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Ashton Samuelson

Pitza 42 founder finds encouragement in her work

By Tammy Keith

This article was published February 16, 2014 at 12:00 a.m.

Ashton Samuelson sits in a booth at the restaurant at 2235 Dave Ward Drive in Conway that she and her husband, Austin, started in 2011 with a model she said no other restaurant was using at the time. For each meal purchased at Pitza 42, a meal is provided for a child through Feed My Starving Children, and thousands have been fed.

Ashton Samuelson remembers the moment when she and her husband realized that it was worth all the stress to open a unique restaurant in Conway that donates a meal to a hungry child for each meal sold.

They were in Honduras giving out food, and she handed a box to an 8-year-old girl, who balanced it on her head.

“The look on her face was like I gave her a Barbie. It was rice. She starts screaming to the others, … and she’s laughing and just spinning with this box on her head. I looked at Austin, and we were both crying. That was her lifeline. She’d waited for that for days. I’ll never forget that.”

Samuelson, 27, and her husband, Austin, 28, opened Pitza 42 in 2011. The 42 stands for meals “for two.”

It started out as a far-fetched idea, she said.

“The only restaurant experience we had was going through a drive-through,” Samuelson said, laughing as she sat in a booth in the restaurant — a booth that her husband made by hand.

Samuelson, who grew up in Arkadelphia, and Austin, who went to Vilonia schools, met at church camp in high school and started dating.

They both graduated from Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia. She got a degree in early-childhood education; he was a business major.

In part because Austin had relatives in California, and he also had done an internship in Los Angeles in college, in 2008 they moved to the Pacific Palisades area of California.

“We wanted to start our marriage somewhere exciting and adventurous,” she said.

Austin worked in commercial real estate. She taught first grade at a private Christian school for two years and said she “loved every second of it.”

It was while she was teaching that she and Austin became interested in the hunger problem. The area was a dichotomy, she said, with both extreme wealth and desperation.

The children in Samuelson’s class would have pizza every Thursday and always had leftovers. Samuelson said she had her students write letters, “Hey, thinking of you — enjoy your pizza,” for example, and she took the notes and pizza to a homeless woman who lived on the corner.

The woman, Julia, would hand out the pizza to other homeless people, and Samuelson said she and Julia became good friends.

Samuelson said the first step in helping others is to build relationships.

“You can’t point back and say, ‘You shouldn’t have made this decision.’ You invite them into something different. People are won over by God’s kindness, not his judgment,” she said.

Samuelson and her husband started volunteering at a soup kitchen in downtown Los Angeles, a few streets from skid row.

In 2010, the CEO of World Vision at the time spoke at their church about God calling people to love the widows and the orphans.

Samuelson was struck by the fact that he said 18,000 children die every day as a result of hunger and malnutrition.

“My heart had already been softened to hearing things like that,” she said.

“Austin and I were like, ‘OK, what does this mean?’”

They moved back to Conway in August 2010 when Austin got a job with a residential homebuilder, she said. Samuelson found a job teaching third grade at the Little Rock Christian Academy.

While visiting a Baptist church, Samuelson said, they heard a sermon about meeting compassionate needs in Conway, and the topic of homelessness and hunger came up again.

“I knew we were supposed to be visiting,” she said. They are members of Fellowship Bible Church in Conway.

When the couple were eating lunch at a Mexican restaurant, Samuelson said, her husband told her about an idea he had while they were in that church.

“He got real excited. He said, ‘What if there was a restaurant that basically does the same model as TOMS shoes?” he said. The shoe company’s partners donate a pair of shoes for every TOMS pair sold.

Austin’s idea was to donate a meal for every meal sold.

They talked about it and went on with their lives, she said.

Five days later, Austin got laid off, although he and the homebuilder are still friends.

The couple moved into the basement at his parents’ home in Vilonia and lived off her small teaching paycheck, Samuelson said.

After a promising job interview, Austin told her, “I’m just not feeling it.” Samuelson said her husband said he couldn’t get the restaurant idea out of his mind.

On a drive to Arkadelphia to visit her parents, “we designed this whole restaurant,” she said. “It became this little secret passion we didn’t know what to do with.”

The few people they told didn’t react positively.

