Pizza Chains vs. Mom & Pop Shops

What’s on the menu?
If you have a dollar in your pocket and a rumbling tummy, then you’ll probably grab a slice of New York City pizza for lunch. Priced at only 100 pennies per slice, this is a deal that many can’t pass up, yet how in the world did this food become so engraved in American culture? To look at this, we must see where it all began…

photo (58)

Classic NYC pizza

Pit Stop
Pizza has become a common fixture in our culture. Pizza shops line our streets, delivery men bring pies straight to our door, and movies reinforce this pizza craze time after time. Take a look:

This movie is a classic, and the fact that they’re eating pizza is not surprising to any of us. Evidently, the pizza culture is clearly alive and well in America!

The Journey to America
Upon arriving to the U.S., immigrants from Naples began replicating one of their old favorites, pizza. The first documented United States pizzeria was started by a man known as Gennaro Lombardi. Arriving to American at the age of 14, Lombardi was already a baker by trade. Thus, he soon found work in a Brooklyn bakery and at a grocery store on Spring Street in Manhattan. Lombardi suggested that the bakery should make fresh pizzas and then sell them the next morning at the grocery. It turned out to be a great idea. Several years later, Lombardi bought the grocery store from the aging owner. Thereafter, he realized that although selling bread and groceries provided business, he truly wanted to generate a customer base by selling pizza. Thus, in 1905 he created a real American pizza business by acquiring the first pizza-selling license for his new shop located at 53 ½ Spring Street. Although he closed down his pizzeria almost thirty years later, his grandsons soon reopened a pizza shop on 32 Spring Street that still exists today. This map shows where Lombardi’s Pizza place is located in New York City.

In the top corner of the map, we can find Dominos; spaced a few blocks from each other, chain businesses line the streets of America. From Taco Bell to McDonald’s, it’s hard to think of a food that has not been swept into the arms of America’s fast food culture, pizza is no exception. Interestingly enough, shops in the pizza industry are one of the only types that survive, despite the competitive prices of popular chains, such as Dominos and Pizza Hut. For instance, take Italian bakeries; many have been shutting down throughout the years, due to lower prices from companies that produce in mass, such as Entenmann’s. Similarly, many Chinese immigrants tend to own laundromats, but they are often outrun by chains as well, which can provide more machines and lower prices once again. Meanwhile, in the pizza business, we don’t witness this repelling, contradicting phenomenon so starkly, but why?

Pizza Exception: A deeper look at Chains vs. Mom-and-Pop Shops
As proof, take a look at this NYDailyNews article from several years ago, the title already speaks loads, “Chains Chokin’ Off Mom-And-Pop Shops.” Upon looking further into the article, we are provided with a count of different chains, thus showing us which big businesses are most prominent in New York. The list includes Dunkin’ Donuts, Subway, McDonald’s, Starbucks, Duane Reade and Baskin Robbins, yet, quite fittingly, there is no mention of any large pizza businesses. As the article cites, “”When you see a Dunkin’ Donuts on every corner, people are going to go to them instead of a small coffee shop. It’s not because of the quality; it’s because of the name.” This phenomenon is quite true for people often go to Starbucks or Subway for the brand. In reality, there really isn’t much quality difference between any two donuts or sandwiches, thus we witness people making decisions based on their familiarity with a company name. For instance, people assume that a larger, well-known brand will serve more quality items, but in reality, they wouldn’t mind having to eat a sandwich from a local shop, instead of from Subway. The end products would have likely been quite similar, despite where they were purchased. Meanwhile, in the pizza industry, few slices are truly alike. For proof of this, and for an introduction to the variety of pizza types in New York, click to the page about different pizza cultures in New York City, where we delve into the many different pizzas NYC alone has to offer, such as Mexican pizza, Italian pizza, etc. Evidently, larger chains will serve people different slices from those that smaller shops will, and thus there is more room in the pizza industry for differences. Nevertheless, there is a lot of pressure for stores that bake pizza to provide a higher quality slice, and simply to serve something of a different caliber from others, in essence, one must make something unique.

Interview: An Outside Look In
I ran into particularly this question of uniqueness and authenticity, after speaking with the owner of a mom-and-pop shop. A graduate of Baruch College, the owner of Pizza Boulevard now works full time at this parlor serving up a wide variety of pizza pies. Before speaking to the owner, I was struck with the diversity of slices on display at this store. From a slice with salad on it to a slice with pasta on top, this store can fulfill even the craziest pizza desires. The ability to choose, a premium touted by many chains such as Subway, is one that is mostly missing from businesses such as Pizza Hut. Instead, larger pizza places focus on simply selling pizza by the pie without such an emphasis on variety or fine ingredients. I asked the owner of Pizza Boulevard what makes his pizza special and he proudly informed me that he buys only the finest of ingredients. He purchases the best cheese on the market, and makes his own sauce, even boasting that he eats his own pizza almost every day. For him, the selling point of his store is its withstanding delicious product, plus its recipe which jointly provides his shop with uniqueness and creativity as a selling point. Indeed, there aren’t any big companies that pride themselves on using top-quality cheese or creating ingenious slices.
An interview with a “mom and pop” pizza shop:

This selling point of quality is surely one that works, for just doors down from Pizza Boulevard is Subway. In the display window of Subway hangs a sign advertising their “Flatizzas,” a new product of theirs that aims to combine the essence of a flatbread and a pizza. Meanwhile, the owner of the mom-and-pop shop is not afraid of the competition. Instead, he views the places as selling products of different standards, and he believes that customers will consider all of this when choosing where to dine.

