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How Barbara Bush changed the life of a Syrian pizza baker

Ask anyone around Houston to name their favorite pizza joint, and the answer's likely to be unanimous: Fuzzy's in west Houston.

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Samira Said
Kaylee Hartung (CNN)
(CNN) — Ask anyone around Houston to name their favorite pizza joint, and the answer's likely to be unanimous: Fuzzy's in west Houston.

Ask the guy known as Fuzzy about his favorite customer, and the answer will surprise you: Barbara Bush.

Because if it weren't for her and her husband George H.W. Bush, Fawaz "Fuzzy" Hajjar says he wouldn't have the success he has today.

Hajjar immigrated from Syria with just $50 in his pocket and after years of scrimping and saving, opened a pizza shop. And then, Barbara Bush - during an appearance on David Letterman -- mentioned it as her favorite place to eat in Houston.

And the rest is history: a beautiful history of an American dream and a first lady who helped nurture it.

How they first met

After President George H.W. Bush left office, he and his wife moved to Houston. His office was down the street from Fuzzy's.

And one day, around 25 years ago, he came in for a slice.

That's when he learned how Hajjar came to America from Damascus with less than $100. How he learned to make pizzas in Chicago. How he moved to Houston with a dream to open a restaurant.

The President was enamored.

"When they found out his story; that he had come with $50 in his pocket here to go to a university to study, and what he's achieved over that period of time, they truly called him The American Dream," Hajjar's wife, Rita, told CNN.

The President would bring famous friends over, including the owners of the Houston Astros and the Houston Texans, and recount the story of Fuzzy's American Dream.

Business was good. But it exploded two years later after a Barbara Bush appearance on David Letterman's late-night talk show.

"We were listening to David Letterman and he asked her, I think, what was her favorite places to eat," Rita Hajjar said. "And she mentioned Fuzzy's."

That was in 1994. And things have never been the same.

"[My husband] said that really made his business go crazy when she mentioned that," she said.

How the shop remembers her

From the outside, Fuzzy's Pizza and Cafe looks pretty nondescript. The red and white sign claims it's the "Best Pizza in town."

But step inside and there's no escaping the impact the Bushes have had. An event space at the back of the restaurant is called the Bush Room. Photos of them hang there. And the most lasting reminder: pizzas named after the former President and First Lady.

The Barbara Bush Pizza has artichokes, spinach, mushrooms, chicken, and garlic. The President Bush Pizza has artichoke hearts, pepperoni, Canadian bacon, Italian sausage, green peppers, mushrooms, onions, and black olives.

"We made the pizza and we offered it to Barbara Bush and she fell in love with it," Fawaz Hajjar said proudly. "Since then she started telling us, 'Give me the one you made me last time," he said, smiling.

He asked if he could put it on the menu, and Barbara Bush thought it was a great idea. "Mrs. Bush I think she did so much for Fuzzy and I -- and she's still doing it. I mean, by her remembrance and allowing her name to be on the menu -- and look at all the customers and the response we're getting," Rita Hajjar said.

How Houston has responded

It's been busy at the shop this week.

The phone hasn't stopped ringing. Customers have been streaming in.

Rita Hajjar estimates that 70% of the customers who've been coming in since the former First Lady's passing have been ordering The Barbara Bush Pizza -- either a slice or the whole pie.

When asked why the Bushes were such big fans of their pizza, Rita Hajjar said they just loved her husband's secret ingredient. His pizzas, she said, are made with love. And she's sure the Bushes could taste it.

"Right here," Rita Hajjar said, motioning to a spot in the room dedicated to the Bushes, "I took a picture, I put it on our Facebook. That picture that I posted was exactly three years ago, April 17, 2015 - that was when we took the picture. And she passed away April 17, 2018."

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