Photos by Josh Keown
Sunny San Jose, California, is a Mecca for technology and six figure paychecks. But look beyond the corporate entities that dot its landscape and you’ll find a fairly small community of locals who couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. Among those are the Salciccia family, who own and operate Tony & Alba’s Pizza & Pasta, a three-unit company that opened in 1982 with just two picnic tables and a brick oven. A carpenter by trade, Tony says he was never a true chef, but he liked to cook and at the prodding of his children began looking for a small operation of his own.
“When he would cook for us, we got excited because we would get something special,” says daughter Diana Vallorz, who serves as the company’s treasurer. Tony’s wife, Alba, used to make pizzas at home, and the family lucked into a small shop in Mountain View, California.
“It was a one-man show,” Tony says. And even though the country was in the midst of a recession, Diana says overhead was low since the whole family pitched in. “They all had boyfriends then, and they’d get to go out with the girls if they came in and worked,” Tony laughs.
In 1990, the family opened its second location in San Jose, and a third location in Santa Cruz opened just a year later. By the mid-1990s, Tony & Alba’s had expanded to seven locations and a commissary with plans to franchise. “We had the idea that we’d take off and do a big chain,” Tony says, “but it never materialized.”
Why? Son Anthony Salciccia says the dot-com bust happened, taking with it the company’s expansion plans. “We grew with it,” he says, “and we downsized with the economy.” Today, Tony & Alba’s has three stores with a combined sales of nearly $3 million. Three generations of Salciccia family members man the helms, and the company now serves the children and grandchildren of its original customers.
“Most of our customers are repeat customers and loyal throughout these 25 years,” says son-in-law Al Vallorz, who married the Salciccias’ daughter, Diana.
The company employs 65 people, including several who have been with the family for nearly 15 years. Delivery is available, and while corporate deliveries aren’t as popular as they used to be given the declining economy, Diana says they have a fair number of hospitals to make up for the local decline in technology companies.
“A lot of the electronic companies put in their own cafeterias,” Anthony says, “but they still call us for our pizza.” Some of those include Yahoo!, Microsoft, Netscape and eBay. At lunch, corporate catering can comprise as much as 50 to 60 percent of sales depending on location.
With three stores, Tony & Alba’s sees a rather diverse crowd –– you’re likely to see construction workers on their lunch break next to a table of corporate office staff with plenty of young families at night. Beer and wine are available, but Al says the company chooses to be more family-oriented. “We’re not 50 beers on the wall, everybody screaming and yelling,” he says. “Obviously, a lot of the sports bars are still doing well –– people sitting around drinking beer (and watching the television). We’re just more family-oriented.”
“We have people who brought their children in here when they were little,” Alba says, “and now they’re older themselves and they all come in here now.” For example, the family says a loyal patron passed on and the company catered the funeral. Weeks later, the family dined in one of the restaurants to pay tribute to their loved one. That level of familiarity –– such as one customer who lost his wife and now dines at one location every night –– has endeared Tony & Alba’s to its patrons.
“We have customers that if we don’t see them, we get worried,” Diana says.
The family’s menu is extensive, ranging from appetizers and soups to salads, a large pasta and pizza menu and a number of sandwiches. Pizza comprises approximately 60 percent of sales, and the company is especially proud of its dough: it is raised twice for crispness and served three days after it is mixed. Most everything is made in-house, including sauce made from Alba’s family recipes in Italy and using tomatoes sourced from the San Joaquin Valley.
The company’s signature dressing –– made with extra-virgin olive oil, red wine vinaigrette, Italian herbs and spices and garlic –– is so popular that the company began bottling and selling it in-house. “We’re famous for our salad dressing,” Tony says. “People come from all over just for our salads.”
Al says that many customers are loyal to their personal favorites, and adds that it can be diffi cult to get those people to try other menu items. “We have really good pasta,” he says, “but everybody knows us (for our) pizza. They come in and it’s ‘pizza, pizza, pizza!’ ” To tackle that, they began passing out samples of their pasta offerings, and saw sales of those menu items rise. “We do good with our lunch specials with pastas and sandwiches. Our pasta is as good as any fancy restaurant,” Anthony adds. The company offers four pre-fixed lunch specials from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. priced at $7.25 with a drink.
When it comes to marketing, Tony & Alba’s takes a straightforward approach using Val-Pak, money mailers and box-top promotions. Recently, they added a V.I.P. (Very Important Paesano) club that has yielded 3,000 members and offers the company the ability to e-mail personalized gift certificates and coupon rebates in the form of percentages back and special offers. Personalized mailers have been a successful marketing tool for them as well.
“There are three ways to increase your sales,” Al says. “New people, get people to come in more often (which the mailers do) and get people to spend more.” Direct mail drives in customers, and the company then in turn gets those diners to sign up for the V.I.P. loyalty program. It has been successful, Anthony says. “We were paying a lot of money for Yellow Pages and it wasn’t really generating that much.”
Another successful ploy, Diana says, was trading pizza to feed local university ballplayers in return for acknowledgement during games.
Tony and Alba’s emphasis on “Good Food, Great Friends, Great Times!” has proved that their three restaurants are capable of withstanding at least two recessions. They don’t have any plans to open any more stores in the near future. Instead, they’re going to retail their salad dressings and are working on selling their dough balls in a local store as soon as they obtain a barcode.
The Mountain View location has been successful offering take-and-bake pizzas, with people coming in and getting three or four at a time. Each location serves a unique clientele and for now, no two stores are the same. Regulars, it seems, are the bread-and- butter for Tony & Alba’s.
“Our regulars, we know what they eat and where they sit,” Diana says. Adds Anthony: “You do get some people who go to one store for lunch and they’ll go to another store for dinner.” ❖
Mandy Wolf Detwiler is managing editor at Pizza Today.
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