pizza, the kind of food that people would normally call junk food, and we’re trying to do it has healthy as we possibly can. So we stay away from chemicals. We make it a thin-crust instead of a thick-crust pizza, we use grass-fed beef for our burgers, our hot dogs are all organic, our veggie burgers are all organic. That’s the approach. My whole thinking was, “Well, OK, if I can’t get a good bite to eat down here, well, I’m gonna have to open it up myself, because nobody else is doing it.”
MT: And there’s basically nothing else like that Downriver.
Laginess: And that’s why I wanted to do it here. I’m not really just trying to draw the Allen Park crowd, I’m trying to draw folks in Wyandotte, I’m trying to draw people from Dearborn, a lot of the folks I used to work with at Ford come over here on their lunch. Detroit’s not far away.
MT: Have you always been very health-conscious?
Laginess: Well, let’s see, I have not eaten red meat since I was 25 years old. And I’m 62 now. So, I have been trying to eat healthy for more than 35 years. And I just have done a lot of reading over the years, and I’ve always had this thing in my head, it’s sort of a science fiction background. I really want to stick around for as long as possible, and I figure the best way to do that is to just take care of myself and try to eat healthy. So I’ve done a lot of reading, and I kind of think I have a good handle on the things that are bad for people, and I know a little bit about what’s good for people, and I’m trying to do as much of it as I can right here in Major Tomato.
MT: What’s the reaction been like from your customers?
Laginess: The reaction for the most part has been kind of blowing me away. We’ve got like a 5-star rating on Yelp — there’s not a ton of reviews, but it’s like 17 reviews, 5-star there. And we’ve had I think about 70 reviews on Facebook, and like 68 of them are 5-star reviews. So, everybody loves the pizza. I have yet to hear any complaint about anything so far. So, to me, that’s a great sign.
MT: What do you owe all the success to? Is it just the food? The service? The atmosphere?
Laginess: We’re all pretty friendly here. We don’t have a wait staff, so all people deal with when they come in is the person at the counter. So they take the order, and then when the pizza or the burger or the dog is ready we bring it out to the table, but we don’t have waiters or waitresses. I think the thing people are most blown away by is the pizza. I’ve heard from many, many people that it’s the best pizza they’ve ever had in their lives. It seems a little hyperbolic to me, but when I hear it from multiple people, it kind of makes me think that we got something good going on here.
MT: What’s the future for Major Tomato?
Laginess: Well, I’ll tell ya, a lot of people ask me about franchising. And when they say that, it makes me laugh, because I’m all day, every day just trying to make this place work. And just the thought of having another one, or dozens of them, I can’t even imagine how that ever gets easy for anybody. It’s going be a good future, and keep me going in my retirement years too.
MT: Is there anything else that’s important about Major Tomato?
Laginess: The only other thing that I’d mention is that, and it’s kind of a big deal for me, that we pay our employees a decent living wage. It’s something that’s not done a whole lot. But there are a couple of places that are trying to do it, and there’s some municipalities and some states that are even trying to do it, and I think it’s something that really needs to happen in this country, and I don’t imagine that it’s going happen in the world of politics. I don’t think they’re going to push it through. So, it almost feels to me like it’s got to be done down on this level. And, you know, maybe it’ll come into the mainstream, but it’s really something that I think has to happen.
MT: What does a living wage translate to for your workers?
Laginess: Well it’s $10.10 an hour right now for my register people and my delivery guy, and my managers who are mainly doing most of the cooking back in the kitchen, they’re making $13 an hour now. I just kind of need to look at the books over the next couple of months, but I really want to get them up to $15 an hour and $13 an hour, and then kind of just go from that point forward. And I think that would be a good wage. I think someone could actually make a living, make a decent living on that amount of money.