Subway’s “flatizzas” are advertised on it’s window, yet that does not seem to truly affect the pizzeria just two doors down.

So Tell Me Again What Makes Pizza Parlors Special
In essence, pizza places rely on subjectivity. They expect their customers to become partial to their product and to appreciate the quality standard that they try to adhere to. Additionally, they provide the customer with options that more impersonal chain stores do not. Ultimately, each pizza shop adopts a “uniqueness” that is only theirs, and they want customers to buy into that notion as well, which many consumers do. Still, definitively concluding that the success of pizza parlors relies on preference and subjectivity is quite tricky. For instance, why can’t a quality sandwich store survive under these same premises? Well, it definitely can attempt to compete with Subway, but the selling points of the sandwich shop will be much less than those of a pizza parlor. For instance, large sandwich businesses focus particularly on the notion of choice and quality ingredients, which many consumers buy into. Meanwhile, in the pizza industry, the privilege of creative pizza slices is harder to come by because making various different slices takes time, and might not sell as well as classic options, such as simply cheese or pepperoni. Thus, pizza chains prefer not to waste time on creating new slices when they already have good items on their hands. Unlike the sandwich industry, pizza chains don’t prioritize choice. In turn, this benefits our NYC society because it provides us with so many places to visit. There is the pizza shop that lets you build your own personal pizza, the other parlor that uses an authentic coal oven, and so many more options, while Pizza Hut would simply deliver the cookie-cutter $5 pie to your door. Evidently, each industry has its own selling points, but in the world of pizza variety, uniqueness and creativity are clear driving factors for success.
Side note: This is not to say that Pizza Hut and Dominos aren’t innovative. Certainly, they try to create new crazes such as stuffed crust pizza or pizza rolls, but there is certainly a disparity when it comes to variety between pizza pies. For instance, if I wanted a coal-oven pizza or a slice with salad on top, chances are Pizza Hut won’t go out of their way to make these custom orders for me.

Movie Knows Best
I presented you with particularly this idea of cookie-cutter pies much earlier. Go back to the movie scene from Home Alone, and take a look at what kinds of pizza pies they are eating. That’s right, they ordered plain cheese and pepperoni pies; there is no salad slice, no pasta slice. In the pizza industry, chains know that customers will stick to several basic options, and thus stick to one simple motto: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

P is for Pie
Haven’t you ever wondered why it’s called a pie? I mean seriously, the English language is confusing enough. Try traveling outside of New York, and you’ll find that many don’t go around ordering pizza pies, to them it’s just pizza. Some propose that we call it a pie because it has a crust and a savory filling. Although that may be true, most dictionaries and researchers believe that the world pie relates to the Magpie, a bird with feathers splotched in two colors. The Romans referred to this bird as the “Pica.” It’s name was thus altered to become for many “pizza”, and for certain Americans a “pizza pie.” We named our pizza after this bird because of its double color and its habit of gathering odds and ends, similar to how our pizzas have all sorts of toppings and thus incorporate a wide variety of ingredients.

Immigrant Culture
America is a land of immigrants. We are built upon the contributions of many from all over the world. Our food culture reflects this perfectly, for many things that we call distinctly American, such as corn dogs or pizza, were simply adapted, created, or brought over by immigrants. For instance, we speak of assimilation and job displacement, but without all of their distinctive contributions through years of chain migration, the United States most likely wouldn’t have such a varied food culture to call their own. In essence, by bringing their native recipes here and adapting them to their new home, these immigrants created job opportunities through their businesses. As these immigrants worked their way up the social ladder to achieve the American Dream, their distinctive recipes worked their way through American society, also building up their reputations along the way. Viva la Pizza!

Additionally, check out this great article. If my argument about our obsession with uniqueness wasn’t enough to convince you of the pervasiveness of pizza culture in NYC, then this article surely will with its concept of the Pizza Belt. The Pizza Belt is defined as “the area of the United States where the chance of obtaining an adequate-to-good slice of pizza from a randomly chosen pizzeria is greater than 50 percent.” Clearly, pizza is no joking matter.

>Pizza’s Journey to NYC
The emergence of pizza in American popular culture closely followed southern Italian immigration patterns. Many of them started in a thirty year time period around the 1900s. The immigrants who opened these pizza shops developed an ethnic niche in this area, with many of the owners beginning with baking bread and then transitioning to pizza. Lombardi’s was the first pizzeria and it spawned the creation of many others through New York City, Boston, and Philadelphia. It all began with the tremendous wave of southern Italian immigration in the late 19th century. Immigrants came in through Ellis Island and then spread out along the Eastern Coast looking for work among friends, family and neighbors who had come from Italy as well. Since these immigrants came in through Ellis Island, it makes sense that many of them stayed here looking for work and thus several of the first pizza shops began in NYC. Meanwhile, some immigrants traveled to Trenton which had hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs and a burgeoning Italian-American community. In New Haven, a portion of these immigrants found work in factories, or port-related jobs. Finally, some of them traveled to Philadelphia or Boston because both had quickly expanding Italian-American communities with thriving commercial centers. Thus, comes about the notion of the Pizza Belt, the part of America that gave birth to the nation’s first taste of pizza. In this manner, many Italian immigrants created a niche for themselves in the pizza industry. Chain migration allowed many of these immigrants to have an Italian public that desired to consume their product. Currently, there are many pizza shops in NYC and the owners are coming from increasingly diversified backgrounds, a phenomenon known as ethnic succession.

Leave a Reply