Pizza Community Week: Meet the Muntains

Here’s a holiday story from the winners of this year’s Saputo Foodservice Pizza with Purpose award
Laura Aiken
November 13, 2018
By
It is rare that we get the incidental opportunity to share a Christmas story with you so fittingly in our December edition. But this year the Muntain family has given us one that could warm even the most bah-humbug of hearts.

TJ pizza staff  
Daytona, Lloyd, Tara and Rachael Muntain inside their TJ’s Pizza franchise in Melfort, Sask. Photo by Rachel Enge
 
The sound of jingle bells starts in Melfort, Sask., a community of around 6,000 people that is nicknamed the “City of Northern Lights” for how frequently the aurora borealis can be seen in its sky. It’s a neighbourly place, one where “you walk down the street and you don’t pass two people without saying ‘hello’, or ‘hey, how’s your Mum,’ ” described Tara Muntain, matriarch of the local family-run TJ’s Pizza franchise. The Port Hope, Ont., native said she loves this about her adopted hometown.

Tara and her husband Lloyd haven’t always been Melfort’s prized pizza family. Prior to buying a TJ’s Pizza franchise in 2009, Tara was a restaurant manager and Lloyd drove a truck. Before that, and long before they built a reputation as a business the community could count on, the Muntains were a local couple with a very sick little girl, and in need of Melfort’s help. 

Their eldest child, Daytona, was 18 months old when younger sibling Rachael came into the world. When Rachael was just hours old, she was airlifted from Melfort hospital to the Royal University Hospital in Saskatoon. Doctors discovered that Rachael had transposition of the great arteries, a rare but serious congenital heart defect that required open-heart surgery. As soon as the baby was helicoptered away, the Muntains got in their car and headed for Saskatoon.

“It’s about a two-hour drive and I don’t think we breathed the whole way there,” recalled Tara, the stress of the event still present in her voice. “We were in Saskatoon for six weeks.”

Tara’s mother was able to help with the care of Daytona, but in the meantime the Muntains were not working because they were at the hospital full time. Household bills and the costs of staying in Saskatoon were far from top of mind, but still a stark reality. When a few of their friends who owned businesses did something as simple as put a jar on the their counters with a note describing the family’s situation, the community responded with donations. One good friend who was part of the Melfort Kinsmen submitted an application to the TeleMiracle Kinsmen Foundation, which is an organization that strives to serve the greatest needs of residents in Saskatchewan communities. TeleMiracle answered the call for help, and ended up covering the cost of the Muntains’ stay at Ronald McDonald House and providing assistance with daily meals.

“TeleMiracle is near and dear to our hearts and it’s one of the reasons I’m a Kinette now, and have been for several years,” said Tara. “It’s nice to be able to give back to that.”

TJ’s Pizza was a major sponsor of the Kinette/Kinsmen TeleMiracle Cabaret held last January that raised over $16,000. The family donated a portion of their February sales to TeleMiracle and for the first time were able to rally the other TJ’s franchisees to do so as well, resulting in a $6,000 donation from the whole franchise.

The pizzeria held its second annual pizza-eating contest this year, which raised over $1,700 in 25 minutes for TeleMiracle. The first competition was inspired by a hot dog-eating contest Tara and Lloyd had seen. They surfed the web to find rules and regulations, added some of their own, and hit the town looking for businesses willing to sponsor an employee. The couple were crossing their fingers, since the idea was a first for Melfort and their timing was January, when the post-Christmas wallets tend to snap shut. As it turned out, the worry was for naught, as the community response was great enough that at least one business ran an internal competition to see who among its employees would be sponsored for the event. The first winner was a very slender accountant who “totally blew the other guys out of the water,” said Tara.

“It was so much fun! I don’t think I’ve laughed so hard in my life.”

The Melfort legion donated its hall to this year’s event, which brought out cheering spectators and added competitors from places as diverse as the RCMP and the local high school. “It’s just a community minded thing,” said Tara. “It was really cool; the cat’s meow.”

