Patrons eat in the dining area of Gatti’s Pizza in Killeen on Wednesday, March 14, 2018.

Pizza lovers in Killeen get to enjoy a new spot — Gatti’s Pizza at 2497 E. Central Texas Expressway.

The opening March 12 marked the first franchise for the Gatti’s brand in seven years.

A trio of local business entrepreneurs, Wallace Vernon, Nancy Hennigan and Tad Dorroh, worked on putting the deal together for almost three years, but it wasn’t all about business.

“We wanted something for our community,” said Dorroh, “and since I grew up on Gatti’s pizza, I have an affection for it.”

About a dozen medium-size pizzas are always ready on the buffet line, plus spaghetti, pasta with a variety of sauces and macaroni and cheese, assorted vegetables and a salad bar, along with dessert pizzas, like Smores and cinnamon apple.

“If you want a pizza with gluten-free crust, or no crust pizza, you tell us and we’ll make it for you in about eight minutes,” said co-owner and longtime Killeen resident Nancy Hennigan.

She happily bused tables and chatted with customers thanking them for coming on Wednesday. “We have been overwhelmed with the community support, so Killeen was ready for Gatti’s.”

Pepperoni and jalapeno pizza is the new favorite of Clara Stepford, of Harker Heights, who tried many of the buffet items.

“The food is fresh, hot and tasty,” she said.

That is the type of comment Hennigan loves to hear. “We want to feed our customers like we would feed you in our homes,” she said.

The 14,000-square-foot Killeen location features a new prototype design with separate entrances to the buffet and to the family entertainment arcade with 40-plus games, like “Pac-Man” on a 10-foot-tall video screen, basketball, car races and war games and many more.

Customers who don’t want the buffet can buy individual slices of pizza and sodas in the arcade. Three party rooms are also available for all occasion events and meetings.

In keeping with the family-theme, no alcohol is served in the restaurant and foul language is not allowed.

Killeen High School junior Todd Vogel, 17, was happy to finally have a fun spot in town for teenagers to go.

“Killeen needs places like this where we can hang out playing games and eating pizza,” said Vogel, adding he likes the place so much that he may apply for a summer job.

At a cost of more than $2 million, the new space was a shell before the remodeling phase. Lay Construction from Tyler completed the work in 90 days, installing the electrical wiring, plumbing, and tile on the walls, floors and painting the walls among other work.

New dining tables and chairs seat more than 300 customers inside and on the patio. The kitchen was equipped with everything needed from pizza ovens, stoves, prep areas and storage and refrigerators and sinks.

A staff of 65 keeps the restaurant humming with more employees hired almost daily.

Several years ago, Dorroh approached Hennigan with the idea of opening a new Gatti’s in town. They partnered with Wallace Vernon taking a trip to Fort Worth meeting with the new corporate owners. After discussing the franchise concept, the partners made a handshake deal to bring Gatti’s to Killeen.

Dorroh said the corporate people are playing an active role in getting the franchise started.

“They have been involved with the day-to-day operations and helping with training of the staff,” he said.

General Manager David Ricketts said the restaurant is serving about 1,000 customers a day so far. “This is really a great addition to Killeen, and the people love it, so I’m happy to be a part of it,” Ricketts said.

Amidst the excitement and chatter inside, the covered outdoor patio offered a calmer environment. Two Killeen residents, Evelyn and Mike Thun, relaxed at a table sipping sodas while enjoying the pleasant spring weather.

“This is a big step above other pizza places in town,” Mike Thun said.

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