Backyard Pizza in Huntington creates an unlikely match with an even more surprising story.
When Huntington’s Backyard Pizza and Raw Bar owner Drew Hetzer says he “grew up” in the restaurant business, he’s not kidding around. A child of divorce at a young age, he remembers his mom talking about how expensive childcare was for a single parent working as a waitress back then. “So she would just pack me up and take me to the restaurant with her at Chili Willi’s,” he recalls, where he would watch her work, hang out in the back, and slurp virgin cocktails from the bar.
It’s no surprise, then, that he started working in restaurants himself at age 15—odd jobs, from the back of the house to the front—before landing more permanent gigs at Marshall Hall of Fame Café, 21 at The Frederick, and other spots around town. “I just always loved being in hospitality,” he adds. “I enjoyed it so much that it never really seemed like work.”
But it’s not something he thought he could make a career of, so he eventually moved on to studying journalism at Marshall University. Although the thought of a job in journalism never took hold, something he learned there did.
“I learned about the importance of research and analysis when evaluating a situation,” Hetzer says. “Knowing I really wanted to get back into the restaurant business, which is risky already, I figured taking an analytical approach would be the safest bet.”
He dove into the data when deciding what type of restaurant to open. He knew he wanted to target the downtown lunch crowd. He learned he would not only have to offer the types of food they wanted, but also be able to serve it to scale in a quick time frame. After volumes of research, fresh seafood or pizza emerged as the top choices.
Instead of picking one, he and wife, Megan, doubled down on both, opening Backyard Pizza & Raw Bar in—get this—the same Chili Willi’s location on Fourth Avenue where his mom took him years before. The restaurant’s name came from their “backyard” style of cooking, almost exclusively using a wood-fired oven and grill, and their menu was born out of creativity. Backyard opened in 2012, and the couple added a second restaurant in the building, The Peddler, in 2014. Both were just starting to gain their footing when a devastating fire destroyed much of the building just two months after The Peddler opened. Both restaurants closed.
“We spent $65,000 on Backyard’s build-out, equipment, and setup costs, then only had $400 left over after placing our first food order,” he remembers. “Now there we were two years later with both restaurants closed.” You probably wouldn’t blame the couple for thinking it might be time to throw in the towel. Instead, he says there was never a doubt in their minds that the restaurants would come back stronger than ever.
“We took great pride in what we had built in a short time, and we were still too early in our story for it to end.” The first order of business, he says, was taking care of their employees—paying them as long as they could, helping them find other jobs, anything they could do to help. Next, they started scouting new locations where they could rebuild, landing just a street over on Third Avenue. After two years of blood, sweat, and tears, Backyard reopened in late 2016 with The Peddler following suit in 2017. And those displaced employees they took care of? “Amazingly,” Hetzer says, “most of them came back, and some are still with us today.”
These days, with adversity mostly behind them, the Hetzers really enjoy coming up with their own recipes, and they love having fun with the menu item names. You can tantalize your taste buds with the Woo-Tang pizza featuring hickory-grilled chicken with bleu cheese, mozzarella, red onion, roasted red peppers, jalapeno, cilantro, and signature Schwing sauce. Or, grab the Crab Rangoon pie with cream cheese, crab, green onion, sweet chili sauce, and crunchy wontons. There’s the Truffle Shuffle with baby portabellas, white truffle oil, rosemary, garlic cream, caramelized onions, sauteed spinach, smoked applewood bacon, and cheese, or maybe you’d enjoy the zesty Nacho Mamma, the veggie-blessed Raise Kale Praise Dale, the pork BBQ–topped Flying Piggie, or the spicy Jammin’ Jamaican. The accompanying raw bar offers fresh oysters, ceviche, ahi tuna, mussels, scallops, shrimp cocktail, and calamari, plus you’ll find a selection of appetizers, salads, and such.
Almost 10 years later, Backyard Pizza & Raw Bar has grown into one of Huntington’s hottest eateries. That journey, though, was anything but easy.