After 38 years on East Washington Avenue, Rocky Rococo's pan style pizza is saying goodbye.
Roger Brown, a Rocky's founder who operates eight Rocky's locations, is closing the 12,300-square-foot Rocky Rococo Party Pizzeria East, and instead focusing his attention on a newer Sun Prairie location close by.
Brown opened the Sun Prairie restaurant in April 2014 at 2828 Prairie Lakes Drive, across from Costco and near the Marcus Palace Cinema.
"This lease came up and we just decided that for the benefit of the company it would be better to focus on our Sun Prairie operation and let this lease expire," Brown said, noting that the space is too big for his needs.
The restaurant at 1753 Thierer Road near East Towne will close May 13. A similar West Side location at 7952 Tree Lane that Brown said is thriving will remain open.
Rocky's, which just celebrated its 44th anniversary last week, originally had a location kitty corner to where the East Wash location is now, in a building that became an Arby's. In 2000, the restaurant moved to its current location, where it began offering video games and screening family movies while customers ate. The location has been a popular venue for children's birthday parties.
"We've been on the Avenue for 38 years," Brown said. "We've operated in this little neck of the woods."
The Party Pizzeria opened in the former Sergio's nightclub and restaurant after a $900,000 remodeling project, according to a State Journal story at the time.
East Washington Avenue has always proved strong for restaurants, Brown said, adding that he sees a brighter future with the Sun Prairie store. "But at the same time, there's sort of a tear in my eye for leaving the Avenue where we've operated all these years."
Brown closed the Rocky's at Westgate Mall last May, calling the slated-for-development property "a zombie mall."
He's also closed his food court restaurants, one at West Towne and one in La Crosse, last year.
"We did that because the leases came up and the traffic in shopping malls is way down. They were still profitable entities, but they were marginally profitable. We saw the writing on the wall and we decided that we're not really a food court concept."
Some of what Rocky's does, like offering a salad bar and adult beverages, can't be done in a food court, he said.
Because of the recent closings and closing of the East Side Rocky's, Brown is concerned that people think the company is in trouble, but that's not the case at all, he said. "Our core business is as solid as it has been in recent history. I've got a great bunch of people I'm working with."
The death in 2016 of Jim Pederson, who was the face of Rocky Rococo on TV and the voice of Rocky's on radio for 40 years, hurt the business, as did the death of Brown's longtime business partner, Wayne Mosley, in November.
"So, you take all that together, you get a public perception issue, and it's not exactly affecting my business because my business seems to be doing pretty well," Brown said.
In all, there are 39 Rocky Rococo locations, all but two in Wisconsin, said Trey Hester, president of the Rocky Rococo company based in Oconomowoc.
The Oconomowoc company controls 11 locations, Brown has his eight -- two in La Crosse and six in Madison -- and the rest are franchises owned by independent owner-operators, Hester said.
Joel Bahr, who owns the property on East Washington Avenue, is trying to rent it, hopefully to another restaurateur, as of June 1. "We're going to miss Rocky's," he said.
Brown said his Rocky's location on the Beltline is one of the top performing stores in the Rocky's system. In January, the Regent Street store his son, Sam Brown, runs got spruced up and business there has improved, the elder Brown said.
"The business is not going anywhere," he said. "We've been around now for 44 years and I hope we are around for another 44 years."