In uncertain times, pizzerias are learning to adapt
We were all devastated. It was clear that Pizza Expo wasn’t going to happen at the end of March 2020. Even as news of the postponement landed, we were only beginning to realize the epic change on the way. All we knew was that we didn’t really know anything.
By the time you read this we probably won’t have many answers, only more questions about how to live with a pandemic. Restaurants are barred from offering table service, so fine dining is shot. They’re closing their doors and asking the public to cover their payroll. Pivoting to a takeout and delivery model is beyond comprehension for many of them. For pizzerias, however, pivoting is the name of the game.
I saw my first ray of hope on social media, where amid all the panic and confusion there was a spark of positivity from pizzerias. Not only were many still operating, some were even thriving! I saw photos of tables that weren’t bare, they were covered with stacks of pizza boxes. I saw creative uses of social media to announce new hours and policies. I saw announcements from just about every pizzeria I know proclaiming their brand-new product: the contact-free, contamination-free build-your-own pizza kit. Pizzerias clearly didn’t get the message that it was time to slow down.
Not everybody thought it was possible to keep going. Some of the biggest names in the pizza business struggled with a shift. Pizzeria operators, already an extremely social set, traded messages and ideas even more freely than ever. I’ve never seen such a quick swell of cooperative support, with owners checking in on each other and sharing advice for staying alive. Late night text messages and phone calls probably even saved some businesses. I spoke with one owner who told me he stayed afloat thanks to some advice he received two decades prior:
“When the floor moves, you move with it.”
There are some undeniable traits that most successful operators share. You feed off the kinetic energy of a busy Friday night. You look for ways to challenge yourself and each other. When you’re in someone else’s shop, you want to get your hands into the dough. You don’t like standing still. You don’t see yourselves as doing anything alone. The best operators are the ones that see the bigger picture, not the ones who see only what’s in front of them. The best operators move with the floor.
One of my mentors in the pizza business laughs when the seriousness of the industry goes too far. “We’re not saving lives here, we’re making pizza,” he says whenever the industry starts to take itself too seriously. But this time he might be wrong. Pizza is a pretty universal comfort — and right now that’s precisely what everybody on the planet needs. It may not save anyone’s life, but it certainly serves a larger role than most foods. Great pizza is comfort. Great pizza is honesty. Great pizza makers bring consistency in an inconsistent world, as you always have.
Scott Wiener is the founder of Scott’s Pizza Tours in New York City and SliceOutHunger.org.