Icons of Santa Cruz: Pizza My Heart’s popular T-shirts are the most affordable way to represent local pride

Close-up of a quilt of Pizza My Heart T-shirts made by Carli Chatham
Close-up of a quilt of Pizza My Heart T-shirts made by Carli Chatham, who grew up in Hollister but now lives in Orange County.
(Via Pizza My Heart)

With its super-cheap shirt-and-a-slice promotion, Pizza My Heart has created a surf-culture vibe that has made waves throughout the Bay Area. Wallace Baine looks at the phenomenon in the latest installment of our series spotlighting the people, places and things that are immediately identifiable with Santa Cruz County.

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I have at least a half-dozen of them. Others in Santa Cruz County, and all around the greater Bay Area, can beat that number easily.

If you’re keeping watch around town, from Pacific Avenue to Capitola Village, from the beaches to the farmers markets, you’ll see the Pizza My Heart T-shirt everywhere.

Sure, if you’re counting, as a kind of badge of local pride, you’ll probably find more Giants caps or Santa Cruz Skateboards logos out in the wild; but on some days, maybe not. Sometimes, the “PMH-T,” as we might call it, is the dominant totem of localism.

The Pizza My Heart T-shirt represents one of Santa Cruz’s greatest marketing triumphs, a branding strategy that has fueled the growth of a pizza chain that began in Capitola 40 years ago and has grown to 25 locations throughout the Bay Area, including three in Santa Cruz County and one in Monterey.

And while the T-shirt has been hugely successful for the company, it’s been a big plus for consumers as well. Anyone with an itch to represent a little NorCal love in their apparel choices, take note: A San Francisco Giants cap will probably set you back $40 or more. A Santa Cruz Skateboards or “Screaming Hand” T shirt, that one’s about $25.

A Pizza My Heart “classic” T-shirt will cost you $7 — and that includes a free slice of pizza. Given that the slice is about $5 alone, the shirt’s cost is essentially pocket change.

Chuck Hammers, PMH’s president, said his company sells between 200,000 and 250,000 T-shirts a year, an astonishing number for a regional chain. No one knows how many PMH tees are currently in circulation or have been sold in total, but Hammers estimates about 3 million.

A man wears a Pizza My Heart shirt at the Taj Mahal in India
Representing at the Taj Mahal.
(Via Pizza My Heart)

“It just keeps going and going,” he said. “I keep thinking, oh, these [shirts] have got to tire out. [People] aren’t going to buy the old logo-ed shirt forever, but it just keeps selling.”

As Hammers indicated, there are different kinds of PMH T-shirts. The first is the “classic,” a white tee with the company’s oval red logo underlined with the name of the location where the shirt was sold — Santa Cruz, Capitola, Redwood City, Blossom Hill, etc.

A man wears a Pizza My Heart shirt at the Roman Baths in Bath, England
At the Roman Baths in Bath, England.
(Via Pizza My Heart)

The second category is the limited-edition shirt that comes in a variety of colors with a number of designs. These are released a couple of times a year and, after the run sells out, they become collectors’ items.

The third is the employee T-shirt, which has its own individual design. To get one of those, you gotta join the PMH team. Every year during the holiday season, employees are given a specially designed hoodie to mark the past year.

The T-shirts have been a major part of the Pizza My Heart business for 25 years. The idea was sparked when a friend who owned a burrito place visited Hammers at one of his pizza shops. At the time, Hammers was selling the classic T-shirt like most restaurants sell apparel – as an extra, displayed inside the store, but not tied to pizza sales.

According to Hammers, the conversation went something like this:

The burrito friend gestured to the T-shirt on the wall and said, “So, how many of those have you sold?”

Inside Quali-T Screen Printing in Santa Clara, where the Pizza My Heart T-shirt magic happens.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Hammers said, “Oh, maybe about 10 a year. Why?”

“I’ve sold close to a thousand shirts,” said the burrito man.

The pizza man scoffed, “C’mon, get outta here.”

“No, really,” said burrito man. “I sell it for $10, but I throw in a free burrito.”

Hammers worked in apparel in Palo Alto before getting into the pizza business. His friend’s approach instinctively made sense to him. He ordered a thousand shirts and put the promotion in place, a $5 shirt and a free slice of pizza.

“We put the deal up and boom,” said Hammers in a Zoom call, snapping his finger for emphasis. “We went through them like that.”

Though the classic white tees remain the company’s staple product (consider them the pepperoni of the T-shirt trade), it’s that second style, the limited-edition shirts, that allows Pizza My Heart the wiggle room to play with certain motifs and designs to expand and deepen its brand identity.

