Remembering Bill Yerkes (1950-2020)
The year 2020 has felt cruel in many ways, not the least of which was the quiet departure of Bill Yerkes. The Pizza Legend slipped away from this world on March 9, 2020.
For those who will never experience the wonders of a Bill Yerkes pizza, I am especially sorry.
One of the many nice features of email is that you can trace bits of your own history, when memory fails. If Hotmail accounts are good for nothing else, they are certainly good for that. I met Yerkes in 2007 with a personal introduction through the Columbus Dispatch’s cantankerous Grumpy Gourmet. The Grump was a true believer in Yerkes, as he shared nation -wide newspaper clippings about his pizza, and incredible stories of celebrity fans (the BeeGees!).
My exact words, in describing Yerkes to my editor were, “This man is either AMAZING, or full of crap.” And “amazing” wasn’t a commonplace praise in 2007.
As it turned out, Yerkes was beyond amazing.
Yerkes proposed a different approach to Columbus pizza making: Naples-styled pies. He was trying to launch a project in Columbus, an eatery centered around the intense heat of wood-fired ovens that he built. He called it Bono Pizza.
And while the health department at the time was not quite prepared to embrace the concept of a live, fiery heat bomb in the middle of the restaurant, Yerkes was eventually able to prevail, baking his wares through Eleni Christina Bakery, and then through a mobile unit and a carryout with an oven he attached to the back of his vehicle. For $10, a regular person could eat the fanciest pizza you could imagine, with an impossibly poofy, blistered, outdoorsy crust, fresh dewy mozzarella, and thoughtful combinations of vegetables and cured meats.
Yerkes brought gourmet, special, artisanal things to regular people. He hired the homeless to work for him. And he earned an ardent local fan club and praises from literally every reviewer, both professional and amateur. He later sold Bono Pizza, and it continued operating under new ownership in Grandview through 2018.
Yerkes leaves behind a son, Giancarlo Yerkes, and his wife and project-partner, Peggy Yerkes. She reflected on his legacy via email, “I think the thing that was most endearing of Bill was his generous heart. I have seen him give the coat off his back to someone who was cold, a job ( and dignity) to someone who was homeless . . . and laughter to all.”
She continued, “Our first pizza shop together, he hired a lot of kids who were trying to figure out what life was all about and gave them the direction and freedom to discover themselves. He hired a young boy who was so shy that I wasn’t sure he could talk. After a few months with Bill, his confidence grew and I just found out he is an English teacher. All of our kids have become productive adults because Bill showed them anything is possible.”
Today, you’ll find Yerkes’ influence and wood-fired pizza ovens in lots of places. And when you enjoy those pies, you can thank a charismatic, artistic dreamer with big pizza plans. He changed the world, one pizza at a time. And we are all better for it.
Find Bill Yerkes’ obituary here.