Yuma vision: 'This is as far as you need to go'
The first time Sam Bernardo visited Yuma, it was on the wings of a vision, a scene of bridges and pyramids that told tales of the desert.
Bernardo, only 30 then, was living in California and had been in a motorcycle accident. It was during a coma spanning five days that the vision came forward.
"I dreamt I was flying over the Bay Area and all I could see was pyramids. They were bridge columns, but to me they were pyramids surrounded by the desert," said the veteran restaurateur. "Something was attracting me to the desert."
None of it made sense until years later when he was traveling to see his brother in Texas. He had stopped off in Yuma to visit some friends when the answer finally struck him.
"Then it all suddenly came together. I got here and I felt, 'This is as far as you need to go,'' he said. "Everything I needed, everything I wanted was right here. The next thing you know, I'm building a house and building a business."
And that's how Bernardo's Pizza came to Yuma.
"I never thought I'd be here," Bernardo said, chuckling. "But look at how successful I've been. I love Yuma and I have simply been blessed."
Also Yuma's taste buds have also been blessed. Bernardo's is adored for its pizza and philly cheese steaks, but its stromboli is what really seems to pack the house.
"You won't find stromboli like this anywhere else. Its the first stromboli in Yuma."
Bernardo makes his stromboli dough from scratch every morning, filling it with chicken, steak, or Italian sausage he makes himself. Also inside are four kinds of cheeses mixed with fresh spinach sauted in garlic.
"And that's fresh garlic, none of that powdered stuff here," he said, rolling his eyes. "Everything I make here is fresh and from scratch. And my sandwiches and pizzas are made right in front of you. People love to see you make their food right in front of their eyes."
About 40 stromboli are pulled from his ovens each day. But that's only counting what's cooked for daily serving. Bernardo also bakes for special orders, when folks have moved away from Yuma and just can't live without one of his Italian delights. He mails about 30 stromboli a year, mostly around Christmas.
"I freeze them beforehand, put them in a Federal Express box, and use next-day service."
Proof of people's hankerings is that shipping a box of three stromboli can cost up to $65.
"The furthest I've shipped is New York," he said. "I ship them everywhere - Wyoming, Texas. People say they go from town to town trying to find another stromboli like mine and they can't - they never will."
Bernardo grew up in Philadelphia, where he was practically raised in the kitchens of restaurants owned by cousins and his grandparents.
"I started when I was just a kid. My first jobs were chopping onions and tomatoes," he said, grinning. "I've been making cheese steaks and hoagies for 55 years now. Can you believe that? And the older I get, the better I get."
He opened his first shop in Hayward, Calif. He was only 23 and the year was 1967.
All these years Bernardo hasn't just stopped at serving up good food, either. He also gives customers hearty helpings of advice by asking folks just one question: "What's your birthday?"
"I'm really interested in people's characteristics related to the time of year they're born," he said, assuring however, that he doesn't believe in astrology and is a born-again Christian. "This is how I've learned to work with people."
He's learned, for example, that people born when the seasons are changing can be more challenging to handle. He also said that people should never marry someone born in the same quarter of the year as them.
Customers' favorite questions deal with their mate or the person a child is dating or marrying.
"They usually just sit there with their jaws dropped wide open. Sometimes they don't listen to me, but they always come back a month later and say 'Sam, I should have taken your advice.''
Bernardo's vision-led business move to Yuma was in 1983.
"I still have customers in Hayward who are mad at me for leaving. Some of them even come here to Yuma to see me and have my food."
Bernardo can't help but still be a bit in awe when he thinks back to how the Foothills looked back when he first landed here.
"This was all desert - nothing. Now you look and there's nothing but homes, homes, homes."
And he gives himself a little credit for that fantastic growth.
"I was always a drawing card for people to come out here," he said. "People have always said I'm an asset to the Foothills."
Bernardo also says that because he loves nothing more than telling folks just how great it is to live there.
"Every time a Realtor has a client out here, they always bring them by to see me."
Bernardo's Pizza is located on the south side of a Foothills strip mall, just south of the Foothills Boulevard exit. The shop is open six days a week and the owner averages about 15 hours of work each day. That's getting up at 4 a.m. to prepare all the fresh ingredients, and with a few breaks throughout, finishing the day at 8 p.m. That work, though, is exactly what makes this guy - who turned 67 just a few days ago - feel pretty darn good.
"I'm running all day and I work fast. It keeps me in shape," he said. "I have a little glass of wine before I get started. That's my blessings in the morning. And I take that with an aspirin."
Slowing down isn't in store for him, either.
"I'm afraid to slow down. I'm not sure that my body could handle the change," he said. "Plus I just love what I'm doing. I guess the good Lord just gives me the energy to do it."
Plus, there's just no option to all the hard work. It's his commitment to customers.
"People expect a lot from me. They're depending on me," he said. "But you know, the route to someone's heart really is through food. You give someone good food to eat and you're got a friend forever."
The kind of service sure works, too.
"I have people who came in here as kids who are now coming in with their own families."
Then he gets a bit serious to get around to the truth of it all.
"People just keep coming back. I always know I'll see a customer again next week or next month," he said. "The only way I lose a customer is if they move away or pass away."
Darin Fenger can be reached at email@example.com or 539-6860.