Solar powered and community minded—Brooklyn Pizza Company brings New York-style pizza to Tucson, Arizona. Opened in 1996, the pizzeria is centered in the hip, eclectic business corridor of Fourth Avenue, nestled next to the University of Arizona (UofA). It’s usually a busy district of foot and street traffic, taking in the mix of restaurants, bars and shops.
Owner, Tony Vaccaro
But, the block was a buzz of construction during a Pizza Today visit this summer. Fourth Avenue was closed and the sidewalk in front of the pizzeria was a maze of fencing, weaving around the crossing street intersections. The beeping of steamrollers, bull dozens and dump trucks, the blowing dust and flurry of construction crews about, and Brooklyn Pizza Company remained open, even while some neighboring businesses closed.
The construction—continued through July— is part of a $196.8-million modern streetcar line transit system, that will link Fourth Avenue with UofA, downtown Tucson and the historic Westside. “The construction has hurt business obviously,” Vaccaro says. “It’s hard to get here.”
To accommodate Brooklyn’s customers, Vaccaro’s team put up signs to direct traffic to the building. He also sent out mailers with maps. Brooklyn ran a “Construction Special,” giving a free pint of its house-made Italian ice with any purchase over $15.
Even with Vaccaro’s efforts, Brooklyn’s sales were down 20 percent from its previous year during the street project. He says he was kept abreast of the streetcar updates and he sent a staff member to community meetings.
The inconveniences and loss in sales, Vaccaro says, will all be worth it. “Afterwards, business will be up 20 percent and that will last for many years to come,” he says, adding that a new residence hall being constructed a block away will also increase sales for the long run.
A sustainable transit system that improves the environment and reduces congestion is quite fitting for a pizzeria that was the first in southern Arizona to become 100-percent solar powered. When Vaccaro bought the building that housed his pizzeria and a neighboring nightclub SkyBar nearly six years ago, he immediately began to retrofit the facility with solar panels. Adding the units in three installations, the final stage was completed in 2010. The rooftops of Brooklyn and SkyBar are filled with solar panels. The last stage was its most creative. Vaccaro turned his parking lot into covered parking with panels lining the tops of custom parking structures. It’s become an added relief for customers in the sun-soaked desert.
Vaccaro was able to install the entire $600,000-solar system for $150,000, thanks to federal grants, state rebates and local power company rebates. He says the solar will be paid off within five to seven years, adding that the panels last more than 30 years. “It’s great on so many levels and the customers love it,” he says.
When patrons enter the 50-seat pizzeria, they can view Brooklyn’s live energy production on a wall-mounted monitor, along with rotating renewable energy facts. Having the monitor, Vaccaro says, gets a lot of attention. Customers are able to witness firsthand the impact of the system that * generates over 160,000 kilowatts of electricity per year, resulting in more than $488,000 in utility cost savings over the next 25 years. Going beyond solar, Brooklyn participates in other green programs including recycling, delivery service using a Smartcar and an electric Zap Car and water collection to run the water-cooling system for the Italian ice machine.
Vaccaro says, Brooklyn’s commitment to the environment is part the pizzeria’s unique selling proposition and separates it from competitors.
Brooklyn is also one of the few pizzerias in southern Arizona to have an open kitchen to the dining area where guests can watch the pizzaiolo hand-toss dough and make its New York-style pizza. A hard-working deck oven bakes a lot of pizza. Vaccaro says Brooklyn’s $2-million annual sales comes almost exclusively from pizza. “We keep it simple,” he says. “A lot of other places get convoluted with too many different things.”
Brooklyn doesn’t offer a long list of specialty pies, instead presents a list of toppings and lets customers pick their favorites on a slice or a whole pie (16 inches). A cheese pie costs $14.21, with an upcharge for additional toppings.
Recently, Brooklyn changed the way toppings are priced. Vegetable toppings are now priced several cents lower than meat toppings. “We know veggies are better for us than meat so I encourage people to eat the veggies,” he says. “Our costs are lower on veggies so why not pass that along to the customer.” In addition to meatless toppings like onions, peppers and mushrooms, Brooklyn also offers artichoke hearts, broccoli, potato and eggplant.
The pizzeria menus sandwiches, pastas, salads and house-made gelato and Italian ice for customers who want variety, but Brooklyn’s bread and butter is its pizza. For Vaccaro, “The cheese pizza is the tell-tell pizza because you can’t mask it with other toppings,” he says. “You can really taste the cheese, the sauce and the crust.”Cheese and pepperoni are the most popular toppings.
Though beer only comprises about seven percent of Brooklyn’s sales, Vaccaro says beer and wine make great upsell items. The pizzeria carries a special permit to deliver wine and beer. Deliveries account for one-third of Brooklyn’s sales.
It wasn’t a coincidence that Vaccaro, a native New Yorker, got into the pizza business. While attending a UofA graduate program, he decided that grad school wasn’t for him, but pizza may have been in his blood. His pizza recipe came from an old recipe his grandfather created for his own pizzeria in Brooklyn, New York in the 1970s.
Before opening Brooklyn, Vaccaro brought water from Tucson to New York to test his grandfather’s recipe. Within a few weeks, he comprised the recipe that would become a contender for “Best Of”Tucson in local media polls.
Word of mouth and advertising have been effective marketing strategies for Vaccaro. He concentrates marketing dollars towards monthly mailers sent out to 20,000-30,000 area residents, as well as bus bench, radio, television, online and alternative and collegiate newspaper advertising. Philanthropy is an area, while difficult to measure, Vaccaro says, ives people the opportunity to try ooklyn’s pizza. “We give away a lot of pizza every week,” he says. One of his favorite programs is the summer reading initiative at countywide libraries, where kids receive gift cards when they read a certain amount of books. “That amounts to almost $10,000 (retail value) worth of food for a summer that we gave away the last few years,” he says.
Brooklyn has donated pizza to a wide variety of events and organizations in Tucson from local government and non-profit organizations to schools kindergarten through graduate school. The Tucson community has taken notice of Brooklyn’s environmental and philanthropic efforts. In April, the shop received the Paw of Approval Award from Tucson’s Reid Park Zoo.
Brooklyn’s philosophy is not only good for business, but it’s good for the Tucson community and the environment.
Denise Greer is associate editor at Pizza Today.