Communities all have that place. The one charismatic, oddball, delightful hub of food, drink, and laughter. In Olympia, Eastside Big Tom welcomes hungry drive-through customers, ice-cream loving dinosaur stackers, and those suffering from a potentially dangerous lack of pizza, tots, and Goop.
A Fritsch family labor of love for nearly 50 years, Michael Fritsch has bedecked the 2023 4th Avenue corner location with dinosaurs, pink flamingos, movie-esque props, and Big Tom mascots in every outfit imaginable. But more than kitsch, Fritsch prizes people most.
Instead of laying off summertime staff as winter loomed, he kicked-off a thriving pizza empire. Instead of ignoring nearby homeless people out “flying signs” at busy intersections, Fritsch extended a helping hand. And in one case, it may have saved a life.
Not long ago, while driving down Pacific Avenue, a large bale of hay rolled off a passing truck and into traffic, right in front of Michael’s car. Two homeless men abandoned their stations on the busy street corner and immediately came to help. One used a nearby traffic cone to divert oncoming cars and they both began trying—unsuccessfully—to move the massive obstacle.
Without second thought, Michael used his car to help push the hay off the road and offered both men a meal should they ever come to Big Tom. One, who we’ll call John (name changed at his request), didn’t take him up on the offer for four long months. But one day he arrived and thus began a long, tumultuous, important friendship.
“We started talking,” says Michael. “He had been a cook at restaurants in town but because of drugs and alcohol had lost his job and was estranged from his family.” John was offered odd jobs around Big Tom and soon helped out several days a week for a year.
“The thing that touched my heart,” remembers Michael, “was that he always cut his free burger in half to share with homeless friends.” John was living under a local bridge, but thanks to hard work and the kindness of local neighbors soon found a room to rent and purchased a bicycle. “He was so proud of that bike,” laughs Michael.
But prolonged substance abuse and homelessness takes a physical toll. John was in and out of the hospital and eventually suffered a heart attack. During the extended recovery stay, doctors helped him find a place to get clean and sober for the first time in more than 25 years.
From the hospital, John called Michael with one worry, “Do I owe you any money?” He wanted to pay off any outstanding debts before leaving on the bus to an Eastern Washington rehab clinic.
Michael then heard nothing for months. He, and Eastside Big Tom, rode out the winter with their hugely popular pizza launch and started readying the Snack Shack for sunnier weather. On Easter Sunday, while the stand was closed and minor repairs underway, John returned to visit his friend.
“Re-birth! Easter! Of all days!” says Michael, amazed at the timing. John explained that he’s now sober, reconnecting with his family—slowly and not without bumps—and hopes to finally meet the daughter and grandchild he’s never met. To Michael’s delight, John is living in a recovery house in Auburn and doing well.
“It was amazing to be able to help,” says Michael, “There was no judging, never any judging, I just want to know their story. I want to humanize people, talk to them, and feed them if they need to be fed.”
He repeats that mantra several times. “Humanize them, humanize them, humanize them.” It’s why he accepts the occasional IOU from diners who’ve forgotten their wallet or cannot pay. “Why throw away food?” he says. “I’d rather feed somebody than have them go away embarrassed and unfed.”
On April 20, 2018 Eastside Big Tom won the Thurston Economic Development Council’s Small Business of the Year award. With John’s story in mind, Michael re-wrote his speech onsite. Nearly 700 carefully chosen words became just five, “Be kind to each other.”
Forbes magazine recently reported that “While successful companies lasted an average of 67 years in the 1920s, they typically exist for only 15 years today.” They suggest that success and longevity occur when specific traits prevail. “These traits include Respect, Belief, Loyalty, Commitment, Trust, Courage, and Gratitude. When Relationships and partnerships with customers and communities are rock solid, they produce tremendous returns. Trust and dependability abound.”
Big Tom may look like a Toy Story movie set but it offers a welcoming atmosphere to everyone, seven days a week. Whether you’re too tired to cook or looking for an impromptu picnic spot, stop by. Michael Fritsch and his team will always greet you with a welcoming smile, and handful of plastic dinosaurs.
Hungry? Place your order online or call 360-357-4852 for burgers and 360-481-8711 for pizza.