By Josh Shepherd, News writer
An interesting fact about the 26-year history of Leono’s Pizza younger people may not know: Charlie and Maribeth Thomas owned restaurants bearing the Leono’s name in Paris and Georgetown before the signature restaurant in Cynthiana existed.
When the opportunity to take over the Pizza Place of Cynthiana in the old white building near Church Street presented itself, the Thomases soon realized that they were stretched thinner than they cared to be.
They decided to change strategy and re-focus their energies on one community — Cynthiana.
It was never obvious at the time, but in making that decision, the Thomases created something far more than a restaurant.
Leono’s is as much a part of Cynthiana’s cultural and business identity as Biancke’s Restaurant, Bullard’s safety equipment or even 3M’s ubiquitous Post-It Notes.
Nowhere is that conclusion more evident than when teacher and local business owner Roger Slade explained the reasons why Leono’s owners were being recognized as the Cynthiana-Harrison County Chamber of Commerce Business People of the Year.
“In every small community, there is that place where everyone goes. Where the kids hang out after school and on weekends. For Cynthiana, that place is Leono’s,” Slade said.
After 26 years in business, Charlie and Maribeth have often been asked to recount Leono’s success story for feature stories, presentations and even in conversations with friends and business colleagues. A question posed frequently to them is the following: Why Cynthiana over Paris or Georgetown?
Maribeth doesn’t hesitate in her answer.
The difference between Cynthiana and the other two communities is its sense of identity apart from Lexington, she said.
“Being roughly 10 miles further from Lexington than either Paris or Georgetown makes all the difference, I guess. We are part of Cynthiana rather than being just ‘greater Lexington’ and we like that,” Maribeth said.
Charlie nods in agreement. Interestingly, Charlie said that the decision to focus on Cynthiana was not a big business risk.
He worked with Bob Ammerman to start the Pizza Place of Cynthiana before embarking on building his family-owned business.
“The foundation for a pizza restaurant at that location was already established when we took over. We kept our eye on the basics. Make a good product, be consistent, and practice excellent customer service,” Charlie said.
Still, they made their decision without the use of market research or demographic studies or all the other academic elements of business development.
There was only one factor in their decision: Cynthiana was their home. And there has never been a moment in which they doubted that they made the right decision.
“Harrison County was having their prom and several of the kids came to have pizza at our old place after the dance. Though it was closing time, I told them they didn’t need leave. The students asked us if they could move the tables and dance on the open floor.
“We gave them a place where they felt comfortable to have a post-prom party. We were a home to them,” Maribeth said.
There was only one genuine crossroads moment for them — the decision to relocate and build a new place in the empty lot where the old LeBus Tobacco Warehouse stood in downtown Cynthiana.
The Thomases have related the story many times over. It was a moment of personal reflection and prayer.
“We have leaned on our faith to guide us through our hardest decisions. And in this instance especially, God showed us that our journey with Leono’s should continue,” Maribeth said.
Time and again, circumstances and personal experiences have reinforced their faith in that decision.
Former employees, mere high school students when they worked at Leono’s, make a point to stop by the restaurant while visiting families during the holidays.
“We have seen so many kids grow up while we have worked here,” Maribeth said.
Local customers who spend their winters in Florida stop for their Leono’s ‘fix’ before even going home to unpack, Maribeth said.
It is in these instances that the true rewards of running a beloved institution reveal themselves.
Leono’s has not only made a good living for Charlie and Maribeth Thomas, it has given them a good life.