Perhaps the Muntains needn’t have worried about getting support for their pizza-eating contest after Christmas, considering they were such an integral part of bringing the community’s first Christmas play to life (I bet you were wondering when I was going to get to the Christmas story).  Tara and two friends from the congregation at her small church started batting around the idea of approaching the other small churches in Melfort to join together in putting on a nativity Christmas program.

To get everyone on board, the play needed to be interdenominational (not belonging to any one particular church), said Tara. In the first year (this will be the third), the organizers found a play and divided it into eight different parts that the various groups could take away and practice. A full dress rehearsal was organized the day before and each group was responsible for its own props. Tara was one of four people on the organizing committee who went around visiting participants to make sure everyone was learning their lines and going to be ready for show time. 

“I had no idea that it would be as good as it was!” exclaimed Tara. “It was phenomenal.”

The play, held on a Sunday afternoon, filled a nearly 400-seat drama theatre and then some, so there was “less than standing room only,” she said. The second year drew an even bigger crowd and organizations beyond the churches. It also brought some creative talent out of the woodwork that Tara said she is particularly excited about. Just after last year’s play, a local playwright came to the organizers in June and said she was inspired to write an original story for them to use, done in the sectional style needed for the various groups. On top of now having an original community written play in hand, the production has five songs after another resident stepped in and offered to write music. The introduction of an original score prompted the need to start a community choir that also bridged the social gaps between churches and non-religious individuals and schools. The proceeds from the $3 per ticket sales go the Salvation Army’s Christmas food program. This year the committee decided to do two performances (and stop breaking fire codes, Tara joked). There will even be a brass band playing outside as patrons come in.

While the Christmas play is what had Tara animated during our interview, it’s just one cause among many the Muntains support year round and what makes them such deserving winners of this year’s Saputo Foodservice Pizza with Purpose award. In fact, as Tara let Canadian Pizza know in her entry, it was another TJ’s franchisee in Moose Jaw that called her up and encouraged her to enter the Pizza with Purpose contest. The Muntains’ corporate goal is to give between one and two per cent gross sales back to their city, but it is hard to put a price on the time they lavish on their community.

Sports are often a big part of the food industry’s charitable efforts, and in this regard TJ’s Pizza is no exception. The Muntains have assisted the local Saskatchewan junior hockey league team and sponsored a young and talented individual in pre-teen Zac Somers.

The Melfort indoor/outdoor soccer league, dance club, MUCC football team, the Star City Archers, softball team and Marlins swim meet have all been recipients of their help. They also host men’s and women’s golf league evenings and a junior golf weekend.

Schools are touched by their generosity when the Muntains assist with food for Grad Night and help with fundraisers through events like PJ/TJ day, where kids come to school in their PJs and get TJ’s for lunch.

Numerous Melfort causes and associations are better off for the time and effort given by the Muntain family, who help with volunteer hours and monetary donations/advertising for the “Walk a Mile In Her Shoes” campaign for the North East Outreach Group. TJ’s is a gold sponsor of the Melfort Multi-K Run.

This year, TJ’s received a call from the Melfort Cancer Society, which was in need of someone to organize the food needed for its Relay for Life event. This responsibility, which Tara took on, went beyond food provided by TJ’s to include organizing all the beverages, food, food booths, free barbecues, public booths and supervision of it all. The event raised more than $140,000 for the Canadian Cancer Society.

The Muntains have helped the North East SPCA with both time and money. At press time, the pizzeria had paws on a thermometer painted on its window to raise awareness of the money needed for an animal shelter. 

Tara and Lloyd’s daughters, now 18 and 16 years old, are active in the pizzeria and the community, as are the 18 staff that the Muntains encourage to volunteer, even covering a small part of paid hours for employees who have helped out. It seems as though in a small community of 6,000 there are probably few who have been left untouched by the Muntains, who plan to use their $2,500 prize from Saputo towards a worthy cause. “We’re working every day, we’re doing our best every day, and when you see other people doing the same thing and maybe they need a little hand and we can do that, then absolutely we’ll help.”

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