SABULA, Iowa — There was nothing conventional about the way Tom Holman ran his pizza restaurant in Sabula.
Customers at Bombfire Pizza ate their meals off of paper plates in a building populated by countless collectibles and works of art. The sound of live music —sometimes performed by professionals but often by amateurs — provided the soundtrack to the dining experience.
But of all the quirks that defined Bombfire Pizza, it was the larger-than-life personality of the owner himself that customers and friends remember most.
“Everyone who came in, he made them feel important,” recalled his friend Lisa Guffey Jones on Monday. “No matter who you were or what walk of life you came from, he always made you feel you were the smartest, most beautiful person. He always made you feel like you were enough.”
Holman, 60, was found dead by a friend Sunday, according to Jackson County Sheriff’s Department Deputy Russ Long.
Funeral arrangements have not been finalized yet, Holman’s family said.
Heather Houzenga, of Savanna, Ill., was a longtime worker at Bombfire Pizza who helped Holman build the business and described him as her best friend.
She said the restaurant was “a very grass-roots and very homegrown operation.”
Holman started the business in a building at 516 Pearl St. that formerly had been condemned. He remodeled it and later spent about two years constructing the brick-fire oven that served as the backbone of the eatery.
Houzenga began “working” at Bombfire Pizza around the time the restaurant opened in 2007.
She said she and other people on the waitstaff never earned paychecks. Rather, they were there because they wanted to be.
“It wasn’t a job,” Houzenga said. “We wanted to be there because it was fun and interactive. It was about having a good time and loving each other.”
In addition to a sense of community, Bombfire Pizza offered its own brand of cuisine, with pizza toppings ranging from locally produced organic vegetables to Thai peanut sauce.
Houzenga said future plans for the restaurant have not yet been finalized.
Henry Matthiessen III, of rural Galena, Ill., first stepped into Bombfire Pizza in 2010. He was immediately drawn to the “artsy uniqueness” and “sensory overload” that defined the restaurant.
He said there was artwork virtually everywhere that one looked.
“Tom also kept a piano and other instruments in there, so if someone wanted to stroll in and play, they could do that,” Matthiessen said. “It was quite a dynamic.”
Bombfire’s appeal extended beyond those who lived in the tri-state area. Matthiessen said many visitors hailed from outside the region or even outside the country.
Holman celebrated this geographical diversity with a map in the restaurant. When he met someone from outside the region, he would pull it down, ask them to locate their country and have them sign their name on that part of the map.
Whether the customers came from near or far, they were bound together by a sense of inclusiveness that permeated the restaurant.
“There are a lot of people who would not know each other if not for Bombfire,” Matthiessen said. “I think there are people from two or three different continents that I met there.”
Holman quickly struck up relationships with his customers, as well as those in the rest of the business community.
Guffey Jones owned a business near Bombfire Pizza and developed a close friendship with Holman. She said the pizza joint was “like no other place” she had ever seen.
She jokingly remembered how customers would “sometimes get a menu and sometimes they wouldn’t.” She also recalled how Holman almost never ran his air conditioner, elevating the temperature inside the restaurant to around 90 degrees on some of the hot summer days along the river.
But she emphasized that Holman’s kindness is what truly stood out. His warm nature continued toward the end of his life, even as he struggled with multiple health issues, including cancer.
“Even with all he was dealing with, he never let anyone know,” she said. “He kept on smiling and helping people.”
Of all the attributes that will stick with Houzenga, Holman’s welcoming nature stands apart.
He lived above the restaurant and often opened the space up to those who were traveling up or down the river.
To Holman, everyone was a friend.
“He never judged people and never threw stones,” Houzenga said. “He just accepted you as you were, and he hoped you would do the same for him.”