When Satchel Raye first started making art, he used paint, stained glass and pencils.
Over the years, his medium shifted to dough, sauce and toppings.
“When I make a pizza and it’s beautiful and crispy and caramelized and perfect, that makes me so happy,” he said. “I want to do it again.”
The longtime Gainesville resident is known for the eccentric pizzeria that is Satchel’s Pizza, but Raye, 49, hopes that isn’t the only legacy he leaves behind.
“I would like to be thought of as an artist with a pizza shop, because really my art is what inspires me and drives me,” he said.
Raye is constantly looking for opportunities to exercise his artistic side and add to his restaurant, which opened in 2003, he said. Sometimes, he doesn’t have to go looking.
After a fire at Satchel’s Pizza in February 2012 left the kitchen in ruins and the restaurant flooded, Raye promised to come back with a restaurant even better than before, according to Alligator archives. Four years later, he found himself making the same promise.
On the night of Dec. 5, 2016, firefighters responded to a fire that had erupted at Satchel’s Pizza at about 9 p.m. Fifteen-foot-flames licked the roof of Lightnin’ Salvage Enterprises, according to Alligator archives. Raye arrived in time to watch the building burn to the ground. Denise Prodigo-Herrmann, the office manager for Satchel’s Pizza, arrived shortly after Raye.
“I worked that day in my office in the restaurant,” she said. “I was here on the property, and I set the alarm before I left, and it seemed like everything was fine.”
Standing before the blazing building, hand-in-hand with Raye and other staff, Prodigo-Herrmann knew somehow, everything would be fine.
As she combed through insurance papers and obsessed over the logistical nightmare of rebuilding, Raye was already thinking of ways to transform the building into something new, she said.
“He really treats this place like it’s an extension of him,” Prodigo-Herrmann said. “It’s not called Satchel’s Pizza for nothing.”
Raye has been putting in 19-hour days to to create the newly built Lightnin’ Salvage Enterprises, set to open in mid-December, he said.
The two-story building will include a playground, bar, live-music venue and gift shop for customers, as well as two offices and a break room for employees on the second floor. Raye said some of the space will likely not be complete for the opening in December, but he plans to throw a grand opening in the Spring.
The new space will also include a second ATM and two additional bathrooms for customers, he said. As for the interior decorations, Raye said the space will evolve over time, but getting it up and running is his first priority.
“I think it’ll take me another 10 years to really create something as vibrant and as exciting and visually interesting as what we lost,” he said.
With the grueling process of rebuilding added to his regular workload, Raye said he could never go about the task alone. But he hasn’t just built a business over the past 14 years, he’s built a family.
During long days, Raye motivates himself by thinking of his work family and his wife, Caroline, who can always make him crack a smile.
“My life is between Satchel’s Pizza and my home,” he said. “My energy and my inspiration comes from my family.”
Danny Lore has worked for Raye for 10 years. As the manager of Lightnin’ Salvage Enterprises, Lore looked on with Raye in shock as they watched the flames engulf the space.
“Lightnin’ Salvage was just a big piece of art. It was a huge sculpture,” Lore said. “For him to watch that thing go up in flames, it was just devastating.”
If it were anybody else other than Raye, Lore might be worried, but past experiences remind him that Raye tackles everything headfirst.
Lore recalls sharing an idea with Raye about remodeling the bar in Lightnin’ Salvage Enterprises. Two days after perusing Lore’s rough sketch of the design plan, he came into work to find that Raye had already cut a hole in the wall.
“Once he gets his mind set that he’s going to do something, he gets it done,” Lore said.
Though rebuilding was hard work, Raye said art is intrinsic to him.
When he was 12 years old, Raye discovered his talent for pencil drawings. His parents enrolled him in an adult drawing class on Saturdays so he could be with artists closer to his skill level. At UF in the late 1980s, he honed his painting skills as an art major before transferring to the Atlanta College of Art.
At Satchel’s Pizza, Raye has found a way to weave together his two loves: making pizza and creating art. To him, it’s one in the same.
“The pizzas are really mandalas. So when we make a pizza, we’re spreading these toppings out evenly and making a beautiful piece of art that somebody can eat,” he said. “I really feel like I’m making art when I’m making pizza.”
When outsiders first catch a glimpse of Satchel’s Pizza, it might look more like an antique shop full of old knick-knacks than it does a restaurant teeming with art. But the recycled materials that cover nearly every inch of Satchel’s Pizza is part of what makes it so meaningful, Prodigo-Herrmann said.
“I think that there’s something very literal like when people touch objects and then they get passed on to be created into something else,” she said. “All of that energy really does play a part in what our place is all about.”
It’s an energy that draws customers to the pizzeria, said Mike Hill, 49, a seasoned Satchel’s Pizza-goer. The Gainesville resident has been frequenting the business for about 12 years. His go-to is a white pie and a chat with Raye.
“Everytime we go, it seems there’s some new project that Satchel is working on to improve his place,” Hill said. “He’s one of the most innovative people I’ve ever met.”
Raye’s personality is evident in every corner of the restaurant, Hill said. From the vinyl on the booths to the ingredients in the homemade sodas, a little bit of Raye can be seen in everything.
“His fingerprints are all over the entire place,” Hill said.
Raye believes that his Satchel’s Pizza was so warmly received by the Gainesville community because his life was shaped by the town. He always knew it would be the right place to open his business. Although he spent much of his twenties and early thirties traveling to Jamaica, Mexico, Alaska, Europe, Thailand and other worldwide locations, Raye always found himself back in Gainesville.
“I just feel like that this is where I’m from, and so my art is reflective of this community, and this community can really relate to what I do,” he said.
As Lightnin’ Salvage Enterprises prepares to reopen, Prodrigo-Herrmann said the community gets to be a part of a beautiful new beginning. Once again, Gainesville residents get to watch Raye artfully gather up the charred and smoky pieces of the past and turn it into a community’s treasure.
“Over the years, you will now get to watch a new evolution of Satchel’s Pizza,” she said, “and it, again, will all come from him.”