The food safety habits of Punch Pizza employees are among the best I’ve observed at local restaurants.

The pizzas are as good as any I had in Italy and there are wash basins right out front. You can see the people handling your food washing their hands — and you never see the person who handles the money, which is germ-ridden, touching your food or giving you a napkin.

Thank founder, former resident of Milan, Italy, and germaphobe John Soranno, along with his business partner John Puckett. Puckett told me Soranno could make Howard Hughes seem positively grungy.

Punch is celebrating its 20th year with construction underway at its 10th metro location in Vadnais Heights. It all started in St. Paul’s Highland Park, which is also the company’s HQ.

That’s where I interviewed Puckett during a recent party celebrating the success of the Neapolitan pizza places.

Did you know that there’s a reason why you usually find Punch Pizza near a Chipotle or a Starbucks? Rather amusing considering that Puckett co-founded Caribou Coffee with his wife, Kim; they sold Caribou in 2000.

Punch has been quite a ride. It’s even taken them to the White House.

Punch was recognized by President Obama in his 2014 State of the Union address. He commended Soranno for raising employees’ starting pay to $10 an hour. Since then that figure has grown to $11.

In this Q&A, Puckett shares a story involving his daughter Carter, now 13, and First Lady Michelle Obama from that trip to D.C. “My personal shame, Dad,” said Carter.

 

Q: Why hasn’t your company fallen victim to food-borne illnesses that struck Chipotle and Buffalo Wild Wings?

A: I don’t want to take all the credit. Some of it could be just bad luck because somebody’s sick, but we take sanitation and food safety very seriously.

 

Q: Your employees are some of the most copious hand washers. Aside from the good pizza, that’s why I’m a regular.

A: Our kitchens are by design all exposed. We want our customers to see that we are safe. It makes us have to have our game really on in terms of hand-washing and safety.

 

Q: Have you noticed how many restaurants lack the hygiene habits of Punch? For example, the person who handles the money should not handle the food or pass out the napkins.

A: I’m like a lot of our customers. One of the tricks we do when we go into a restaurant is go into the [rest]room and see what it looks like. If the [rest]room’s not clean it makes me worry about the kitchen. My partner who started Punch, we laugh, because he makes Howard Hughes look like Pig-Pen. He is a germaphobe. He has been a stickler from day one about hand washing and [food] safety.

 

Q: You’re a Tennessee boy, so where’s the barbecue pizza on the Punch menu?

A: It’s not in Naples, Italy. My business partner, he’s pretty adamant that if they don’t make it in Italy we don’t sell it.

 

Q: Why are there 1,000 calories in the Margherita pizza?

A: I don’t think there are.

 

Q: I saw that online. That’s wrong?

A: How much [inaccurate] stuff do you read online? What’s interesting about our Neapolitan pizza is our crust is just flour, water, salt. Depends on what you put on it.

 

Q: Your tomato sauce doesn’t have any added salt?

A: Our tomato sauce is just 100 percent crushed tomatoes.

 

Q: How have you avoided giving customers a caloric and sodium breakdown of the pizzas?

A: We’re excluded as a small business [with fewer than 20 locations].

 

Q: Why isn’t there pizza dough tossing at Punch?

A: Our dough is so soft, if you tossed it you would stretch the dough and make it too thin.

 

Q: What is a non-pizza menu item that is your favorite?

A: Our salads are a third of our business. I love a Greek salad with fresh tomatoes.

 

Q: How many pizzas can you eat in a sitting?

A: Two. Darko,[ Miličić] who used to play for the Timberwolves, would eat three and he came three times a week.

 

Q: Do you have a wood-fired oven at your house?

A: I don’t. Too lazy. I just go to Punch. John does though. It’s a lot of work. You have to start three hours [in advance] just to get it up to temperature. If you ask John I’ll bet he uses his at home more for fish and meat than roasting pizzas.

 

Q: Chipotle and Starbucks are siren calls for Punch because …?

A: We think Chipotle and Starbucks have done about the best job of anybody with real estate. If we can be in the same places they are, it means we’re doing a good job on real estate.

 

Q: If you could make a Hillary Clinton pizza, what would be on it?

A: The Margherita with buffalo mozzarella.

 

Q: A Bernie Sanders pizza?

A: He probably needs to spice things up a little bit, the Palermo.

 

Q: And the Donald Trump pizza, which I know would require prosciutto [ham]?

A: Something that costs a lot of money.

 

Q: Are you related to the late Kirby Puckett?

A: I wish I was. I tried to get him to sign a baseball mitt for us. When we got married some of my friends sent him that. I’m sure he got tons [of requests] so it got returned.

 

Q: Your daughters Chapel, now 16, and Carter, got a special look around White House when you went to D.C. in 2014 because you were getting a shout out during the 2014 SOTU address. Carter’s experience was a little more special.

A: The nice thing is they gave us two extra tickets to be part of a White House group while the State of the Union was going on. My wife and I watched it on our TV in the hotel room and our daughters (our kids are the same ages as the Obama girls) were in the White House. The First Lady spent time with all the, generally, children of the people in her box. She asked the kids what their favorite part of the White House was and Carter said it was the library. Michelle said, Is it because you like to read? and Carter said, “No,” and [Mrs. Obama] just cracked up.

With a smile Carter noted: “It is my personal shame.”

 

Interviews were edited. To contact C.J. try cj@startribune.com and to see her, check out Fox 9’s “Jason Show.”