Mabe’s Pizza turns 70

Mabel White’s grandson, Steve, and his wife Connie, and her great-grandson, Collin, and his wife, Jenny, are at the helm at Mabe’s Pizza.

By Roz Weis,

Mabel White’s grandson, Steve, and his wife Connie, and her great-grandson, Collin, and his wife, Jenny, are at the helm at Mabe’s Pizza.

Seventy years ago, Mabel White brought a fairly-new concept to the Decorah restaurant scene – pizza. Little did she know, those first pizzas baked on cookie sheets and pulled from her small oven on Decorah’s West Side would become a staple in the area.

Mabe’s, the iconic pizzeria in downtown Decorah, celebrates a big milestone this year – its 70th year in business. A year-long anniversary party is in full-swing, with new menu items, giveaways, coupons, a box-folding contest, a recent Lawn Chair Night Concert sponsorship and more.

Serving up a tempting, thin crust, tavern-style pizza, Mabe’s and the signature “square slices” continues to be an institution in the Driftless Region and beyond.

Now at the helm are Mabe’s grandson Steve and his wife Connie, and her great-grandson Collin and his wife Jenny.

Savory history

The history of Mabe’s dates back to 1953, when 49-year-old Mabel “Mabe” White opened the small café on Decorah’s “West Side” and called it Mabel’s Lunchroom. Situated at the corner of College Drive and Leif Erickson Drive, the small lunch spot served up sandwiches to students at nearby Luther College. Historians recall Mabel was asked by a Luther student if he could make her a pizza. She wasn’t familiar with the concept, as pizzas were virtually unheard of in Iowa back in those days. The restaurant owner decided to branch out into the pizza business, thanks to a growing Luther population from the Chicago area and their love for the Italian favorite.

The restaurant was rebranded “Mabe’s Pizza” in 1968. Mabe baked the early pizzas on cookie sheets in her small oven, and it was easier to cut the pies into squares. Embracing round pizza pans after purchasing a large pizza oven didn’t mean changing the slices – she left them square and those square slices remain today.

Having outgrown the original small restaurant location, the pizzeria moved to a larger building, eventually moving to the downtown area in the early 1970s. On New Year’s Eve in 1976, a fire destroyed the restaurant, which was then located in the 500 block of West Water Street.

Many from the Decorah area have vivid memories of the big fire engulfing the popular downtown restaurant on that cold day in the winter of ‘76. The Decorah Newspaper featured front page pictures of an estimated 33 local firemen feverously fighting the blaze for more than six hours. Estimated damages to the pizza parlor and the two upstairs apartments were estimated at $300,000.

Mabel was in her 70s at the time of the fire and could have easily made the decision to close-up shop, but she had the resolve to rebuild. The restaurant reopened on East Water Street in 1978, and it stands proudly at the same Water Street location today. In
February 1978, the open house advertisements featured in the Decorah Newspaper boasted free pizza and pasta samples, door prizes, luncheon specials and tours of the new party room and meeting rooms at the establishment.

Mabel’s son Don and his wife Mamie operated Mabe’s upon her retirement in the early 1980s at age 77. Mabel continued to live in the upstairs apartment above the restaurant until her passing in 2002 at the age of 97. Don’s wife Mamie passed away on New Year’s Day in 1993, and Don passed away in December 2014.

Mabel’s grandson Steve and his wife, a Lawler native, took over the business in 1999.

Now, a fourth generation of the White family, Mabel’s great-grandson Collin is general manager for the business. Collin and his wife have a 15-month-old daughter, sweetly named after her great-great-grandmother Mabel.

More than pizza

One of Decorah’s few restaurants still operating seven-days-a-week, Mabe’s offers up a varied menu. Alongside the popular pizzas, broasted chicken and pastas on the menu are a wide range of sandwiches, salads, appetizers and more. Craft beer and wine were added over the years.

Mabe’s traditionally turns out more than 100,000 pizzas a year, and that’s a conservative estimate. Loyal patrons from Decorah and across the world are sold on the Mabe’s recipe.

“Our half-baked pizzas are taken to Alaska by a very loyal customer numerous times a year,” Steve commented.

The half-baked pizzas are also popular with the crowds stopping at Mabe’s while visiting the area, or just to have on hand when the kids come to town. Patrons show up in droves to order the popular made-from-scratch “regulars” (sausage and pepperoni), the “around-the-garden” (the works) variety and other signature favorites.

Mabe’s faces many of the same obstacles of other businesses in town, including finding staff and rising food costs and expenses. But the owners have tackled those challenges head-on. Over the years the business has grown, and the Whites have embraced technology with development of a website (, installation of a new POS (point of sale) system, and the popular option for online ordering.

The original restaurant model from 70 years ago – offering good service, hospitality and consistently good food – remains today. Many loyal employees have been with Mabe’s for decades. The legacy of Mabel White and the iconic “Mabe’s” is being celebrated all year, and the promotions continue this month (August) with large regular pizzas priced at $19.53 (1953 being the founding year).

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Arlene Lage
1 month ago

Enjoy your pizza and your other food! Always the place to go when family comes from four states!! Keep up the good work! May you have many more years of serving the public.

John C
1 month ago

Square cut is Chicago style – true to its Chicago roots.