Many things signify childhood for us. Maybe it’s our favorite toys, memories of our childhood homes or even Saturday morning cartoons. For Emily Imo, though, it’s the smell of freshly baked Imo’s pizza.
Emily, a junior studying marketing at Saint Louis University, is an heir to the St. Louis-based pizza dynasty. Growing up in Fenton surrounded by her large family, she thinks her childhood was as average as could be. Except, of course, for all the questions she was asked about her last name.
She could always expect questions when starting a new semester or meeting someone new. Whether it was “are you that Imo?” or “Imo like Imo’s Pizza?”, the reaction was always the same — “Can you get us free pizza?”
Despite being St. Louis royalty, Emily spoke on her family’s humble background and their dedication to making a name for themselves in this city. Ed and Margie Imo, Emily’s grandparents, saved up $1,500 over five years to open their first Imo’s Pizza restaurant on the Hill in 1964. Imo’s was first-of-its-kind for their delivery system and for their use of Provel cheese. The iconic family has since opened more than 100 restaurants in Missouri, Illinois, and Kansas.
A mix of provolone, Swiss, cheddar cheese and liquid smoke, Provel has emerged as an emblem of St. Louis culture since the original Imo’s Pizza first opened its doors. Natives now defend the pizza topping with their lives against the plethora of critics who equate its taste to glorified cheese whiz.
The pizza’s crunchy cracker crust and creamy Provel cheese have come to taste like home for many St. Louis residents during the chains’s 57 years in operation, the Imo family included.
These days, however, Ed finds joy in his garden and Margie in cooking dinner for their large family. Their six kids and grandchildren have taken more significant roles in the family business, either through working in their corporate office in downtown St. Louis or owning their own franchises.
Emily may similarly find her place in the marketing department of Imo’s corporate office a few years after graduation. For now, though, she wakes up in her dorm room, logs on to online classes for the day, heads out to practice with the SLU volleyball team and finishes up homework at night.
She tries to sneak home to Fenton whenever she can, especially for Wednesday night dinners with her whole family. In pre-COVID times, everyone gathered at the Imo’s house for a home-cooked meal and a game of hide-and-seek with the cousins around the property. Her dad would join in and take things to the “absolute extreme,” she says.
On those nights, Margie cooks fish caught by the family on their fishing trips, pasta dishes, barbecue and more, though “rarely pizza,” Emily assures. “My grandma’s an amazing cook, so she would make anything you could honestly imagine.”
In fact, Emily hardly eats free pizza unless her dad brings it home from work.
“I would never go into a store and expect free pizza, because everyone’s working just as hard, and just because my name is on the sign across the store doesn’t mean I should deserve royalty treatment,” she says.
When she does have an opportunity to eat it, she has her favorites. She’s been on a sausage and green pepper kick recently. However, the college student whose name is synonymous with St. Louis-style pizza doesn’t actually feel brand loyalty to this namesake.
“I love the pizza, but to me, it’s just pizza,” she says. “Sometimes I just want pizza — it doesn’t matter where it’s from. I think that throws people off because I’m not super picky about it.”
Still, Provel has a special place in Emily’s heart. She uses it for mac and cheese, sandwiches and just about anything she can put cheese on, as they keep an abundance of it at home.
“I was raised on it, so I never really got the opportunity to taste it as if it was something I’d never had before — I wish I could so I could have an opinion on it, but of course I like it.”
When pressed on whether she would admit it if she didn’t like it, she folded. “I don’t know if I would,” she laughed. “Just because it would generate more questions.”
College was always meant to be a ticket away from St. Louis, where the tired questions about Emily’s name seemed unending.
“When I was looking at schools, I told myself I did not want to be anywhere near St. Louis.” A standout volleyball player at Ursuline Academy in Kirkwood, she began looking in North Carolina, “just to be somewhere where I could completely reinvent myself,” she says. Then, Saint Louis University volleyball coaches reached out to her.
She had originally counted them out on account of being too close to home. But when she took a tour, she fell in love with the campus just twenty minutes away.
“Yeah, the Imo’s thing did cross my mind, but it’s nothing that I’ve never dealt with before in my life.”
Still, there was a perk to being so close to home — the Imo family traditions can live on. With every family member within 30 minutes of Margie and Ed’s house, all the cousins are able to gather on their grand staircase on Christmas Eve, even those in their late twenties, and have mass right in their foyer.
Remaining in the city has also come with opportunities for Emily, as well. She once got to meet Boston Celtics star Jayson Tatum and former Cardinal David Freese through Imo’s promotions. She also shadowed the head marketing person at Imo’s to learn about the field through real-world experience.
Emily remembers being able to go back and make her own pizza in the Imo’s kitchen when she was a kid. When her dad invested in a new store, she would get to visit and see the building process. She also recalls her dad buying an old Quiznos store where workers had abandoned old uniforms and badges, leaving them up for grabs for Emily and her sister to play with.
Though it was a unique childhood, Emily feels honored that they were her roots.
“I’m proud to be a part of it and to see all the hard work that my family has done to get to where we are,” she says.
Square cracker-crust topped with homemade marinara and gooey Provel cheese, Imo’s pizzas are an amalgamation of St. Louis’ culture, all contained within a simple red and green pizza box. The Imo’s family, true St. Louis royalty, have given the city its own signature cuisine.
Emily, however, downplays their star status.
“Besides pizza,” she says, “we’re just normal.”