Mesa manager looks to what’s next

Matt Tomkins has been serving up pizza in Dinkytown for six years.

Mesa Pizza general manager Matt Tomkins serves crowds of late-night customers Saturday night in Dinkytown. Tomkins says he likes the challenge of working late nights.

Mark Vancleave

Mesa Pizza general manager Matt Tomkins serves crowds of late-night customers Saturday night in Dinkytown. Tomkins says he likes the challenge of working late nights.

Tony

Less than an hour has passed since the Golden Gophers beat Syracuse, and the line is already out the door. Outside, a sedan smashes into a taxi.

But the four-man crew at Mesa Pizza works the counter with grim efficiency, flinging pizza and cash from one bleary-eyed student to another. Saturday night is just getting started.

General manager Matt Tomkins is just as quick as the other employees, but he somehow finds time to give topping recommendations and sip some ginger ale. The regulars call out “Flaco!” and he chats with them, often foggy on their names but not on their usual pizza order.

After six years of dolling out good vibes, common sense and slice after slice of macaroni and cheese pizza, Tomkins, 26, has helped turn Mesa Pizza into a campus institution.

He said he still loves the job, but as he gets older and finishes earning his degree, he’s starting to think about creating a pizza place of his own.

“For the last year at Mesa I feel like I’ve been on autopilot,” he said. “It’s flattering to think the place needs me, but I don’t know.”

Tomkins hails from Racine, Wis. He studied engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison for two years before dropping out.

“It was just a classic case of doing well in high school and then partying too much,” he said.

Tomkins found a job at Ian’s, a well-known late-night pizza shop that specializes in offbeat flavors. There, Tomkins met his best friends Dave Hathaway, Luis Hernandez and Mario Amaya. When the three struck out to start their own restaurant in the Twin Cities, they invited Tomkins along to manage it.

The first couple of months were tough: The four worked 100-hour weeks to build up the business. Hathaway said he would work until after bar close, returning just a few hours later to prep the next day’s pizzas.

Over the years, Hathaway, Hernandez and Amaya worked to expand Mesa Pizza to Uptown in Minneapolis and the University of Iowa while Tomkins turned the Dinkytown location into a well-oiled machine.

“There is definitely a very specific skill set,” Hathaway said. “It’s something that Matt is especially good at, but I would say our whole staff is pretty good at it, [and] that’s a tribute to him. He brings out the best in people.”

Tomkins often talks about “reverent power,” the idea that employees will be the most loyal to bosses they genuinely like.

“Having a good culture in a place is crucial,” he said. The vibes travel over the counter, too: Tomkins said on late nights the mood of the line can change in an instant.

Tony Nicklow, Tomkins’s friend and the owner of the neighboring Tony’s Diner, said the casual atmosphere around Mesa Pizza doesn’t mean late-night dining is easy work. Serving food after bar close takes a balance of patience and decisiveness that isn’t necessary during the day, he said.

“[Matt] always feels bad when he’s got to throw someone out,” Nicklow said. “Sometimes you don’t know exactly [what happened]. There are too many people involved so you just have to make a quick decision and stick with it.”

Tomkins still works Saturday nights, but he said he’s starting to feel a little old for the late-night grind. He hurt his back during a stickball game a couple of weeks ago and said he’s starting to feel like it’s time to move on.

Tomkins is two tests away from earning his degree in business management from Cardinal Stritch University and after graduation he plans to travel, scouting out locations to open a pizza shop of his own. His new place would be in the same style as Mesa Pizza, but he said he hopes for a wider menu, with pasta and dessert.

He has dreams of going out to the West Coast, but Tomkins said it would be tough to leave Dinkytown behind.

“I for sure feel like I’ve put a part of myself in Mesa,” he said.

“There’s a piece of me in Mesa.”