A stack of chairs forms a protective barrier inside the lobby area of Tim’s Pizza.

This is a reminder to customers that their longtime routine of selecting a pizza and eating in the dining area is out for now because of COVID-19 restrictions.

“There are a lot of changes,” said Tim Pace, who owns the restaurant in eastern Independence, “as you can see by looking around.”

The salad bar is gone, the soda and beer fountains have been shut down, and there are no sandwiches or pasta dishes available.

“We’re hoping you like our pizza,” Pace said when interviewed last month, “because that’s all we have right now.”

In what he said was the toughest decision he ever had to make, he furloughed much of his staff. He wondered if he might have to close his doors.

“That’s when I found out what our community – Independence and the surrounding cities – think of Tim’s Pizza,” he said. “I didn’t know if we could stay open, I really didn’t. We’re a small pizza place with some amazing customers who have been with us since we opened 32 years ago.”

But the restaurant is surviving during these times of fear and emptiness.

“I just want to thank the community for coming out and supporting us,” Pace said. “Over the years, we’ve tried to support anyone we can and now, it’s being paid back many times over.”

The restaurant is full of thank-you notes for birthday and retirement parties, trophies from Little League and men’s softball squads and gifts from players on the Kansas City Mavericks hockey team.

“I don’t think Tim has any idea what the community thinks of him and Steve (Pace, his brother),” said Rick Taylor, a Van Horn High School graduate and longtime Eastern Jackson County philanthropist.

“This place is Independence. Tim and Steve have helped more people – without taking any credit or getting any publicity – than any guys I know, and when it was time to help them, we were here!”

Taylor has been arriving at Tim’s each week, picking up a dozen pizzas, then surprising elderly neighbors and shut-ins in his neighborhood with a large pizza.

“It’s the right thing to do,” Taylor said, “because you’re helping a lot of those folks who can’t get out and help themselves, and you’re helping two of the most generous people I’ve ever met in my life.”

Another person to help is hometown hero Rick Sutcliffe, a Cy Young Award winner, a baseball analyst on ESPN and a Van Horn classmate of Taylor’s.

“We got a call from Barry Axelrod, Rick Sutcliffe’s agent,” Pace said, “and they sent us two $5,000 checks. We printed up Rick Sutcliffe Foundation gift certificates and boy, have we had fun going around town and delivering them to fire stations, police and sheriff departments and medical crews – and really, to those in need who need a little bit of joy in their lives.”

Once again, the emotion rises in Pace’s voice.

“When this all started, we had to let some of our employees go, and we’ve never done that in 32 years,” Pace said.

But in early April the company brought back the last furloughed employee.

“And that makes me so happy,” Pace said.

Something else that made him happy was an order for 350 $25 gift cards from Unilever, which has a food manufacturing plant in Independence.

“We’ve sold so many pizzas to people who work at Unilever, and Andy Brooks, from Unilever, called us and said he wanted to give his employees 350 $25 gift certificates – which will get them any large pizza they want.”

“This is the greatest thing in the world,” Unilever employee Mike Cummings said. “Unilever is a great place to work. How many companies would buy gift certificates for their employees? We all love Tim’s Pizza and can’t wait to get up here and use our gift certificates.”

Independence State Farm Insurance agent Chad Mitchell recently called in an order for 65 pizzas, which he delivered to his clients.

Pace finally gets teary eyed as he talks about the support Tim’s Pizza is receiving.

“I always thought the best people in the world were from Eastern Jackson County and around here,” Pace said, “and now I know they are.”