Hit By Pandemic, Local Pizzerias Relying on Community Support

(Updated 12/22/2020) Like many independently-owned restaurants, the pandemic has taken a giant slice of revenue from local pizzerias. Owners in the Tysons area say “tremendous” community support is the key ingredient helping them survive.

Tysons Reporter talked to five owners to find out what it’s like running an independent pizzeria during the pandemic. All but one of the restaurants are currently open and taking orders.

Most of the owners noted they saw prices soar for popular pizza ingredients. “Cheese and pepperoni are through the roof,” Marty Volk, the owner of Church Street Pizzeria and Lombardi’s Pizza in Vienna, said. “The pricing almost doubled.”

Some pizzerias chose to raise their prices, while others didn’t. “If you don’t increase the price of your pizza with the cheese doubling, you’re just taking profit out of our pocket so you have to pass it on to the customer,” Volk said, adding that pizzas with cheese now cost an additional $0.75.

Here’s what the owners had to say about how they have adapted their operations to keep making the dough and why they are grateful for the local community.

Rocco’s Italian Restaurant (McLean)

“I didn’t think we were going to make it,” Mike Juliano, the owner of Rocco’s Italian Restaurant in McLean, told Tysons Reporter in mid-August.

Known for its pizza, meatballs and meat sauce, the restaurant has been serving the McLean community since 1977. When the pandemic prompted rising cheese prices and the disappearance of dine-in customers, the restaurant took to GoFundMe to ask for donations.

A Washington Post article on March 30 featured Rocco’s along with other local businesses trying to survive the pandemic.

“I said when that paper came out, I thought it was going to be over,” Juliano said. “I’ve come a long way as it may be. It’s just time to throw in a towel and it literally wouldn’t be my fault. You know, it such a hard business.”

Things started to improve after the Washington Post article. Juliano said he saw a “record day” for take-out and delivery orders when the article got published and has seen a continuous outpouring of community support.

“Fortunately for us, pizza and pasta travel well, so instead of, like 70% [dine-in], 30%, carry out like it usually was before, now it’s 70% out and 30% in,” Juliano said.

Though not a lot of people are coming to the restaurant, the business is “pretty steady” now thanks to community support, he said.

“I got the best clientele in the world pretty much, and we’ve had a lot of support from the community to help us get through this,” Juliano said. “I don’t think we could have made it without it.”

The restaurant raised just more than $15,000 through the GoFundMe, and the community support — including kids going with their parents to hand Juliano $100 bills for the restaurant — has been “tremendous,” he said. “You’re just humbled by stuff like that.”

The family-run restaurant turns out to also have some lucky qualities that helped it adapt, like not having to negotiate the rent with a landlord.

“My dad bought the property for $100,000 — $50,000 down,” Juliano said. “I don’t have an outrageous mortgage like everybody else does.”

Juliano benefitted from the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and the restaurant’s outdoor patio. Like other restaurants getting creative with how to attract customers, Rocco’s decided to sell pizza kits.

“I think the pizza places have been the most popular during the pandemic,” Juliano said. “You know, it’s really good comfort food.”

While people around the world panic-bought toilet paper and hand sanitizer, Juliano said locals stocked up on quarts of the meat sauce for home cooking.

Now, Juliano said the restaurant’s sales are about 10%-15% off and that he’s still missing the profit from dine-in alcohol, wine and beer sales.

“We just need to get the people back in here and get them drinking,” he said.

When Tysons Reporter interviewed Juliano on Tuesday, Aug. 12, he said it had been the restaurant’s busiest day so far in the last five months with 10 tables filled, “which is a lot right now” in the 85-seat establishment.

“Fortunately, we’ll still alive,” Juliano said. “We still have a heartbeat.”

Andy’s Pizza (Tysons)

Andy’s Pizza isn’t open currently in Tysons Galleria’s Urbanspace, but founder Andy Brown plans to start serving customers again “very soon.”

While the Tysons reopening is still to-be-determined, Andy’s Pizza has reopened in the Navy Yard and Shaw neighborhoods in D.C., Brown said.

The Tysons location (2001 International Drive) was the very first one for Andy’s Pizza. After opening in December 2018, the pizzeria expanded into D.C. and Alexandria, targeting places where people congregated in pre-pandemic times — offices, clubs and Nationals Park, Brown said. Andy’s Pizza attracted “vast majority” of customers with dine-in seating, corporate event catering and the bars, he noted.

Now with the crowds gone, Andy’s Pizza has seen an “enormous drop” in revenue, but the neighborhood business has done well so far with regular customers and large tips, Brown said. The reopened locations are operating with a trimmed down menu to reduce the number of perishable items and a smaller staff.

Even though two D.C. locations have reopened, Brown said that dining out is not as fun as it used to be.

“The experience is nowhere near as good as pre-pandemic,” Brown said.

On the upside, Brown said he was able to give most of the staff a raise — “I wanted to make sure the team knew their work was appreciated during these times.”

They also no longer have to make their own hand sanitizer from Everclear and vodka.

Brown said he’s excited about the upcoming launch of the Maryland Blue Crab Pizza — especially since he grew up in Maryland — and returning to farmers markets to get heirloom tomatoes.

As the pandemic continues, Brown said he is concerned about whether a surge will prompt new business restrictions, which he said are expensive for restaurants to adjust to.

“Not knowing what phase is next is hard,” he said. While restaurants could be leaving money off of the table by not offering indoor dining, Brown said “it’s encouraging to see operators who don’t move on to the next phase.”

Ultimately, Brown wants customers to continue to support struggling small businesses.

“I hope they pick us over Sbarro,” Brown said. “I know [Andy’s Pizza is] more expensive and probably less convenient.”

