Photos by Josh Keown
Wilson’s Pizza Shop is one of those storied institutions –– the kind with a history and deeply planted roots in the local community of Newfane, New York. Al and Roz Wilson opened shop in 1963 in a small house on Main Street in what used to be Al’s barbershop.
(Owners Allen and Wendy Wilson and founder Al Wilson)
“My in-laws had a bar in Lockport, and they sold pizzas,” Al recalls. “We were up there on a New Year’s Eve and after everybody was gone, we were sitting around and my mother-in-law says, ‘Well, you’ve got that room on the side now where you took the barber shop out, why don’t you make pizzas?’ ” So he bought an electric oven, put a counter in and opened shop. “It’s never stopped,” Al says.
It was here that high school kids came to socialize, where families celebrated events and the Wilsons, along with brother Sam and his wife, Betty, sold a 16- inch pizza for just $1.99.
Fast-forward 47 years, and the Wilsons’ son, Allen, and his wife, Wendy, now man the helm of this venerable institution. (His father’s barber shop is still in business down the street.) The family has watched the town change –– several large corporations have left the area and, consequently, some local residents. Still, business is good. “This year has actually been a very busy year considering there’s a recession,” Wendy says. Consumers aren’t dining out as much, she adds, “and they can feed a whole family very reasonably from our place.”
Customer service is a key to the company’s longevity, says Allen. “You don’t have to make your buck on the fi rst pizza you sell,” he explains. “Repeat customers is the thing and making people happy when they get your product. Make them want to get your product.” Either Wendy or Allen is on site at all times. “People want to see you here,” Allen says.
Adds Wendy: “It’s a small town. We know everybody’s names. We know the cars they drive. We’re very close to our customers and they’re very loyal to us.”
With a small dining room, 85 percent of the restaurant’s business is carryout. “Delivery isn’t as big as it was 5-10 years ago,” Allen says. “I think now, with the way the economy is, delivery has declined a little bit. At one point, delivery could have been one third of the business. Now it’s not.”
Wendy says more people are stopping on their way home from work to pick up a pizza to take home to the family rather than paying a delivery charge and a tip to a driver. “When gas was high, it seems that was really the way it was,” she adds.
The majority of dine-in occurs at lunch with pizza slices displayed in a case for that purpose.
Despite a limited market, the Wilsons don’t want to become complacent. Branding has been a focus in recent years. They have a recognizable logo, and have t-shirts and boxes printed with it.
“We don’t spend any on the newspaper or yellow pages, but we have a Web site that we’ve actually just redone,” Wendy adds.
They didn’t have imprinted pizza boxes until a year ago. “A pizza box goes everywhere,” Wendy says. “It sits out by the road on garbage day. When it goes to school, everybody sees it.”
Still, the Wilsons don’t refute the importance of word-of-mouth. “We’re on our fourth and fi fth generation of pizza customers,” Wendy says. “It’s been passed down from generation to generation.”
Adds Allen: “I’d say there are very few people in this town who don’t know (our) telephone number.”
When it comes to the food, pizza is king here, comprising 70 percent of sales. The Barbecue Chicken Pizza (red sauce or garlic butter topped with barbecued chicken tenders and a blend of cheeses) and the White Pizza (garlic butter, spices, broccoli, black olives, tomatoes and mozzarella) are favorites. Pizza is available with either a crispy crust or a thick crust.
Other items ranging from an antipasto salad to fried fi sh lend diversity to the menu. “We have a burger that we named after Al,” Wendy says. “It’s called the Big Al Burger.” (The sandwich is a quarterpounder topped with cheese and dressed with tomato, onion, lettuce, pickle and Miracle Whip for $3.50.)
The Steak Sub is also popular, and the restaurant beef on weck –– rare, thin-cut roast beef on a kummelweck roll that is hand-topped with coarse salt and caraway seeds. a bakery in Buffalo just for them. For both sandwiches, the meat is cooked and sliced in-house. “People who move away, they come back here and they just can’t wait to get a beef on weck because you can’t get them anywhere else,” Wendy says.
And while they don’t have a liquor license, they haven’t found it to be a problem since the majority of their sales are steeped in carryout. They also want to be family friendly. “For the fi rst 25 years after the place opened, there were a ton of kids around because there was no place in town for them to go,” Allen says. “After a basketball game, there’d be 50 people in here and another hundred outside waiting to get in.”
Surprisingly, Wilson’s has a small deli counter. They added it after the local grocery store closed down. Allen says they already used the meats on their menu, so it wasn’t difficult to add. Customers would ask if they could buy a pound of ham while in the shop, and the Wilsons did it to help keep community dollars local and make it easier for their customers.
Eventually, Wendy hopes to add more baked goods to the business as well. From 1993 to 1997, the Wilsons ran a seasonal slice location on Lake Ontario but closed it to focus on raising their small children and running the original location. They’re content operating the shop day-to-day and look forward to new industries like Yahoo! moving into the area and reviving the communities around them. Local wineries and fishing are drawing new business –– and new customers –– as well.
In the end, this is home for the Wilsons, both literally and figuratively. Wendy and Allen used to live in the upstairs apartment, and Al and Roz just moved back into it. Says Wendy: “Someday we’ll be living back upstairs, too.”
❖ Mandy Wolf Detwiler is managing editor at Pizza Today. serves a regional specialty, The bread is sourced from
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