BAXTER -- An area pizza restaurant would have made David Letterman proud by making the top 100 list.

Rafferty's Pizza, at the Westgate Mall in Baxter, was named one of the top 100 independent pizza restaurants in the nation by Pizza Today magazine. Only one other pizza restaurant in Minnesota, located in South St. Paul, made the list.

Rafferty's owners are Mike and Kari Brusseau who only found out about their placing on the list by reading the magazine.

Pizza Today Magazine reported the top 100 in the June, July, August and September issues of the magazine. Each year the magazine staff fax, e-mail and mail surveys to pizza establishments across the nation. Information is compiled from the returned surveys and from information in the chain store guide.

 

Diners may choose between levels in the two-tiered dining offered in Rafferty's Pizza in the Westgate Mall. The interior also features murals of Brainerd's business history with recreations of historic area business buildings. (Dispatch Photos by Renee Richardson)

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"I knew that they were looking a couple of months ago," Mike Brusseau said of the magazine's list. "They go by sales and innovations with different types of pizzas. ... That was pretty exciting because there are only two from Minnesota."

Brusseau said offering different pizzas by the slice was something the magazine liked to see along with sales statistics.

Rafferty's was established in 1981. Pizza Today's Web site contains detailed information on restaurants included in the top 100. In 1999, Rafferty's had gross unit sales of $750,000. Pizza accounts for 85 percent of sales with the average customer check written for $6.

The pizza restaurant has about 18 employees and will mark 20 years in business in March.

Brusseau has been involved with pizza production since 1984. He was previously food and beverage director at the Holiday Inn. And while it used to be just pepperoni and cheese, pizzas now cover the variety of diners' palates.

At Rafferty's the white sauce veggie pizza has taken off and now sells more than the red sauce version.

Some customers just wish the restaurant would add delivery service. Brusseau said he is familiar with that request. But he said the restaurant could not cook pizza fast enough from two ovens to accommodate diners and deliveries.

Particularly on Friday nights, Brusseau said he has all the business he can handle. "Something would suffer -- either delivery or both and I couldn't do both efficiently out of the operation," Brusseau said. And Brusseau said there are no plans to move the restaurant. "I just think I'm at a good location now."

In fact, the additional movie screens on the nearby Movies 10 and the Westport Cinemas continue to provide good business for the restaurant, Brusseau said, adding business actually improved once the Westgate Theater moved out of the mall. When the theater was inside, movie-goers had to go outside to access Rafferty's because of the interior mall gates after hours. And Brusseau said the additional screens also appear to be attracting more people from other areas in the county.

Brusseau also sees benefits to being an independent. He said independent operators have the ability to experiment with menu offerings while chains -- although they have greater advertising abilities -- may run specialty pizzas for limited times. Brusseau travels to pizza expos in Las Vegas and Atlantic City to see what the new trends are in the industry. A few have been toned down to appeal to Midwestern taste buds. Brusseau said exotic vegetables like artichokes and avocados do not make the cut.

"Different things like that I leave off," Brusseau said and laughed. Although he did try a duck sausage pizza once. Whatever the favored topping, pizza is part of the American eating habit.

"July was the biggest month we've ever had and it's just increasing really nicely," Brusseau said of the business. It is work he has not tired of after years behind the pizza counter.

"It's a fun, family atmosphere. I still just love making pizzas."