Small Town Heroes
Mom and pop restaurants have been hit considerably hard by COVID-19. In rural communities, the small businesses are the backbone of their towns. Challenges seem insurmountable but somehow these small-town heroes find a way to stay relevant and serve their communities.
We reached out to five pizzerias in small towns across the country to share stories of their obstacles and their unique markets.
Viola’s Pizza Company sits in the tiny town of Viola, Tennessee, population 132. Brian and Sara Covert weren’t accustomed to rural life or running a restaurant when they moved to Viola and opened their pizzeria. They jumped in feet first. Viola’s has become the spot that the community gathers over good food.
Compared to Viola, Cordova, Alaska seems like a bustling metropolis with its population of 2,160. Armed with service backgrounds, Brian Wildrick and wife Lindsay Butters opened Harborside Pizza over 13 years ago in a place with no roads that connect to other Alaskan towns.
Two Harbors, Minnesota is a tourist town with permanent resident population of 3,500. Luke and Marita Klevgaard first opened a coffee and tea shop but needed to find a more sustainable business, and The Northshore Pizza Café & Coffee House was born. Much of its sales come from the swelled tourism summer season.
Leadville, Colorado is the highest incorporated city in the U.S. with a population of 2,700 and home to High Mountain Pies. Vicki and Tim Koch are owner and operators sharing in its daily operation. High Mountain Pies also depends on travelers from area resort towns.
Jimmy Menacho saw a void of New York-style pizza in his small town of Danielson Connecticut, population 4,009. Since living in NYC as a child, Menacho dreamed of opening a NY-style pizzeria.
A common thread between all of these small-market mom and pops is the vital importance of word of mouth, a social media presence and flexibility in operating hours. They share stories of staying relevant and addressing struggles. We asked:
How are you able to stay relevant in a fast-changing industry?
Sara Covert: “While the industry does change fast, we still move at a slower pace in our community. We keep ourselves up-to-date with the industry but strategically present those changes to our customers. For example, in non-traditional ingredients, we sold microgreens on our pizzas and received positive feedback. While those microgreens will not become a shop favorite or even a regular menu item, using them on a limited availability basis makes them more appreciated.
We make our own sausage. The non-GMO pork is from the farm of some kids that played on a basketball team we coached. We have neighbors growing produce for us. So, heirloom tomatoes, green peppers, onions and other seasonal favorites sourced locally are trendy for most, but for us it is about supporting the community that supports us too.
In sticking with our desire for customer experience, we do not have online ordering and we still use five-part order slips. This requires us to have that personal communication that is so vital to our shop. We are able to stay relevant while continuing with the things that are timeless values of a mom & pop shop!”
Brian Wildrick: “We are able to stay relevant by serving a timeless and traditional food; hand-tossed, wood-fired pizza. We offer creative and delicious specials and have established a trust with our guests. Great service and attention to detail never goes out of style and that keeps our customers coming back year after year. We have also branched out into the Kombucha Trend, providing a home for Darling’s Ferments, run by Rachel Hoover, an Alaska Native woman. She handcrafts Kombucha, fermented veggies and vinegar. She recently landed a deal with Mother Superior and is about to enter markets in California and Washington. We are proud to be home to her wonderful products.”
Marita Klevgaard: “With the challenges of COVID-19 we adjusted our menu, but more importantly we did a major renovation on our building. This past summer we tore down part of our building to create a pizza pick-up window, allowing our customers to walk up and order safely and with our fantastic winter months allow window pick up from their vehicles. We have upgraded our website to allow for online ordering.”
Vicki Koch: “The basic ingredients of running a pizza shop – dough, sauce, cheese, fire, respect for the customers we serve, and love for our employees, don’t vary with industry trends. We committed to a level of quality which we work hard to maintain. Consistent quality keeps our customers loyal. The details, the fun pizza toppings, such as Peppadew peppers or roasted red grapes, keep our customers interested. Tim and I really enjoy eating out at all kinds of restaurants. We seek out good food wherever we travel. Benchmarking at trendy spots in Denver, Mexican restaurants in New Mexico, or a new vegan cafe, exposes us to new flavors and ingredients. We must be the most annoying dining companions because we tend to analyze every part of the meal, from the weight of the forks to the width of the lettuce chiffonade.”
Jimmy Menacho: “We stay relevant by involving the community and making them feel like part of our family. We do contests on social media, kids-themed days, couples’ events, etc. to bring in business. We also have a pizza trailer to take NYPC on the road if needed. On the product side of things, we create some clever, creative and of course delicious dishes and pizzas. Our 28 tap lines don’t hurt either!”
What is the biggest struggle you face as a small market mom and pop shop?
Sara Covert: “Sourcing high-quality food products has been our biggest struggle. We are small and in a rural
location, so we do not have a lot of leverage to get the products that we see in the trade magazine or sample at Pizza Expo. We do strive to select what is the best of the products that are readily available to us though, and sometimes this means an hour drive each way to pick up some of those products.
As much as we love our customers and location, we certainly aren’t convenient for most people. A trip to our shop is not a spur-of-the-moment decision. If someone comes out our way, they are coming for pizza. We make all of our dough in-house, so we occasionally run out. This is good for us as we have no waste, but we also have to turn customers away. Everyone usually understands but we hate to tell folks we’ve run out.”
Brian Wildrick: “The biggest struggle we face is recruiting and retaining staff. Maximizing the space we have is difficult when there is just mom and pop. Balancing family time and work is a constant challenge, and in the time of COVID, it is even more challenging to expand services and train employees. Housing is expensive and limited, the weather is often rainy, and living here isn’t for everyone. On the other hand, for the right person, it can be a wonderful adventure and opportunity to cook for a captive audience, learn new skills, and have fun.”
Marita Klevgaard: “Our biggest struggle is the size of our town in the lean winter months and the arrival of a franchise chain pizza place this fall. Add the challenges of COVID-19 restrictions from our Governor, and the lean winter months have become do or die. We could depend on the winter weekend bumps of hockey teams, skiers and weddings. The challenge is adjusting to the lack of big catering orders due to COVID restrictions.”
Vicki Koch: “It’s a challenge to find staff that is willing to invest themselves fully in our operation. Experienced cooks want to make their mark over in one of the resort kitchens. Young folks only want to make a buck while waiting for a “real job” to come their way. People tend to think, ‘It’s just Leadville’, or ‘it’s just pizza’. For us, the pizza place is our whole lives. Our reputations are affected by every pizza we serve. It seems like every time we mess up an order, I hear about it in the grocery store. Our challenge is to help our staff realize the joy of a job well done. Practicing excellence working at a pizza joint in the middle of nowhere can provide skills to succeed anywhere.”
Jimmy Menacho: “Our biggest struggle being a small business is a loaded question now with COVID. Obviously that has been our biggest struggle yet, and I hope that all remaining small businesses can survive this. Aside from the pandemic, a struggle has been competing with national chains. We know we have a superior product. We use fresh ingredients and put a very good recipe and product in front of people, and we just hope they realize the difference.”