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Through fires and a pandemic, Satchel's Pizza approaches 20 years of serving up slices

Satchel Raye stands in front of a piece of art outside his restaurant that survived two fires. (David Churba/WUFT)
Satchel Raye stands in front of a piece of art outside his restaurant that survived two fires. (David Churba/WUFT News)

Video above by Marcus Rojas.

For Satchel Raye, Satchel’s Pizza was never about the pizza. He wanted guests to experience new, fresh art in their daily lives.

As the restaurant’s 20-year anniversary arrives this month, one can see the hard work and effort Raye has put into his restaurant to make it one of Gainesville’s biggest cultural staples.

“I always wanted to be an artist,” Satchel said. “But I didn’t want to follow the traditional art world… Now, I’m trying to keep the restaurant fresh by keeping the art fresh all the time.”

Raye, 55, opened Satchel’s Pizza in March 2003. Before then, he spent his post-college years as a traveler and lived out of his van – a van familiar to those who have been to the pizza joint.

“I would work, live in my van, save money, travel, run out of money, come back, work, save money,” Satchel said. “I remember having $3,000 in a sock in the glove compartment of that van.”

On his travels, Raye brought souvenirs from the road when he opened his restaurant. Most of the artwork and decor are either handmade or given as gifts

In 2012, Satchel’s Pizza experienced a fire that destroyed much of the main dining area. Then, in 2016, a second fire destroyed more of the restaurant’s property.

By 2020, as Satchel’s had nearly completed revamping its property, the COVID-19 pandemic struck.

Between two fires and a pandemic, the shop has not had the easiest route to 20 years of business.

The general manager of Satchel’s Pizza, Wade McMullen, 46, credits Raye and University of Florida students for keeping Satchel’s Pizza running.

“Obviously the university helps, it’s basically a Gainesville institution with all the alumni that are always coming back,” McMullen said. “But the fact that Satchel is constantly changing, updating, and doing fun, different things means there’s always something new to see.”

Raye didn’t learn to make pizza until he was 16. And in accordance with his plan, Satchel’s Pizza has grown to be more than a pizza restaurant.

Longtime employee Daniel Lore, 51, is the leading operator of Lightning Salvage Enterprises, a live music venue connected to the main property of Satchel’s Pizza. After 15 years of service, Lore didn’t even refer to Satchel’s Pizza as a ‘restaurant.’

“It’s a constant, ever-growing, ever-expanding art project,” Lore said.

UF advertising student, Mia Zaldivar, 22, feels Satchel’s Pizza resembles the culture of the City of Gainesville.

“I’ve been coming since before I was a student here. When I would visit my sister, that was always my family’s first stop,” Zaldivar said. “I love the vibes there. Sometimes there’s live music and the art is so eclectic. It just feels like Gainesville when you’re there.”

Ultimately, Satchel’s wouldn’t be where it is without the constant hard work of its owner and employees.

“As much as I enjoy it, it’s seven days a week that something’s going on,” Raye said. “I’m a little bit exhausted from it all.”

Still, Raye knows retiring is not for him. He plans on working until he feels the restaurant is enough of a machine for his presence not to matter.

“I’m not that kind of person who’s going to retire and sit at home,” Raye said. “I might work less and try to get employees to do more to keep the place running… With the structure I’m setting up with the employees now, the restaurant can keep running without me one day.”

David is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.