As Halloween approaches, the dead are coming back to life in downtown Decatur in more ways than one.
Growing up about one block away from downtown, Max Miller collected horror movie nostalgia and wanted a way to put his collection on display for the public to enjoy.
"In the past, I’ve displayed some items in store windows and at the library,” Miller says. “It's a collection of pieces from classic horror films—the old black-and-white stuff.”
So he and his wife decided to take his spooky hobby and turn it into an opportunity to resurrect their city's once-dead urban core.
Like many rural towns in Indiana, Decatur’s downtown that was once a destination for shopping, dining, and entertainment became home to shuttered businesses and vacant storefronts in the latter half of the 20th century. Miller always knew he wanted to be part of change downtown; it was just a matter of how.
About a year ago, he and his wife came up with the concept for Famous Monster Pizza as a destination for horror and hunger alike. Today, the old-time, movie-themed pizza-joint-meets-classic-soda-fountain shop features food and drinks named after famous monsters. Sink your teeth into a Count Dracula pizza paired with Dr. Jekyll’s special elixir of Marshmallow Cola, for instance.
Famous Monster Pizza shows classic horror films as patrons eat.
Along with becoming a favorite among locals, Famous Monster Pizza is also becoming a hot spot for regional visitors from cities, like Cincinnati—particularly in the Halloween season, Miller notes.
So how scary is it? According to Famous Monster Pizza’s website, the destination is classified as a “slightly frightful setting.” Even so, Miller has worked hard to cultivate a horror movie ambiance, showing public domain monster movies on a screen overhead as patrons eat.
People often come for the theme and stay for the pizza, he says. But that’s not to say the pizza is second-rate.
“We hired a professional chef, a guy who had been in the business for 20 years,” Miller explains. “He helped us put together the menu and the pricing.”
Famous Monster's deep dish pizza
At prices only a few dollars higher than chain restaurants, patrons at Famous Monster Pizza can enjoy the menu’s pre-designed specialties or “Build Your Own Monster” pizzas.
Along with a positive response the pizzeria has gotten from customers, Miller says he and his wife have also experienced a welcoming community of fellow downtown business owners in Decatur. Less than two years ago there were no locally-owned restaurants downtown, but today there are a handful of options, he explains.
It turns out, the dead can come back to life.
“I think it's all really cool,” he says. “I don't look at other downtown restaurants as competition. I look at it as helping us. People will think about going downtown instead of going to 13th Street, where it's mostly fast food.”
Miller credits local leaders in Decatur for making downtown more attractive, which has benefitted his restaurant. The city has invested in facade grants, sidewalk improvements, new lampposts, and concerts during the summer.
“All kinds of exciting things,” Miller says.
These types of asset-based improvements are exactly what author Edward T. McMahon prescribes in his 2016 report, "Downtowns Matter."
"Twenty-first-century economic development focuses on what a community has, rather than what it doesn’t have, "McMahon opines. "Too many communities spend all their time and money on business recruitment."
In other words, Decatur is leveraging its assets. Miller says the same asset-based sentiment applies to his pizzeria, too.
Building on his wealth of horror movie knowledge, the experience of a professional chef, and rising popularity of downtown created the perfect storm of events for a spooky success.
“I’d like to think that we got it right from the beginning,” Miller says. “I think we hit the nail on the head in a lot of ways.”