THE LANDERS PIZZA MAN
“HEY PIZZA MAN!” This is Mike Henson’s response when asked if he prefers to be called Mike or Michael. “At least that’s what I hear every day, everywhere I go, and I love it.”
While Mike Henson is best known for pizza, in Landers he is also known as “the guy who paid the bill for this year’s Labor Day fireworks show”.
“We had to cancel last year’s show because of COVID, and the community was discussing canceling this year again, and so I just decided to do it myself. Our community, our families, our kids, deserve fireworks show.”
Committed to bringing fireworks to the Landers Association Labor Day Celebration, armed with an infectious smile and an entrepreneurial spirit, Mike put the fireworks show to bid with nine companies, eventually contracting a company that had hosted shows at the MGM in Las Vegas and multiple Laughlin River events. The results were a spectacular display on a magical late summer desert evening, on par with the finest fireworks shows in California. “In the past we had contracted shows with 1500 ‘shots’,” Mike shared. “But this year’s show had 4,300 shots, including nine styles of fireworks new to Landers.” It was spectacular.
During an hour’s time in his busy $5 Pizza Place, Mike was ever vigilant to ensure each customer was wellserved and each pizza was properly prepared. A full two weeks after the fireworks extravaganza, several customers were still going out of their way to thank him for the show, displaying a clear affection for Mike that is hardly earned in one night.
With seemingly limitless energy and a positive spirit, when asked if he ever has a bad day, Mike answers, “Sure, sometimes I wake up not feeling it. But I find beauty and motivation in so many simple things. For example, I’ll come into work and when the oven fires up, I know it’s going to be a great day.”
Another example of Mike successfully turning a tough day into pure fun, was when a group gathered for a political protest on the highway in front of his restaurant. Though not in agreement politically, Mike took pizzas and waters to the protestors and hand fashioned a sign he carried over his own head noting his contrasting position with an arrow pointing down at himself chiding, “This guy is an asshole.” The group soon disbanded and left, perhaps politically unsatisfied, but certainly well-fed.
Mike’s affection for people and joy for life was somehow crafted from an early life of struggle. Growing up one of seven children in a family suffering from addiction, Mike’s early life included foster homes, group homes, and brushes with the law. Hardly a “Fortunate Son”, Mike saw his peers and friends struggle with the same life to which they had been born. “I realized that I could work and make things better. Life is what you make of it. I just started working and learning and working some more. I know I can change things and make them better.”
At 16, Mike’s first job was working at McDonalds for a year, “where I did EVERYTHING.” Later, he commuted to the Coachella Valley to work his job at Cheesecake Factory, then fine dining spots in Palm Springs, and finally, he worked as a personal chef for in-home parties and functions. When Mike returned to the Morongo basin to live and work, he had only two months of pizza employment under his belt in his current location, when the original owner asked if he wanted to buy the place. He never looked back.
Even Covid couldn’t slow Mike Henson down. His takeout model, combined with his growing reputation for great pizza, his community support, and an influx of visitors to the area, resulted in soaring sales and his best year to date. While obviously benefiting from the influx of interest and traffic to his delivery sphere, it’s easy to believe Mike when he says, “I love people, and am so happy when someone new finds the magic of these open spaces.”
Magic is an appropriate word when listening to Mike speak of his family. He and his wife Bethany, a palliative care nurse working in the Coachella Valley, recently celebrated their 10-year anniversary since meeting on the campus of Copper Mountain College. Parents of two daughters, ages nine and four, Mike’s joy manifests itself brightest just when it appears he’s been lost to his phone, until he emerges with a video of his daughter having a blast making a pizza on premises. “It’s important to me that we spend daily time together, even on days when I have long hours. The entire family helps here and we have fun doing it.”
Mike’s approach to his business future also rings true to his character and commitment to community. “I’m not looking to create another $5 Pizza Place. I like the idea of this one staying original and unique. What I would like is to buy a pizza truck so I can take my pizza to all the great events and festivals in the area.”
Mike’s Landers fireworks show certainly matched his enthusiasm for life. One such show is likely to create legendary status in a small town, but never one to sit on success, Mike is already planning an expanded extravaganza for 2022. With a fireworks-caliber explosion of enthusiasm, Mike rapidly outlines it. “Next year I’m doubling the budget, I want to add an old-fashioned carnival with rides for the kids, a DJ, a band, maybe a cookout, and really make it a great day of love for friends and families. We have great people in the Landers Association like Roxanne and Judy, and I’m talking to a guy who owns a neighboring flower farm next to the park.”
With a larger vision that will double the budget, Mike has already been approached by neighbors about pitching in to support the expanded effort, and true to form, Mike’s approach is, “that would be great, but I can handle the expenses. It helps with taxes, so if people bring in donations that doesn’t mean I would contribute less, it just means we could add their money in and make the day that much better.”
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