Team spirit fills new Freeland hit Coach’s Pizzeria

FREELAND — Crunchy, chewy crust and team-minded employees define Coach’s Pizzeria for owners Gary Nau and Dave Dillman.

Dave Dillman and Gary Nau

FREELAND — Crunchy, chewy crust and team-minded employees define Coach’s Pizzeria for owners Gary Nau and Dave Dillman.

Saturday’s soft opening accomplished without advertisement or spectacle drew a crowd that had the 60-year-old men relying on both business ingredients. The two decade-long South Whidbey residents opened the pizza restaurant this weekend after less than six weeks from the inception of the idea: sell pizza in a sports-themed restaurant.

“Gary and I had always been talking about food and what Freeland needs,” Dillman said.

“We felt it was appropriate we make a connection to the island.”

Walls are covered in sports memorabilia. “Coach’s Wall,” near the counter, is decorated with photos of legendary Falcon football coach Jim Leierer and other South Whidbey High School teams. Photos from Nau and Dillman’s days coaching softball, basketball and baseball are in opposite corners. A pair of 55- and 48-inch LED and plasma TVs mounted to the walls air televised sports events, recently the Little League World Series. Even the tables, made from the old bowling alleys of Freeland Lanes, are sports-centric. All the decor exists to make Coach’s Pizzeria a comfortable place for families, teams and kids.

“We really want to focus on the teams,” Dillman said.

The new pizzeria took the location at 5575 Harbor Ave. of former Freeland pizza joint Harbor Pizzeria. Upon news of owner Kathie Baker’s death, allegedly killed by her husband Robert “Al” Baker who was a co-owner, the business closed. All of the equipment in Coach’s Pizzeria is new, even the floors and the window shades.

“They even took the sink out of here,” Dillman said.

“We really started from scratch,” Nau added.

That’s just fine for Nau and Dillman, who were happy to build the business, much like their pizzas, from scratch. Coach’s Pizzeria’s pies begin with the crust, which Nau and Dillman championed as one of the best parts of their pizzas. It’s crisp, yet chewy, with “California golden” cheese.

Their pizzas, like the Falcon’s Special which is basically a carnivore’s delight, or the taco pizza called a Dave’s Special (named after Dillman), are all part of the owners’ “keep it simple” approach. The all-you-can-eat salad bar, Nau and Dillman said, is also in line with the owners’ K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple Stupid) goal.

Coach’s menus, shaped like a football field and lined with football, baseball, basketball and soccer graphics, stay on the sports theme. Pizzas are sized by inches and can be ordered by asking for a “single” (10 inches) or “home run”(16 inches) Batters Cage, stacked with cheese, onions, olives, mushrooms, green peppers and tomatoes. There are also options for a calzone, daily soups, chili, spaghettini and sandwiches.

“We’re going to give folks their money’s worth,” Nau said.

Dillman and Nau are more than businessmen with 30-plus years of retail and pizza management experience. They are even more than a pair of old coaches. They are both Vietnam war veterans, Nau a Marine and Dillman an Army man, who met through the Veterans Resource Center. And, they bonded over food.Langley resident Carol Nelson plates a slice of  mushroom and pepperoni pizza from Coach’s Pizzeria in Freeland. She tried the new restaurant with her  husband, Martin, who had an order of meatballs.

“Through that association we became friends and kind of comrades in arms,” Dillman said.

They’ll be in the trenches at the Freeland pizzeria, splitting shifts. Neither touches the pizza, however, as they prefer to work out front cleaning tables and meeting patrons. Otherwise, they are in the back, cleaning dishes and doing other tasks unrelated to prepping pizzas.

“We do anything that needs to be done,” Dillman said. “We’re the grunts.”

“It’s our responsibility as owners to be out front, talking to the customers, asking what they like and what they don’t like.”

Nau was far from a grunt when he coached the JV softball team under head coach Todd Lubach several years ago. Those connections are still strong for Nau, who hired a handful of South Whidbey teenagers — many of whom play Falcon sports.

“I’d been a coach for over 20 years. I know people after games like to eat pizza,” he said. “I still know some of the kids and watch some of the games.”

“They know what a team is all about and how a team works. That’s what we’re all about.”

South End residents were all about Coach’s Pizzeria this weekend. In its first two days of business, Coach’s went through 200 pounds of flour that ran through the 475 degree Lincoln pizza oven, Dillman said, making about 150 pizzas.

“There was enough pent up communication,” Dillman said. “People would come up and ask, ‘When are you going to open?’”

Passers-by need not ask the question: Coach’s Pizzeria is open.

Coach’s Pizzeria will have The Coach, Jim Leierer, as the honored guest Saturday, Aug. 25 for its ribbon cutting and grand opening.