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Ask some of the District’s smaller, family-owned pizza places about modern technology and they’ll tell you it’s creating more problems than solutions for their businesses. These are the kind of places that have delivered pies before the dawn of the internet, where a medium cheese pizza rarely costs more than $10 and a takeout counter is a prominent part of the decor.
Many of these places have been around for years and some are newcomers, but regardless of vintage, they’re all grappling with competition due to technology—from conveyor-belt kitchens that churn out custom pies in minutes to delivery apps that can broaden a venue’s reach for a high cost. Several owners of traditional D.C. pizza joints say the ones who succeed have the best grasp of social media, yet another technological friend or foe.
Although delivery apps such as UberEats promise to expand a pizza shop’s customer base far beyond what a small team of in-house drivers might be able to achieve, they come at a high cost. UberEats routinely takes 30 percent of the value of each order, the owners of several pizza shops in the city say. Pizzerias with just one or a handful of locations are operating on tight margins in a crowded field already, and that slice of profit could prove fatal.
“I don’t want to pay 30 percent to someone sitting in Silicon Valley,” says Atilla Suzer, owner of Bacio Pizzeria in Bloomingdale, which opened in November 2011. He’s already responsible for ingredients, rent, and employees’ salaries and doesn’t want to worry about an app siphoning off more money.
Fast-casual conveyor-belt or quick-fire pizza chains such as &pizza and Pidzza that promise quick service and customization are also a threat because they’ve taken over a sizable share of the pizza market. The lines, and the subsequently discarded black-and-white rectangular pizza boxes outside &pizza’s multiple D.C. locations, are but one testament to the chain’s popularity. Founder Michael Lastoria has secured more than $60 million from investment firms since 2015.
Other quick-service pizza shops in the region haven’t been so fortunate. Veloce opened in May 2015 and closed in December 2017; SpinFire’s Rosslyn branch opened in 2015 and closed at the end of last year; and Black Iron Pizza closed in February 2016 after less than a year in business.
Nevertheless, the growing success of &pizza has some local pizza vendors trying to find ways to distinguish themselves.
Sohail Ghani, owner of Pizzoli’s Pizzeria, operating in Logan Circle since 2010, laments the rise of conveyor-belt pizza and believes people are picking convenience over quality. “The only places doing good in D.C. are the modern concepts like &pizza or the places for the late-night drunk crowd,” he says. “It’s not the product they want, it’s the concept. They just want the most convenience.” Ghani adds that the competition has forced him to shrink his workforce from 24 to 10 employees.
But Ghani, Suzer, and other pizza shop owners aren’t giving up. They’re pushing back against the 21st century challenges to their businesses by relying on a well-worn motto: The customer is always right.
Several pizza makers hyperbolically say they stay profitable by turning their food into a near-religious experience, buying high quality ingredients and making everything in-house instead of relying on cheap but low quality products like jarred sauce.
“I need people to evangelize us, and to do that I have to inspire them,” says Mike Bozzelli of Bozzelli’s Deli. The family-run pizzeria with four locations was founded in 1978. “It’s people over pizza.” Bozzelli’s late father was Italian and his mother is Persian. “Cooking is in our blood. We’re a family with a love for food,” he says.
Pizza D’Oro co-owner Abdelilah Souada agrees that diner satisfaction equals success. He operates two locations in Northwest D.C. “It’s that connection with the customer that’s so important,” he says. “The customer is trusting you with something that is going in their body, and we respect that… I see the customers, my employees, everyone as a family.” The Moroccan-born business owner says it’s part of his culture to consider food a sacred thing.
Many of the owners interviewed for this story say they established a presence in their neighborhoods and maintain that visibility by building strong ties in the community. No app is able to provide that kind of hyper-local connection.
When Souada and his business partner launched the first Pizza D’Oro location in Shaw in 2011, they had support from many neighbors including Alexander Padro, the executive director of Shaw Main Streets. Padro’s organization helped with permits and other issues, and also promoted the pizza shop.
