Round 1 of Pizza Madness was the hardest on restaurant owner Nick Heddings.
By coincidence, the competition pitted the two pizza places he owns against one another — The Arizona Pizza Company on North Sabino Canyon Road and Upper Crust Pizza on East Grant Road.
As things heated up, Heddings couldn’t pick a favorite.
“It kind of sucked having them go up against each other in the first round,” he said. Upper Crust lost to Arizona Pizza Company by more than 130 votes.
“People told me that at least I was guaranteed a win, but still.”
Arizona Pizza Company lost to Rocco’s Little Chicago in the second round of play.
“Rocco’s is an awesome place with such a good, authentic vibe,” Heddings said.
Heddings was happy to be part of the contest. He says he loves being part of the Tucson’s pizza community — even if his initial interest in the industry wasn’t all about the pies.
He began working at Upper Crust in 1989 because his girlfriend at the time worked there.
“I didn’t want anybody hitting on her,” said Heddings, who was studying psychology at the University of Arizona at the time.
He soon discovered he liked making pizza and enjoyed the people with whom he worked, particularly his boss, Charlie Meola.
The Meola family owned several pizza places in the Tucson area in the late 1980s, including the 22nd Street Pizza Pub at East 22nd Street and South Kolb Road.
Heddings said many of the pizza joints in town today are owned by former employees of the Meolas. “There is such a history there.”
By 1995, Heddings was ready to set out on his own. He opened the Arizona Pizza Company on North Sabino Canyon Road with a partner the next year, using cash from the sale of his Chevy pickup to help get the dough ball rolling.
“I bought a Volkswagen Squareback for deliveries and used the rest of the money to buy food,” he said.
Heddings has since turned his scrappy venture into a bustling Foothills establishment, with two spinoff locations under different ownership on East Broadway near Park Place and in Vail.
He acquired Upper Crust eight months ago after hearing that it was about to close.
Heddings said he bought Upper Crust to preserve a piece of his past.
“I feel like a museum curator,” he said. “I don’t have any motivation to conquer the world. I am doing this out of respect, for nostalgic reasons.”
Heddings said he is trying to stay true to Upper Crust’s original concept, although he has made some changes.
Customers can now eat in the comfort of air conditioning.
Large posters behind glass, including one of The Rat Pack, remain on the walls.
During the renovation, Heddings toyed with the idea of transforming the space into another Arizona Pizza Company, but decided against it.
As far as he is concerned, Upper Crust will keep the same recipes that it has always used.
“I didn’t take it because I wanted another pizza place,” he said. “I wanted it because it was Upper Crust. If I turned it into an Arizona Pizza Company, what would be the point?”