Easy in Ithaca
New York pizzeria has been a college-town mainstay for more than two decades
Ithaca, New York, may be a small college town, but it’s one that is decidedly comprised of foodies who are loyal to local restaurants. Residents and college students love their signature restaurants, and local restaurateurs love them right back. Ithaca native Joe Tipton spent his formative years working in the restaurant industry before going into business with Sicilian immigrant Salvatore Melice, who had worked for another pizzeria before opening his namesake restaurant in 1988. With more than 50 years combined in the industry, Tipton and Melice have successfully operated their small strip mall location for more than two decades.
“It’s a tough market,” Tipton admits, sitting in Sal’s on his day off, having just finished a sandwich and reading the local paper. “People think that because it’s Cornell and big colleges here, that business is easy. There are so many choices. On a Friday night, there are only so many people going out to eat.”
Sal’s is off a busy street but isn’t necessarily in an area with heavy foot traffic, making it a destination location. “You really have to get that clientele,” Tipton says. “You have to separate yourself by your food quality and your service.”
Despite being home to both Ithaca College and Cornell University, “we do mostly locals,” Tipton says. “We don’t do much with the students. The college is probably four-and-a-half miles from here. … We cater to families. We’re family guys, too. And (residents are) here for 12 months. You don’t get the ups and downs with the students. You get to know them and you see their kids grow up. I grew up here, and I’ve been in the pizza business since 1982. I’ve always been in the Italian (restaurant business) since I was 17.”
Sal’s menu hasn’t changed much over the years. They’ve added a few items to compete, but have preferred to keep it much the same as it was when it opened in the 1980s.
The company’s most popular pizzas are the Sal’s Special (sausage, mushroom, pepperoni, fresh green peppers and extra cheese) and the Chicken Bacon Ranch, both $23.90 for a 16-inch large.
“We do everything (in house),” Tipton says. “We make our own sausage here. We make our own meatballs, cut our eggplant. We make our own dough everyday. Our produce guy delivers every day. Everything is made fresh here, and what we can’t make we buy better (quality). We charge a little bit more, but we buy a little bit better cheese, etc. A lot of the guys, they buy the stuff already made. We still do all the preparation … we make our own lasagna –– whatever we need to do everyday. There are three of us, so we can get a lot done. We don’t have a big staff, which we like. We have consistency. We don’t get any complaints at all.”
Pizza, which is baked on deck ovens, accounts for more than 70 percent of sales. Sal’s menu also boasts hot and cold subs, Italian dinners like chicken parmigiana, breaded fried scallops, stuffed manicotti and ravioli. Their popular “Pizzaburger” sub features homemade sausage and is served on local bread.
With so much made in house, Tipton and Melice keep a keen eye on waste management. “I do all the ordering, so we don’t ever have a lot of stuff (spoiling) in the refrigerator,” Tipton says. “We make sure that we keep it fresh.”
Baking on a deck oven requires a learning curve, as does making dough. “Dough is simple, but it’s hard. Do you know what I mean?” Tipton asks. “You have to know the temperature of the water, and the yeast –– our recipe is simple but you have to know how much flour to put in, etc. … It’s time consuming, and we make it in small portions.”
Draft beer and a few wines are available but don’t account for a heavy portion of sales. “It’s not like people are sitting here for four hours drinking,” Tipton says.
Tipton and Melice admittedly don’t do much marketing. “Where we are right now, we’re really happy,” Tipton says. “We just like it small. One of us is always here, and a lot of times, we’re together.”
Aside from dine-in, “we do limited delivery, and we only do it between 4 p.m. and 10 p.m.” Tipton says. “We don’t do it during lunch at all. It’s not real big. Most of our clientele is actually takeout. They come in after work and they go home and they don’t want to cook. We have sit down, but we’re not like crazy sit-down. … I’d say 65 to 70 percent (of sales) is pick-up. The rest is split between dine-in and delivery. … We just do one driver, and my wife helps us out, or one of my daughters.”
After working in the restaurant business and owning his own, Tipton admits managing employees has been his most difficult task. “I’m a good worker, Sal’s a good worker, (Sal’s nephew) Joe is a good worker. We’re easy to work with. But when you become a boss, you have to talk to (employees) about what they’re not doing or what they did. That was always the toughest thing for me (in the beginning). … Now, I’m a straight shooter. I don’t let things bother me. … I need to trust my employees, or I don’t need to have them in my store.”
Tipton and Melice have no immediate plans for expansion, and hope that a family member will eventually take over the business. “Our families are so combined, it’s like one,” Tipton says. “I’m Irish American and he’s Sicilian, but we’re like one.”
Handwritten tickets, knowing their customers by name and being in the store daily have made Tipton and Melice successful pizzeria owners, and it’s worked for more than two decades. Adds Tipton: “We like that personal touch.”
Mandy Wolf Detwiler is managing editor at Pizza Today.