‘Pizza?’: The story of Butler County’s iconic Richards Pizza

Editor’s Note: This column first published on Aug. 4, 2019.

It was love at first bite.

In the late 1940s, Richard Underwood got a glimpse of his future while on vacation in Miami, Fla. After watching a movie with his date, she suggested getting a late-night pizza.

“Pizza?” the young Underwood asked.

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Ten years later and back home in Butler County, Underwood owned a small used car lot on Ohio 4 in Hamilton when he noticed a restaurant across from the downtown courthouse selling pizza. Coming from a long line of entrepreneurs, he figured he’d open a pizza place.

Butler County waistlines never have recovered.

Underwood opened Richards Pizza in 1955 on Dixie Highway, and on that first day, there were 10 customers who spent $12.04. Total. No one ever said owning a business was easy.

From those humble beginnings, Richards Pizza has locations in Hamilton, Trenton, Monroe and Fairfield. In 1956, Underwood introduced what has become his restaurant’s signature item: the world-famous Richards Italian Steak Sandwich.

That same year, the Hamilton West Side location opened at the corner of Main and “D” streets.

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Even though Underwood has enjoyed tremendous business success, he never became complacent. He has attended countless business seminars trying to get an edge on the competition that steadily increased as pizza became a staple. He remembers when computerized cash registers and conveyor ovens were introduced.

But through all the technology advancements, one thing has separated Richards, he said: Consistency.

When restaurants fail — and more fail than flourish — Underwood said it comes down to an inconsistent product. Customers want the same taste every meal. They don’t care that cooks come and go and maybe the recipes are rewritten.

So Underwood always took extra effort to assure the pizzas and Italian steak sandwiches tasted the same at all the locations, regardless of who was in the kitchen.

He retired in 1985, and his two daughters, Karen Kramer Underwood, 57, and Gayl Underwood, 53, serve as co-owners of the business. Underwood recently celebrated his 90th birthday, and when asked about the milestone, he laughed and said, “I’m still alive.”

And while he no longer runs the business, his fingerprints are still evident.

“How do you retire from something when your name is on it?” his oldest daughter said.

Richards buys only the “best products” available, he said. That typically means tomatoes, pepperoni and cheese from family-owned businesses. If that company is bought out, and Underwood notices a drop in quality, he quickly changes suppliers.

“We don’t believe in short cuts or adding sugar to our sauce,” he said. “You can make a cheap pizza that way, but that doesn’t work for us. It’s all about quality.”

Since he has retired, Underwood often is sought for his business advice. He said new business owners must separate their professional and personal finances. They shouldn’t mix their monies.

“You have no clue if you’re making money or losing money,” he said.

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Also, he warned, business owners must be prepared to “wear all these different hats,” including creating a business plan and understanding insurance and labor laws. A small business doesn’t have the support of a corporation.

“You’re it,” said Underwood, a 1947 Colerain High School graduate who attended the University of Cincinnati and Miami University before serving in the Naval Reserve during the Korean War..

Thankfully for Underwood and his wife of 61 years, Peggy, they have two daughters who have carried on the family business. Underwood said it was important to make sure his daughters “pulled their weight” financially, and didn’t count on the money made from the pizza dough.

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So the girls worked in the restaurant.

“That’s training for later in life,” he said. “They have to be involved. You can’t give your children everything.”

But you can give them a role model.

“We could always see that it was important to do things right the first time,” Karen Kramer Underwood said.

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