Story and photos by Destiny Brown
When you think Gulf Shores pizza, Papa Rocco’s is the first restaurant that comes to mind. Known amongst the locals and tourists as “Home of the Warm Beer and Lousy Pizza,” Papa Rocco’s is anything but. Located on the Gulf Shores strip, this pizza joint has withstood the many hurricanes and the oil spill that devastated our little island in past years and has become a legend to anyone passing through.
U.S. Army Veteran and proud owner, Bill McGinnes, opened the doors of his establishment in 1985, when pizza eateries were a rarity to the Island. He was a mechanical engineer by trade for over 25 years in Detroit, making top dollar, but says it wasn’t worth his health. He and wife relocated to Gulf Shores, a beach they had vacationed to. McGinnes saw the potential money in the exploding pizza biz and opened the restaurant where it sits today.
“The place was about half the size it is now and my menu was written on a blackboard,” McGinnes said. “Back in those days, I also had a delivery system and I was the only one who delivered in town so I was rock n’ and rollin’.”
The delivery service only lasted a few years as more pizza chains moved into the area, but McGinnes soon realized that wouldn’t keep his devoted customers away from his pizza. To this day, take-out is a popular choice and McGinnes admits to sometimes resorting to pulling the phones off the hook to keep up with orders. “It’s important to take care of the front the house first.”
After establishing his pizza haven, McGinnes noticed a need for an oyster bar in the area, so he came up with the idea of having an all-in-one pizza and oyster bar. Spectators had their doubts, but just look at it now.
His oyster bar was a success and expanded into baked oysters, which is a popular menu item with many varieties from cajun to Rockefeller and more.
When asked the secret to his Italian cuisine, McGinnes gives credit to his Italian mother-in-laws family recipes. “I’ll put my Italian dishes up against anyone else in town,” McGinnes said. And it would be a competition that would be tough to win for his competitor.
Papa Rocco’s also makes it’s dough from scratch. But its family-friendly atmosphere and the best Italian dishes in town is what draws so many repeat customers back to Papa Rocco’s.
“We bring a different group of people,”McGinnes said. “The locals get to know the snowbirds and we have a great family place here. It’s good to treat people well and have a good staff so people keep coming and feel at home.”
One of the many pride and joys of Papa Rocco’s is the annual St. Patty’s Day Pub Crawl. When McGinnes took over the event in 1987, he grew it from a small group of snowbirds to one of the most awaited events on the Gulf Shores Strip.
“The whole idea behind it was the start of spring and to give all the businesses a jump start,” McGinnes said.”
The pub crawl is held in March every year and draws in over a thousand pub crawlers looking to get a first sip of spring! McGinnes is a big contributor to the community including being a long time sponsor of the Pensacola Opera, which he donates thousands of dollars to every year.
Plenty of celebrities and well knowns have walked the door of Papa Rocco’s. McGinnes keeps track of them all with their portrait and autograph that is displayed on the walls throughout the restaurant.
The venue has a hint of an Irish theme because of McGinnes’ heritage. He is Scotch-Irish and actually lived in Scotland until he was 12 years hold. He hones in on his Scotch-Irish background by displaying the flag on the walls and even on the front page of the menu.
McGinnes has a hand in all of his business doings. He is proud of his establishment and staff and says people don’t realize how much conviction it takes to run a business like Papa Rocco’s. Whatever he’s doing, it’s working. Tables are always full, but bellies are always fuller at Papa Rocco’s!
Why is it home of the Warm Beer and Lousy Pizza?
“I used to have draft beer that was served in pitchers,” McGinnis said. “One night, a customer said ‘What’s wrong with the cooler? The beer is warm!’ And the name stuck.
In 1987, McGinnis was preparing to fly a banner advertisement over the beach and they asked what he wanted it to say. “Home of the Warm Beer and Lousy Pizza came to mind. The first day he flew the banner, people were calling asking if he had lost his mind or was sabotaged. “That night, the place was packed out and customers were jokingly wanting their money back because of the false advertising!” McGinnis said.