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Oct 4, 2010 12:30 AM

Why don't more mom 'n pop pizza places do better?

While driving a distance of maybe half a mile here in the suburbs, I must have passed five or six pizza places- about half were national chains and the other half were small, independent mom 'n' pop pizza places.

I've noticed that these small mom 'n' pop places never seem to have any customers when I pass by. Maybe, its the time when I drive by or the crowded competition, but it seems to me that the underlying problem is that these mom 'n' pop places serve the same generic tasting pizzas as the national chains with the same doughy crust and the same pepperoni toppings. How come we don't see more mom 'n' pop pizza places do better, where they serve better pizzas than the national chains?

If I had a small business like that and was surrounded by all that competition, I'd want to differentiate myself from the competition. But, with the national chain's buying power, these small independent pizza joints can't compete on price. Nor, can these small independent pizza joints compete against the national chains marketing with their sponsorship of a little league team. If you're going to get the same commodity pizza, most people are going to go with the lower priced one or the one with the better marketing behind it.

So, making better tasting pizza would seem to be the best option for the independents to survive, yet too often, they make the same commodity pizzas as the national chains.

Why don't these independents use coal or wood fired ovens to make their pizzas? Is the paperwork to get it too difficult?

No matter what, a pizza place would have to have pepperoni pizza since that's the most popular topping. But, that doesn't mean they need to make the exact same pizzas as the national chains. Why not throw in a specialty pizza like an arugula pizza or something different on a rotating or seasonal basis? Something different that people can't get at national chains, a reason to go to them over the nationals?

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  1. I think this might be a west coast/midland America issue. Look at the LA board and one will see a lot of hounds looking for New York style or New Have style pizza. A lot of the old northeastern cities continue to have large Italian populations and it is there that one finds the true mecca of the mom & pop pizza shop. I have recently returned to the southwest and see hounds transplanted from the east clamoring for the same thing. I feel that the mom & pop pizza shop is a cultural thing and if one has not grown up in the Italian "pizza culture", they may be at a loss to know how to repeat it. Our little town in Maine has a great shop, Finelli's, run by a guy from Yonkers, that is a huge success and beats the hell out Pizza Crid.
    Green chile and chorizo pizza anyone? Try the Surf Shop Pizza in Grants, New Mexico and let me know how it is.
    Carpe chow!

    8 Replies
    1. re: Passadumkeg

      Agreed. I live in Philly and there are quite a few good mom & pops. In fact, I eat pizza quite often, but can't even remember the last time I ordered one from a chain (probably when I was in school in Ohio). Lots of different styles available, lots of wood and coal fired ovens, plenty of non-traditional and even gourmet pies.

      1. re: Passadumkeg

        Agreed as well. I grew up in RI, and there are still tons of thriving indy pizza parlors. Where I live now, in the outer suburbs of DC in Virginia, there was nothing here 20 years ago, and no long-standing Italian or Greek communities. So the pizza places that open around here are almost always chain operations. Conversely, there are tons of mom and pop Vietnamese, Afghan, Indian, Latin American eateries.

        1. re: Passadumkeg

          Well said. I'm from the New Haven area and you're absolutely right about the pizza culture back there.

          1. re: Passadumkeg

            The answer could be because pizza bought in these areas at a mom and pop place is no better than the slop served in the chains.

            1. re: MattInNJ

              In my neighborhood here in New Jersey we have four pizza places within a mile of each other, and when Dominos put in a location down the street, it failed.

              Edited to add I just counted, and there are seven (7) places within a mile of my house, and the failing restaurant was a Pizza Hut.

            2. re: Passadumkeg

              I live in a tiny town in north central Nv and we have an independent pizza place that is awesome. We also have 3 of the chains. I think the only reason anybody orders from the chains is that they have delivery.

            3. Because the customers that pay the bills tend to like the same thing. Most customers don't care for adventure in pizza, but instead crave reliability.

              Sorry to say, but adventuresome menus that rely on highly perishable items (cured meats are a huge boon to managing variable demand) appeal to the margin and involve risk, risk that would have to be priced into all the items that actually sell reliably, which would turn customers towards cheaper and less adventuresome competitors.

              And getting a coal- or wood-fired oven involves a lot more cost (not just in building, but in insurance and regulatory compliance) that is likewise going to have to be paid for in volume. Some places can manage it, but a lot can't.

              1. The independent places in my place taste nothing like the chains. However, they serve horrible pizza that people seem to flock to. They are giving people exactly what they want.

                8 Replies
                1. re: tommy

                  Who is "they'? the chains or mom & pops. I assume it is the chains, as I have read you NJ blog and can't imigine not finding a great place for a slice in NJ. How many is the "Best Pizza In NJ" thread up to 500?

                  1. re: Passadumkeg

                    'they' is the mom and pops. there's one on every corner, and the vast majority are not notable, but different than the chains.

                    1. re: tommy

                      Sorry, I've got to disagree. M&P's beat the chains by a mile, IMHO. Chains mass produce based on preset formulas that appeal to the masses whereas the Indies take more care with what they serve and cater to a more discerning clientele (I know I'm gonna get static on this).

                      1. re: mucho gordo

                        I'm not sure what you're disagreeing with. I wasn't comparing chains to independents, other than saying they produce differing styles (with which I think you agree).