Pizza D’Oro has built a loyal local customer base including police officers; the LGBTQ crowd from Nellie’s Sports Bar and the since-shuttered Town Danceboutique; and those needing to refuel after standing in line for Drink Company’s rotating pop-up bar. Making and maintaining those connections is a vital part of staying viable, says Souada, who opened a second Pizza D’Oro at 3618 14th St. NW in 2016.
Suzer of Bacio Pizzeria agrees that even in a time when customers are glued to their phones and obsessed with convenience, face-to-face interactions are what he prefers and what he believes helps his business hum along.
His takeout and sit-down restaurant is heavily involved in local events. He provides free pizzas to volunteers participating in the Bloomingdale Civic Association’s annual home and tree box Beautification Day and sponsors the Bloomingdale toddler soccer league. “I like the neighborhood. I don’t see it as my business or my profit, I see it as the place where I have friends, not customers,” Suzer says.
The focus on preserving a community feeling is a major reason why Suzer only offers sit-down or carryout service at the restaurant and refuses to sign up for a delivery app. “Come in and pick up your pizza, let’s talk, let’s be social, let’s stop making everything online,” he says.
Other pizza vendors will do delivery, but they won’t sign up for UberEats and others because of the steep commission the app takes and uncertainty about the quality of drivers.
The only app Souada will use is Grubhub and even that is simply for taking orders. All deliveries are still completed by Pizza D’Oro’s in-house team. “I need to know my drivers because it represents me to the customer,” he says. A third-party driver connected via an app might “get greedy” and pick up two or three more deliveries before dropping off a Pizza D’Oro order. Having all delivery done by the Pizza D’Oro team gives Souada greater oversight.
Bozzelli isn’t as reluctant to use third-party delivery services, but that’s only if the drivers are good and the commission is reasonable. “We were initially excited about the reach of UberEats and thought it was a no-brainer,” but the 30 percent commission that the app wanted to take was not economically viable for Bozzelli’s, he says.
He partners exclusively with DoorDash, which has a “much more reasonable” revenue split that gives the app 25 percent on a delivery ordered through the app, 15 percent on delivery orders placed through the Bozzelli’s website, or just 5 percent for pick-ups at the store. Although the latter doesn’t involve any delivery, online orders still utilize Doordash’s technology.
Bozzelli’s early intrigue regarding apps’ ability to expand the reach of his company still lingers. He’s currently doing a cost-benefit analysis at his Springfield store to determine whether it makes more economic sense to use a third-party delivery app or have an in-house delivery team. “We have a data team working on this. It’s all empirical data, nothing anecdotal,” he says. It’s too early to share results.
Bozzelli’s has also adopted the conveyor-belt technology used at fast-casual spots like &pizza. “We dumped all our deck ovens, so all our stores have conveyors,” he says, praising the XLT oven made of the same stainless steel as a Delorean, the car made famous in Back to the Future. Bozzelli says he doesn’t feel like he’s sacrificing quality with the faster ovens because he still starts with high-quality ingredients.
Similarly, Bacio Pizzeria’s Suzer says he invests the money he saves by not doing delivery in prime produce such as cherry tomatoes and Amish mushrooms. “If you want to eat good pizza, come here. If you want greasy pizza, go to &pizza or Domino’s,” he says.
Ghani of Pizzoli’s Pizzeria laments what he sees as the crucial millennial market choosing the speed of conveyor-belt pizzas over the quality he says he can provide. “The small mom-and-pop pizza businesses are still figuring out how to survive, but we are surviving,” he says.
Though it’s challenging, he tries to keep up with the fast-casual eateries and new wave pizza places by utilizing social media. He has experimented with GoogleAds, Facebook, and Twitter, but says there is a steep learning curve for those whose knowledge is in the kitchen and not at a computer.
“English is not my first language and my spelling is horrible,” Ghani says. A few times on social media, people have made fun of his typos. But he keeps trying, with a strong belief in the quality of his product and his ability to win converts if they can just find his pizza place in a self-described “very hard” location. “My specialty is making a good pizza.”
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