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Retired math teacher finds new constant running north Spokane pizza place

Rob Harrison has a new constant in his life.

The longtime algebra and calculus teacher retired a couple of years ago, trading pi for pizza pie.

The McClain’s Combination – with Canadian bacon, pepperoni, sausage, mushrooms, black olives and red onions – is his favorite. It’s also one of his top sellers. Harrison loves the taco pizza, on special Tuesdays, too. But it was the Buffalo chicken cheesy bread, made with pizza dough, that really did him in.

The sauce is creamy and tangy and offers a bit of a kick without packing too much heat. “We’ve sweetened it up and made it a little more buttery and not as hot as most chicken wings,” Harrison said, noting the appetizer remains one of his favorite menu items at McClain’s.

He’s co-owner of the place now. But Harrison started coming to McClain’s as a customer a couple of years ago and was immediately drawn to the dish. There were other things he liked about the joint, too. “It’s a very clean place,” he said. “It’s family oriented. It just seemed like it a well-run business.”

He was looking for a retirement job, something to do to keep him busy once he stopped teaching high school math. And when he saw an online listing for a Spokane pizzeria he could tell just by reading the ad it was McClain’s, even though the restaurant was never named.

Harrison, 63, bought the business last June, partnering with one of his former math students, Mike Zinkgraf, a major in the U.S. Air Force, and his wife, Katie, a nutritionist. They’re living in the Midwest, where Zinkgraf is stationed, while Harrison oversees operations at McClain’s. Now, the former teacher is the student, learning the ins and outs of running a neighborhood pizzeria.

“I needed something to keep my interest up,” Harrison said. “I didn’t want to sit at home.”

Harrison was a math teacher for 37 years, spending all but four years of his career in Spokane Public Schools and 29 years at Rogers High School. He isn’t married and doesn’t have kids, but he remains in contact with many former students, including a bunch who are now in their 30s and 40s.

In fact, “I still have contact with the kids I taught my first year,” said Harrison, who retired from Rogers in 2016. “I call them kids, but they’re in their mid-50s.”

He started coming to McClain’s with a group of his former students who still regularly get together. That’s when the Buffalo chicken cheesy bread captured his attention.

But his connection with the restaurant industry goes back much further. About a month after he turned 15, Harrison started working at Geno’s as a dishwasher. He worked his way through college at Eastern Washington University, becoming a busboy then server, at the family-run Italian restaurant that has since become part of the Moon Time family of restaurants.

And, since 2000, he’s owned – along with his three brothers – the Illinois Avenue Bar and Grill, where he still fills in as needed. In fact, these days, he often stops there in the morning on his way to McClain’s.

Matt Heilman opened McClain’s in north Spokane in 2012, but the restaurant’s roots in the region go back much further. The Inland Northwest pizzeria was modeled after a similar spot in Hailey, Idaho. And that now-closed pizza place was modeled after the longtime Village Pizza in Roslyn, Washington.

Village Pizza – like McClain’s in Spokane – is known for the boxes of Trivial Pursuit cards it provides for customers to play and containers of honey it leaves on tables to squeeze on pizza crusts. McClain Balmer, whose parents ran Village Pizza and for whom McClain’s is named, is a longtime friend of Heilman’s.

Heilman still keeps a hand in, stopping in to eat and answer questions Harrison might have about the equipment or recipes.

Many of the recipes were first used at Village Pizza when Balmer’s parents had the place. Balmer remains in the pizza business; he owns and operates a McClain’s with his wife, Robyn, in Mandeville, Louisiana. (Fun side note: His wife’s brother is the actor Ian Somerhalder of “The Vampire Diaries.”)

The McClain’s locations in Spokane and Louisiana both pay homage to their Roslyn roots with a pizza called The Roslyn. It’s topped with Canadian bacon, cashews, minced garlic and artichoke hearts.

In Spokane, pizzas are divided on the menu by marinara and non-marinara. Look for marinara on the Hawaiian, plain cheese, Meat Coma, veggie combo, pepperoni and Ostendorf with sausage and Sriracha sauce, among others. Non-marinara options include the taco pizza, Greek, Philly cheesesteak, spicy Thai, Alfredo and barbecue chicken. The Bosh features barbecue sauce, chicken, pepperoni and pineapple. The chicken-bacon-ranch combo is also popular.

Pizzas are hand tossed and cooked in a revolving, four-deck Roto-Flex commercial oven. Many feature Galbani mozzarella. Honey for the crust comes from Tate’s Honey Farm in Spokane Valley.

Also available: calzones, wraps, sandwiches, salads and appetizers such as nachos, hot wings and McClain’s Salty Balls, or dough balls tossed with butter and salt and served with cheese sauce for dipping. The Rewired Special is cheesy bread on one side and Buffalo chicken cheesy bread with bacon on the other.

Desserts include dessert pizza with butter, cinnamon, sugar and a drizzle of Ghiradelli white chocolate sauce as well as McClain’s Sweet Balls – dough balls tossed with butter, cinnamon and sugar and served with Ghiradelli white chocolate sauce for dipping.

Lunch specials for $6.50 or $8 are available Monday through Friday. There are daily specials, too.

Harrison’s beloved Buffalo chicken cheesy bread is on special Saturday. Sunday specials are geared toward families, and there are discounts for Whitworth students, faculty and staff, and the military.

Zinkgraf, 34, is going on 13 years in the Air Force. He’s a pilot, specializing in flying C-17s. And, “That probably wouldn’t have happened without Rob’s persistence,” he said.

Zinkgraf credits his math teacher with mentoring him during tough times in high school and helping him navigate the college application process. “He’s directly responsible for helping me choose my career,” Zinkgraf said. “He’s helped me a lot with mentorship.”

Zinkgraf has visited McClain’s several times since he and Harrison bought the business and likes the ambiance.

“I like the local-ness of it,” said Zinkgraf, noting the North Side location and banners from local universities on the walls. “My goal is to grow the place,” he said – maybe even someday launch another McClain’s.

Meantime, the retired teacher and his former students are planning to continue the McClain’s tradition of partnering with local schools on fundraisers and work on getting word out about their business and partnership. “Because we’re in a small strip mall and we’re not a big chain, it’s difficult to get the word out,” Harrison said.

The partners didn’t make many changes when they bought the place. So far, Harrison said, they’ve added lasagna to the menu and pull tabs to the venue – but that’s about it. “I didn’t want to come in and mess things up,” said Harrison, noting he’s more comfortable in the classroom than the pizza parlor.

But he’s working on becoming less awkward in his new role. “I go around the tables all the time, talking to and introducing myself to customers,” he said.

Friday and Saturday nights are busiest. Things pick up when the game’s on, too. The dining area features 10 TVs and seats 87. Another 30 or so fit on the patio, where Harrison hopes to add another TV.

McClain’s hosts a Pint Night once a month, with beer specials and brewery reps. There are a dozen taps. Three are reserved for Bud Light, Coors Light and Blue Moon. The other nine are rotating regional craft beers.

A monthly Wine Night is in the works, too.

Long-term, the plan is Harrison will run the pizza place until Zinkgraf retires from the Air Force and Harrison can retire – again. Zinkgraf plans to put in 20 years with the Air Force, then move back to the Spokane area with his young family.

“They’re like family to me,” Harrison said. “Eventually, McClain’s will be (all) theirs.”