                        Perhaps you thank that the local places are good, but I don't.

                        1. re: tommy

                          I was disagreeing with your statement that the vast majority of the M&P's are not notable. You're basing that solely upon your preference for the chains. I do think the local places are better because they take their time to make a better product as opposed to the mass produced, assembly line used by the chains. It's like comparing McDonalds to the local burger joint.

                          1. re: mucho gordo

                            I don't have a preference for chains.

                        2. re: mucho gordo

                          Perhaps it is time to agree to disagree? It's probably all a matter of location. I've lived most of my life in Philadelphia, which has a host of mom & pop places making excellent pizzas of various styles. People have different preferences (doughy crust, thin crust, sicilian, wood fired, etc) so it's good that such a variety exists. It would never occur to me to order from a chain.

                          However, I spent a few years in Southeastern Ohio. The local places there were awful, so the only reasonable, dependable option was Domino's. If you're craving pizza, and that's all that's available it's serviceable enough.

                      2. re: Passadumkeg

                        Yeah, I don't think this is a problem in Jersey, or anywhere near Philly or NYC.

                    2. There are a variety of reasons. For starters, the majority of indies close to where I live DO NOT DELIVER. This is just bad, esp in a place where the weather is bad enough the majority of the year that I would rather eat something crappy that's delivered than put on my boots, down coat, hat and gloves, start up the cold car and go get it.

                      Yesterday is a perfect example of another problem. It's game day, game starts at 1pm, mr. RNR is willing to go out and fetch pizza from one of our faves. It's 11:50. Calls indie place, no answer. Runs a couple of errands, waits til after noon, still no answer. Not even a machine w/hours or whatever, he wonders if maybe they have gone out of business. Calls me, I call Donato's, pizza at our place in 30 minutes, and with coupons. Fresh, hot, accurate, etc. No, it's not the best pizza ever but I'm hungry, let's eat. I checked indie's website today, they don't open til 1pm! On football day! This is just poor business. And to not even have an answering machine giving their hours, that's just unprofessional.

                      A couple of the other ones by me, they have passable pizza, and they deliver, but everything else is HORRIBLE - chicken, subs, jo-jos, pasta dinners, etc. So they are a one-stop shop if you ONLY want pizza and nothing else. At Donato's, I can order decent chicken fingers, salad, wings, etc with my pizza and it's all equally passable-to-good. And again, I get coupons. There are no coupons for the local places.

                      No delivery, no coupons, poor hours, cash only, no website to look at menu, there are a variety of reasons they are empty.

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: rockandroller1

                        Rockandroller 1's argument makes sense to me. A lot of independents don't try very hard to get your business. Shorter hours is my biggest objection. Hey, if the business is out there for the big chains, it's out there for the Mom and Pop places, too. But if you close at 9:00 on a Saturday night, as one M and P around here (Tampa) does, you're going to lose a lot of business.

                        You're going to lose even more business because people get into the habit of ordering from a certain place. If you're not open late, they lose the habit and don't even order from you when you are open.

                        Hobbess (the OP) is right, as well. Independents often don't try to make their pizza better than the chains, which reduces the incentive for going to them. There are a half a dozen places around here that offer a Margerita Pizza, the classic tomato, mozzarella, and basil pizza, where they do various things that make the basil unnoticeable. One place purees the basil in oil and then squirts it onto your pizza. (This is NOT a Margerita pizza!) Another puts the basil on in miniscule portions ten minutes before the pizza is to be served, by which time the quarter inch square pieces are dried out and virtually unnoticeable, after having been subjected to six hundred degree heat.

                        Then, there's the "same old, same old" problem. Yes, I understand that the majority of people are going to order the standard ingredients on their pizzas (including me, most of the time), but Wolfgang Puck did a land office business for years at Postrio's bar in San Francisco, selling people pizzas with ingredients like creme fraiche, smoked salmon, and chives. (There were others, but that was the most exotic.) He created the market by making that kind of exotic pizza, and others, available. I'll bet they didn't sell that well at first, but he kept at it.

                        Anyway, most independents don't want to take chances, so they compete with the behemoths on the behemoths' own turf. Not smart.

                        Even if the independents didn't want to do such exotic stuff, just offering a higher quality of pizza sausage, pepperoni, onions, peppers, tomatoes, tomato sauce, and, especially, mozzarella, etc. would go a long way toward beating the chains. The chains don't want to compete on quality. They want to complete on price. The Mom and Pop places can't compete on price and, therefore, as Hobbess pointed out, they ought to compete on quality. Let the big guys be the General Motors of pizza. You little guys should be the Lexus(es) of pizza.

                      2. As others have noted, it may be a location thing. In the greater New Orleans area there are many mom & pops and they are very busy. Many deliver and some have coupons. But the area is pretty competitive for dining, fine or take-out. Possibly one difference is that in many places the deli does pizza and the local sandwich (hoagie/sub/grinder) while in New Orleans the pizza place does Italian and sandwich shops do po-boys.

                        One other advantage is that many of the N.O. mom & pops have full sit down facilities and liquor licenses.

                        Two weeks ago I ate in a little deli in a Philly suburb and the food was good but I was glad I wasn't in any hurry as "mom" was cooking all by herself.