Don Reddin runs marketing and communications at Pizza My Heart. He’s the principal designer of the limited-edition shirts. He and Hammers spent a lot of time and energy thinking about the company’s brand image and how it applies to the T-shirts.

A man wears a Pizza My Heart shirt atop Uhuru Peak on Tanzania's Mount Kilimanjaro
Atop Uhuru Peak on Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro.
(Via Pizza My Heart)

The central idea is to keep the brand deeply tied to Northern California beach or surf culture, even if some PMH locations aren’t particularly close to the beach.

“Our general feeling is that we’re representing ourselves as a California surf brand,” said Reddin, “much more in the surf culture of the ’60s, maybe ’70s: longboard, laid-back, kind of vintage, more Beach Boys type of feel.”

The typography and iconography borrows from the old “surf-club” vibe of surfing’s golden age, much more than the more aggressive shortboard era of the 1980s and later. Common motifs in the designs include an old-style longboard surfboard. The iconic grizzly bear from the California bear flag is popular as a motif (the California bear flag is not copyright protected, which explains, in part, its popularity as a T-shirt symbol generally).

Kevin Meade at work printing Pizza My Hearts 2022 shirts
Kevin Meade at work printing Pizza My Hearts 2022 shirts.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The limited-edition shirts are also often tied to time and place. The year of the design is usually featured, prominently or subtly. And the individual locations are celebrated as well. The most recent summer shirt design is more deeply linked to PMH’s Bay Area locations than any past design. The Santa Cruz shirts, for example, feature a likeness of Pacific Avenue, as well as a scene from the Steamer Lane surf break. They’re sold in two colors, sky blue and maroon.

Two women wear Pizza My Heart T-shirts on a boat in Tahiti
On a boat in Tahiti.
(Via Pizza My Heart)

The pandemic created a snag in the usual T-shirt business at PMH. Supply challenges have left the company scrambling to meet demand. “I’ve almost emptied the United States of that blue and maroon,” said Hammers of his new design, “and it’s not even summer yet.”

What’s not featured so much on the PMH-T’s are pizza or hearts. The company’s name is obviously a pun on the old blues song “Piece of My Heart,” but Hammers and Reddin always felt it was just too easy to play on those tropes.

“I’ve always struggled with using the heart in Pizza My Heart,” said Hammers. “I just never wanted to get so cutesy with it.”

But as a Valentine’s Day release a couple of years ago, a special-edition shirt in black embraced the idea of pizza and hearts but wrapped it in a ribbon to suggest an old-school sailor’s tattoo. “We thought, if you were going to tattoo Pizza My Heart on your arm, what would that look like?” said Hammers.

Reddin turns to a small team of graphic designers and together, a couple of times a year, they brainstorm on some new designs and submit a handful to Hammers, who usually likes about half of them. For his part, Hammers often visits surf shops to look through the racks and checks the websites of the big surf brands, just to be aware of the styles and motifs that others are using.

Carli Chatham made a quilt from her collection of Pizza My Heart T-shirts.
Carli Chatham, who grew up in Hollister but now lives in Orange County, made a quilt from her collection of Pizza My Heart T-shirts.
(Via Pizza My Heart)

The city design shirts are in stores now, selling alongside a new bear-flag design in black, and the classic white, which still accounts for about half of the T-shirts that go out the door at Pizza My Heart’s locations. The company encourages customers to send photos of themselves or others wearing PMH gear in places all over the world.

Hammers has seen his T-shirts all over California, from Tahoe to Huntington Beach. Once, on a surf trip to Costa Rica, he saw someone wearing a PMH-T in a restaurant. Of course, he had to approach the guy and say something.

Pizza My Heart's 2022 Capitola T-shirt in production
Pizza My Heart’s 2022 Capitola T-shirt in production.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“The No. 1 travel spot I see them in is Disneyland,” he said. “When my kids were a bit younger, we would take bets on how many Pizza My Heart T-shirts we were gonna see that day. And we would typically see four or five a day.”

Pizza My Heart has, for four decades, been a pizza joint that also sells T-shirts. But the demand and volume of the PMH shirts suggests that maybe it’s just as much a T-shirt business that also sells pizza. The element that holds it together is a cultural thread, rooted in Santa Cruz County’s surf culture, evoking a laid-back vibe that millions who live in Northern California recognize as home.

“Maybe 5% of the world actually surfs,” said Hammers. “But 95% wish they did. So if you’re in Los Gatos, for instance, you might not be at the beach, but you wish you were. And that’s what we’re after.”

Quali-T owner Michael Mercik checks the artwork for the 2022 Pizza My Heart Santa Cruz shirt design
Quali-T owner Michael Mercik checks the artwork for a 2022 Pizza My Heart Santa Cruz shirt design.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)