Change is the only constant
Last week I had the opportunity to interview Anthony Mangieri in front of an audience of pizza makers, ingredient producers and other assorted industry folk. To say that Mangieri is a pizzaiolo is insufficient. His restaurant, Una Pizza Napoletana, is more of a workshop than an eatery. Fans follow him as if he were the Grateful Dead; he moved his pizzeria from the Jersey shore to Manhattan’s East Village to San Francisco and now back to NYC. As I asked questions, it became clear that Mangieri was most interested in talking about his dough. After more than two decades of making pizza one would think Anthony has settled into a clean routine, but his relentless desire for improvement has led him to a pattern of constant change.
After a night of what he deems to be inferior pizzas, Mangieri will take the wrecking ball to his dough. The change could be as simple as cutting in a new flour, or as vast as entirely rebuilding his starter. All the while, customers only notice the high quality and not so much the alterations. Una Pizza Napoletana’s pizza is incredibly good despite the fact that it’s always changing.
Hearing Mangieri describe his perpetual evolution made me think about the necessity for adaptation in all pizzerias. Just think about the places that have been around for multiple decades. We have no idea what the pizza tasted like at Lombardi’s Pizzeria Napoletana when it opened in 1905, but we can be sure it doesn’t taste the same today. Ingredients, equipment, management and clientele have most definitely changed. Customers assume that old establishments stay in business by staying the course, having no idea what kind of complex balancing act is going on behind the curtain.
Just a few years ago one of the country’s leading pizza chains made waves by announcing that they were revamping their recipe. The company didn’t do it to combat declining business; they saw a powerful opportunity to differentiate themselves. This company, with its thousands of locations, benefitted by making a change. They even created a massive marketing campaign around it. Nearly a decade later, their stock is outperforming that of Amazon.
One of my favorite Brooklyn pizzerias brags about maintaining an unaltered recipe for over 80 years. It’s a family business that perpetuates itself with the requirement that no owner make any changes in fear of destroying the family legacy. In reality, the sauce tastes different in the summer because they toss in fresh basil that grows in the front window. A couple months ago they even substituted fresh tomatoes instead of the usual canned product for about a week because the owner got a good deal from his produce dealer. I strongly doubt that anybody notices these tweaks because they’re more focused on the fact that the interior hasn’t been updated since the 1960s, and so they assume the food must also be unaltered.
Staying the same for the purpose of consistency isn’t always a winning strategy. It’s far more powerful to adapt to inputs over which we have no control in an effort to provide customers with a product you can be proud of. Just ask Anthony Mangieri, who is probably experimenting with a new flour combination as you read this.
Scott Wiener is the founder of Scott’s Pizza Tours in New York City and SliceOutHunger.org.