Il Pizzaiolo / YNOT Pizza & Italian Cuisine

feature, November 2012, Il Pizzaiolo Tony and Harry Disilvestro aren’t your typical beach town residents. their company, Ynot Pizza & Italian Cuisine, doesn’t cater to the hoards of tourists who fill Virginia Beach during the warm months. they don’t cater to spring breakers, and they don’t feature portraits of sandy scenery on their walls. What they do bring to the proverbial table is a taste of home –– the Jersey shore, about a 20-minute drive outside of New York, where they spent their formative years spinning pies before transplanting to Virginia beach in the early 1990s.

“We started as kids, you know, 15 years old (and) making pizza,” tony says. “A friend of the family just kind of roped us in at a young age, and we’ve been doing it ever since. We’ve just run the gamut from there –– fine dining, Italian restaurants, pizzerias …we’ve probably (worked in) 20 different pizzerias.”

When the time came to open their own, “at first, we thought we were going to open up and people were going to come to the counter and order,” Tony adds. “The first customer came in and sat down at the table, and all of a sudden we have waitress service.”

The company was founded by tony and his wife, Cindy. Harry Disilvestro later joined the couple in the venture, which has since evolved to five pizzerias in the region with sales expected at more than $9.5 million by the end of 2012. “Our demographic is families, obviously,” says Tony.

“That’s where we like to be.” still the most recent location opened on the campus of old Dominion University, so they’re able to target both students and neighborhoods. Dine-in accounts for 50 percent of sales, with delivery at 30 percent and carryout at about 20 percent.

YNOT Pizza dining room

YNOT’s menu started with pizza and pasta but has evolved to include appetizers, chopped salads, pasta creations, plated entrées like veal Parmigiana and mussels marinara, cold and hot subs, gluten-free pizzas (up
to 70 a week) wraps and desserts ––including house-made gelato. “We’re just constantly making sure that the brand is fresh and new,” says tony. “That’s very important to us. we don’t sit still well.”

Harry is quick to add that “we never jeopardize quality. it’s always been to improve quality and service.” “I think the second you start sitting idle, you’re in trouble,” Tony adds, “especially in this changing industry that we’re in today.”

Pizza accounts for 40- to 50-percent of sales, and they make as much in- house as possible, including dough, sauces, lasagna and soups. “obviously, pizza is our no. 1 item,” Tony says, and while pepperoni is an obvious choice, the white pizza with spinach and tomato ($15.50 for a 14-inch and $18.50 for an 18-inch) is popular.

YNOT Pizza desserts

They added chopped salads, which lend a healthier option to their menu to keep up with customer demand. (the Cindy salad, a greek salad named after Tony’s wife, is a favorite.) the chopped salad menu offers 36 different options from which to choose, “and it’s just opened us up to a whole different market,” Tony says.

“We started looking at other chains and seeing what they were doing and their positioning towards, say, women and athletes and helping people try to be healthy. it was pretty obvious that being in the pizza industry, we didn’t have that appeal.”

Since pizza already encourages customization, adding that create-your-own element to both their salads and pastas has allowed them a greater market share. “It really comes down to (the fact that) the customer has many choices and they’re not just stuck to a menu,” harry says. “you can truly create your own meal.”

Ynot has impressive display cases in its stores that show off their desserts, which includes cakes, cookies and pastries sourced from New Jersey, New york and local bakeries. They used to make their own because “when we first opened down here, we didn’t have the availability,”Tony says. “So now, with distributors consolidating as much as they are, it’s much easier to bring in product from New York and New Jersey.”

Beer, wine and a full bar are available but make up only about 10 percent of sales. Much of that is craft beer. with 40 different offerings from which to choose, “it’s just a huge niche market for us,” Tony says.

“For years, you paired wine with food,” harry says. “now it’s getting to the point where our servers are actually savvy enough to start pairing beer with certain dishes.”

While making so much in-house is labor intensive, “Tony and I are out there every day trying to find the best prices that we can get for the best product out there that we can get,” Harry says. “And that’s a big part of our job every week.”

They use their POS system to keep track of labor and food costs “and we apply that to our everyday business not only with us but with our managers at weekly meetings –– knowing where their food cost is and where the labor cost is,” Harry says. “It’s a daily conversation at our restaurants.”

Harry says utilizing their Pos system is key to keeping track of rising costs and encourages other operators to learn how to best utilize their own equipment. “I do think there are a lot of people out there who do spend a lot of money (on POS systems) and don’t get a lot of bang for their buck.”

YNOT Pizza milkshake

Ynot also has one manager for every 10 staff members, “and they really keep a close eye on their scheduling and overtime predictors,” Tony says. Management is open with the company’s 260 employees, and shares those critical food and labor numbers with them to foster a sense of awareness and responsibility. “in the restaurant business, that day-to- day operation can be overwhelming to the point where you’re not taking the time to look at those numbers,” Harry says.

Cross-utilizing products, such as using some salad ingredients on pizzas and receiving deliveries twice a week, ensures freshness. “We try not to keep (product) more than three days on our shelves,” Tony says.

YNOT Pizza pasta dish

And when it comes to getting the word out about YNot, they don’t shy away from marketing, “which is huge for us,” Tony says. “We do a ton of social media, e-mail blasts, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest … If there’s something new out there, we’re trying it.”

“Probably about four years ago we realized we were doing the same thing year after year and how quick everything was changing,” adds harry. they dropped more traditional marketing avenues, such as the local telephone book, in favor of more dynamic opportunities and they hired an outside company to manage most of their media. still, word of mouth remains their best marketing outlet. as part of their brand awareness, they hold events with local college and sports teams, participate in the special olympics and charity walks and even host their own event, known as the Ynot Pizza olympics (contestants attend qualifying events similar to those at the world Pizza games at international Pizza expo at each store before competing at a local italian festival.) “that’s the kind of branding that we do,” Tony says. “we’re all about the community.”

E-mail blasts have been successful –– packed with videos from their events –– and online ordering adds $2 to $3 to each guest check. “retaining e-mail addresses is a huge part of our business,” Tony says.

The DiSilvestros own the majority of the stock in their restaurants, with three franchised by long-term employees. “Expansion is coming from our employees. it’s coming from within,”tony says. “these people have been standing beside us for 60 hours a week for 19 years and when you put them in their own store, they know the business, and they know it well.”

Says Harry: “I think you always hear about owners who start multiple locations and spread themselves out too thin. with all of our other locations, there’s peace of mind knowing somebody’s doing the right job on the other side of town.” they’ve had locations with partners in the past but found it difficult to control brand consistency. Franchising with their own employees seems to work and a sixth location is under negotiation, but “we’ll never expand faster than our crew,” tony says. “Our expansion plans are just to continue growth and to control growth.”

The focus, say the Disilvestros, is quality over quantity, and they’re not out actively selling franchises just for the sake of expansion. “we could stop now if we wanted,” harry says, “but as long as these employees are coming up and they’re willing to march on with us, let’s do it.”

Mandy Detwiler is managing editor of Pizza Today.