Nostalgia can bring in big bucks
When I think of the best pizza cities, Scranton, Pennsylvania, does not come to mind. Yet, I found it impossible to disagree with a recent tour guest who pledged pizza allegiance to her hometown. I wasn’t about to challenge her, partially because it’s silly to argue about a subjective opinion, but also because it’s futile to debate with someone else’s memory. Nostalgia is a powerful influencer with food because we attach so many memories to taste. Rather than forcing customers to update their palates, some pizzerias have found success leveraging their patrons’ penchant for the past.
The menu at Santillo’s Brick Oven Pizzeria in Elizabeth, New Jersey, is a masterpiece of time travel. Each specialty pizza is named for the year in which it was popular. The “1940” comes with no cheese, just sauce; the “1948” adds grated cheese; the 1967 has sauce on top of the cheese; and the crust on the “1990” is soft (aka “American style”). Owner Al Santillo didn’t intentionally create a historic menu; it developed organically over the years as customers asked for recreations of the pizzas they ate as kids. The same thing happened at Metro Pizza in Las Vegas. Founders John Arena and Sam Facchini opened their business in the early 1980s as a New York-style pizzeria because that’s the model they grew up with. When they noticed that their clientele came from different cities, each with a different indigenous style, they broadened their offerings to include several hometown favorites.
Food isn’t the only aspect of the restaurant experience that sends us back to simpler times. The owners of Scarr’s Pizza in Manhattan’s Lower East Side modeled every aspect of their restaurant after the slice shops of their youth. It’s the kind of place any kid growing up in the New York area in the 80s and 90s would recognize: wood paneling on the walls, stained glass ceiling lamps, faux wooden tables with attached benches, and a fruit punch percolator sitting on the linoleum counter. They even went so far as to frame articles about the 1986 Mets and a photo of the pre-9/11 skyline. The only thing missing is an arcade game in the corner. Scarr’s looks the part of an old-school slice shop because its owners wanted to resurrect the vibe they enjoyed as kids.
Looking back is a major trend right now, but you don’t have to rewrite your entire menu or hire an interior designer from 1972 if you want to bask in the glow of yesteryear. Social media was practically designed to make it easy to share embarrassing images from the past. If you have pictures of your hideous interior from 1982, post them on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook so your customers will get a chuckle and you’ll remind them how long you’ve been around. Make a habit of sharing them every Thursday with the hashtag #tbt (Throwback Thursday) and you might even see your follower count increase.
Never underestimate the value of reminiscence. Food is as much a comfort to the soul as it is nourishment for the body. Whether you’re recreating someone else’s memories or sharing your own, think of nostalgia as a tool in your pizzeria’s arsenal of marketing and culinary options.
Scott Wiener is the founder of Scott’s Pizza Tours in New York City and SliceOutHunger.org.