“People were like, ‘That’s the craziest idea we’ve ever heard.’ Our friends were like, ‘No — what if you go out of business?’”

Samuelson said she and her husband prayed harder than they ever had.

The next day, his aunt and uncle came to visit, Samuelson said.

They told Austin they’d been praying for him to find a job. Samuelson said that when his aunt asked what he really wanted to do, he told her about the restaurant idea. She encouraged him to try it.

“As he’s talking — and I’ve never seen this before, and I’ve known him almost nine years at this point — he just lit up with so much passion,” Samuelson said. “I knew this is what God was telling him to do.”

After the Samuelsons researched the idea, they couldn’t find another restaurant following the exact model they planned, she said. Some restaurants gave a percentage to charity, but not a one-for-one match.

“We found out real fast why nobody was doing it,” she said, her blue eyes widening.

They did their homework, decided on “a fresh option for pizza,” and within seven months opened the restaurant.

Six banks turned them down for a loan, so they raised the money a little bit at a time from friends and relatives.

They did a lot of the work in the restaurant themselves, from building the booths to painting the ceiling.

“I really don’t know how it worked out; it just did,” she said.

They started trying to find an organization that fed children to serve as a partner.

Many organizations required $1 per meal to be donated to feed each child, and Samuelson said they’d go out of business doing that.

On the way to teach school one day, Samuelson said she heard a radio spot about Feed My Starving Children.

Austin came home and said a friend had told him about the same organization.

They wanted a Christian organization “that I can trust,” she said.

She said the CEO of the organization, based in Minneapolis, met with them.

“He took his time to sit down with two 25-year-old kids with a crazy idea,” she said.

The CEO told them it takes 22 cents to feed a child through his organization.

“That still is very, very hard,” she said. “Margins in food are very, very slim.”

They decided to go with that organization.

“We’re in the business because it’s a mission for us,” she said.

Because they are a permanent donor with Feed My Starving Children, they get to pick where the food goes, and theirs goes to Swaziland, Africa.

The 22 cents from the sale of each meal at Pitza 42 goes into a savings account with Feed My Starving Children, and it pays for the mobile-pack events.

Once a year, the Samuelsons receive the food that will be shipped to Africa, and they hold packing parties. The next one will be April 3-5 at Fellowship Bible Church on Hogan Lane in Conway.

The goal is 544,320 meals, enough to feed almost 1,500 children for a year. This time, they will also send food to Zambia through The Zambia Project.

Samuelson said her first trip to Swaziland was in July. Most of the children are orphans because their parents have died of AIDS. Along with the food, the children get medicine and an education, she said.

Samuelson pointed to a photograph hanging on the wall next to the booth. It shows Austin in Africa with a little boy named Phiwo, who she said is going to school and learning English.

Phiwo’s grandmother has about 12 children to raise because their parents died, and Phiwo receives medication at the feeding center so he won’t develop AIDS.

“What has been so cool for us, the food is not just a meal for the people. It is a foundation to believe there is hope for their families,” she said. It keeps some children from getting involved in sex trafficking, too, she said.

When the restaurant first opened, Samuelson said, a lot of customers commented that “people here need help, too.”

Samuelson said, “God started locally for us with a lady named Julia, … and God gives people different passions to meet different needs, and God doesn’t have a certain limit.”

She said it doesn’t have to be either helping the children globally or locally.

“It doesn’t have to be ‘or’; it can be ‘and,’” she said.

Although Samuelson said it was hard to give up teaching, she has always loved food.

A friend asked if they’d thought about opening a second restaurant with the same mission but with a Mexican menu.

“We said, ‘No, we’re not doing that,’” she said.

But, the idea was planted.

The Samuelsons’ new goal is to open Tacos4Life.

“Austin and I are both entrepreneurs, innovators, and we are creative thinkers,” she said. “We got on a train of creativity and felt led, despite everybody thinking we’re crazy.”

They used crowdfunding (online fundraising) to start the restaurant. Tacos4Life will open in April or May, she said, on Oak Street in Conway.

The other big news for 2014 is that the couple’s first child, a boy they have already named Jet, is due in July.

“It’s a whole new ballgame,” she said, laughing.

They’ll continue their mission to provide meals for hungry children, though. There are 8-year-old girls — and many others — waiting for them.

Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

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