2010 January: Il Pizzaiolo: Pizza Pantry

Corfu, New York-based Pizza Pantry isn’t your typical pizzeria set amidst a strip mall in a bustling suburb. Being one of just a handful of restaurants in the area, having a captive audience affords the pizzeria annual sales many single-unit operators only dream of. And with a recent move to a larger building, it’s safe to say that business is looking up for owner Bev Snider.

 

 

 

 


Bev Snider and Adam Kahabka, Pizza Pantry’s general manager

Snider started the company with her mother and sister in 1983 in the middle of the village of Corfu, having bought the take-out shop on the cheap. “The woman who owned it, she said, ‘Sundays are your good days. I made $34 Sunday.’ That’s what we grew from.”

 

 

In 2000, Snider’s sister left the business and she took it over full time. Three years ago, they gutted an empty bowling alley turned bar and grill nearby and converted it into a 120-seat freestanding restaurant that afforded them much needed additional parking. “I’ve always wanted a dine-in place, but we just didn’t have room for it,” Snider says. An additional conference room seats 40.

 

 

 

 

The move seems to have worked. Sales sit at over $1 million annually –– impressive since “we live off our local people, mostly,” Snider says. “We do fine in the winter. A lot of the little businesses, they rely on Darien Lake … there’s a theme park that’s just two miles up the road. We do get a ton of business from them in the summer, but we do fine with our local people.”

With no other pizzeria in the area and only a diner serving dine-in, Pizza Pantry has little to no competition. “There never was since the day we opened,” Snider says. “You go to a lot of small towns around here and they have two or three (pizzerias) in a small town just like this. I don’t know why.”

Despite being in a small town of just 200 homes, Pizza Pantry has succeeded by enlarging their delivery radius to other nearby villages. “We have a 10-mile radius, at least,” says Adam Kahabka, Pizza Pantry’s general manager.

“For them to drive there and back, it’s going to take half an hour,” Snider says. “That’s why we have to put out more drivers here (at the new location). We used to run with just one. We’ve got two or three or more that we’re sending out on weekends just for that reason. They go farther. It’s not just running around the corner.”

Sales are admittedly hit-and-miss during the day when the theme park is closed, but in the summers it’s a constant stream of diners all day. Carryout and delivery comprise the greatest majority of sales at about 70 percent, Kahabka says (although in the summer dine-in is twice as busy).

Rather than offering the industry’s standard of beer and wine, Pizza Pantry has a full bar, but Snider says the emphasis is not on alcohol but rather on the food and remaining a family-friendly restaurant.

“We just wanted it to be a classier bar and not so much like a local dive,” Kahabka says. Alcohol accounts for five to eight percent of sales, but it depends on the season. “We do quite well when our football team and our hockey team are playing,” he adds.

While Pizza Pantry is obviously billed as a pizzeria (60 percent of sales based in pizza), the menu here is diverse, ranging from onion rings and breaded cheese platters to turkey subs, pizza logs, antipasto salads and chicken dinners. “It gives them more choices than pizza, subs and wings,” Snider says. “Salads are very popular. I’m almost surprised at how much people like them.” They are so popular that several more were added, including the Pasta Crab Salad (penne pasta tossed with sliced black olives, mixed vegetables, tomatoes atop lettuce and capped with crab meat for $6.29).

A small menu of specialty pizzas showcases some surprising varieties. The Broccoli Cheddar pizza features creamy cheddar cheese broccoli, sliced chicken breast and mozzarella and the Chicken Finger Pizza includes bleu cheese, spicy hot chicken fingers and mozzarella cheese. Of the specialty pizzas, the Taco Pizza (seasoned taco meat, shredded lettuce, tomato slices and cheddar cheese) is the top seller.

Dough is made in-house, but cheese is sliced rather than shredded. “I just like the way it cooks on there better,” Snider says. “And that’s the way we started. Usually, whatever we started with, there are main things that we refuse to change. That’s just how we built the business. I’m not going to switch to shredded cheese just because it’s easier or faster. It does take longer because we have to slice it and it takes longer to make a pizza because we have to count it out. But, it melts better. It just makes a nicer looking pizza.”

Affordability is key here –– a deal priced at $19.99 is popular. It includes a large pepperoni pizza, 24 chicken wings and a pitcher of Pepsi. A large specialty pizza is priced at $14.59.

Kahabka and Snider say they reevaluate their menu annually and keep close tabs on what is selling and what isn’t. “We’re trying to cut the waste down,” Kahabka says. “We’re trying to make sure nobody’s nibbling or taking free food.”

Snider says they are working on getting employees to weigh and measure, but she admits “it’s tough when you’re busy. … We kind of had to watch that a lot more.”

 

In an area of the country that measures snow in feet, we had to ask how inclement weather affected sales. “Actually, it is better for us,” Snider explains. “We’re on a snowmobile trail which ends right in the back parking lot. In the winter, we’re better off if we get a lot of snow. We get a lot of snowmobilers and most of the local people won’t go anywhere. If it’s a Saturday night and it’s snowing, they’re not going to drive out of the area to go out to eat. Usually, bad weather is better for us.”

Still, they don’t require their delivery drivers to go out if they’re not comfortable.

In the summer, they staff up to 35 employees and 25 in the off-season. Typically, three to four cooks man the counter during peak times. “There are some people who can do all the counters in terms of cross-training,” Kahabka says. “That’s something I’d like to get to. It’s kind of tough.”

Snider says the nearby theme park tends to suck a majority of people out of the existing labor pool in the summers, which is also Pizza Pantry’s busiest time. “When they close, you get a lot more people looking for work in the winter time, which is our slower time,” Snider explains.

Kahabka said they did consider opening a second location a few years ago, but ultimately decided against it. “That’s a lot of work, and there are times when we are stuck in the kitchen,” Snider adds. “I don’t think you can run a place if you’re stuck in the kitchen. If you could get to the point to where you could just run the place, then it would seem like it would be easier to take care of. It’s still so much work. I wouldn’t want to take (another) on. I want to run one place and run it well.” ?

Mandy Wolf Detwiler is managing editor at Pizza Today.