PizzaRoni (Vienna)

PizzaRoni opened its doors at 235 Maple Ave E. in late April as COVID-19 cases surged in Northern Virginia.

Kasim Kurd, who first opened PizzaRoni in Albany, New York, bought the Maple Avenue spot in February and moved to Vienna, he wrote in an email. His original plan was to open the pizzeria in early March, but between the “time-consuming and complicated” process to get permits in Fairfax County and the pandemic, the debut got delayed.

“I waited until the end of April, hoping that it would end, but of course, it did not,” Kurd said. “Given that we all realized that COVID-19 was here to stay, I opened the business anyway.”

Kurd made some changes to adapt to the pandemic, like downsizing the menu and offering curbside pick-up, in addition to take-out and delivery.

The revenue has been worse than Kurd expected, noting that spring revenue is usually better than summer for small businesses. The biggest surprise has been uncertainty around sales each week.

“Since the beginning of the pandemic, I have no idea what will happen today or tomorrow, on Friday nights, or on Monday afternoons,” Kurd said. “Just like the stock market, it is now very hard to predict.”

On top of the sales, prices for cleaning supplies, masks, cheese, pepperoni, sausage and meatball have increased and can be hard to find in stores, Kurd said.

“The trend shows no sign of reversing,” Kurd said. “However, we did not reflect this on the pizza prices as we are waiting for prices to drop. Well, we are hoping.”

Even with the pandemic, he said he’s glad he moved to Vienna and opened a business there.

“I opened many businesses in many different towns during my 18 years, but I have never seen a town that supports its small businesses as much as Vienna,” Kurd said, adding that the town’s businesses are interdependent on each other.

“As a family, we are extremely happy to be here,” Kurd said. “We made the right decision.”

Lombardi’s Pizza and Church Street Pizzeria (Vienna)

Even though he’s lost sales from corporate sponsors, students and sports teams, Marty Volk has managed to keep his two pizzerias and the Vienna Inn open during the pandemic. Church Street Pizzeria has been open for 14 years, while Lombardi’s Pizza has been in the town for seven years, Volk said.

To help fill the void of very little day business currently, he pivoted the restaurant staff to making and donating more than 2,400 first responder meals — worth roughly $25,000.

“Most of the meals are donated and delivered during the day,” Volk said. “And we kept all our staff on and because of a lack of business during the day, we haven’t had to bring on extra help to make the meals, and we haven’t had to let anybody go. So it’s worked out well.”

The first responder meals have been a hit around Vienna as locals pour in donations to keep the efforts going.

“All the money we get from anybody goes to responder meals or fire and rescue and the hospitals,” Volk said, sharing some examples: A 7-year-old boy named Jack raised $1,200 with a basketball fundraiser he threw with his friends. The owner of a local printing business and the Vienna Little League both made t-shirts that helped raise money for Volk’s businesses to make the first responder meals. A fireman and his mom donated their stimulus checks from the government earlier this year.

The pizzerias are still feeding customers, but it’s not the same as pre-pandemic times. Both pizza places are closing earlier in the evenings because Volk isn’t seeing orders come in after 8:30 p.m. While Church Street Pizzeria used to have its seven tables packed, hardly anyone is dining inside now, Volk said.

“It’s better to lose your day business because you can keep your head a little bit above water if you keep your dinner business,” Volk said.

Crust Pizzeria Napoletana (Tysons)

People used to have to wait for a table at Crust Pizzeria Napoletana, which used to be packed on Friday nights and could seat 78 people, Fred Bazzaz said. While most people might equate pizzerias with delivery, Bazzaz said Crust’s service was 70% dine-in before the pandemic.

“On the weekends especially, it was maybe 85% dine-in and 15% take-out and delivery, so now they have reversed,” Bazzaz said, noting that roughly 90% of the pizzeria’s sales are now take-out orders.

It took a while for the pizzeria to adjust to the pandemic. In March, Crust closed for a week before reopening and slowly bringing back its menu and hours.

Bazzaz said his business, which has been around for nearly five years, has been able to stay open because of the PPP and the landlord allowing them to delay six months of their rent and pay it back starting next year in increments.

“A good chunk of the business has come back but it would not have been possible to stay in business without the government help,” Bazzaz said, adding that the loan allowed him to hire back his employees after the short closure.

While the large dining room is no longer packed like it used to be, Bazzaz said there’s definitely enough space to keep people 6 feet apart when they come to pick up their orders or dine-in.

Bazzaz said he’s also grateful for the loyal customers who keep coming back for the gourmet pizza. Crust’s focus on Neopolitan pizza, which has more moisture and chewier crusts than typical American pizzas, sets it apart from other pizza places, he said.

“It’s a little bit more expensive than the average pizza, so sometimes we get negative comments in the form of reviews from some of the patrons,” he said. “They say they’ll never come back here: ‘Pizza is too small for the price,’ etc. but they don’t realize that they’re having high-quality pizza with flour imported from Italy, tomatoes imported from Italy.”

As the coronavirus pandemic continues, Bazzaz said he’s concerned about COVID-19 mixed with flu season: “This virus is going to be mistaken with the regular flu. His biggest worry is that an employee will get sick and that the restaurant will have to shut down.

“But we’re hopeful at this time at the pace it’s going — it’s going to get better and better,” Bazzaz said. “It’s showing signs of improvement in the last six months.”

Rocco’s photo via Rocco’s Italian Restaurant/Facebook, Andy’s Pizza photo courtesy David Endres, PizzaRoni photo via Vienna VA Foodies/Facebook, Lombardi’s photo via Lombardi’s/Facebook, Crust photos via Crust Pizzeria Napoletana/Facebook

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