NEW JERSEY — Friday is the first day since mid-March that restaurants in the Garden State can allow diners inside. And while some businesses have been reeling from a lack of sales during that time, pizzeria owners say they’ve had nothing but demand.
That’s not to say the business has been without challenges.
The first two weeks after March 15, “I was so busy I couldn’t keep up,” said Sal Passalacqua, chef and owner of Dimaio Cucina in Berkeley Heights.
“We were so busy, we were running out of dough,” said Burim Regjaj, owner of Outta Hand Pizza in Westfield.
Sales have dipped a bit since spring, Regjaj said, but months later, he said “If I compare it with last year, demand is definitely up.”
And why not? Pizza is one of the few restaurant foods that can be good, fast and cheap all at once. The lack of indoor dining didn’t seem to hurt the pizza business, either.
“We were already set up for takeout and delivery, so that helps tremendously,” said Stephanie Golinski, manager at Maplewood Pizzeria.
Regjaj wasn’t surprised when business increased fourfold. “I had a feeling that people would want more comfort food,” he said.
They seemed to have stopped worrying too much about calories, as well, Passalacqua observed. “People went from asking for all kinds of healthy options to, ‘No, I want a loaded meat pie,’” he said.
All of this pizza consumption combined with interruptions in distribution due to the pandemic meant ingredient shortages, too. Last month, Bloomberg reported about a national pepperoni shortage.
Golinski confirmed that Maplewood Pizzeria has had trouble sourcing pepperoni, its most popular topping. She said she switched ordering from her favorite brand to whatever brand was available.
“I have to try to order extra when I can find it,” Golinski said. “People want it, so we buy whatever we can.”
With the higher demand, she watched as prices for all of her ingredients — from garlic powder to tomato paste to mozzarella cheese — went through the roof.
“Tomatoes were sky high,” Golinski said.
Meat prices increased by 30%, Passalacqua said.
“Cheese went up a dollar per pound,” the chef said. “I was so mad when that happened — that’s a 36% increase.”
Then there were other new costs to take into account, including gloves, masks and disinfectant. Other necessary items, such as plastic bags and takeout containers, got harder to find as more people were ordering takeout everywhere.
Dimaio’s raised prices a little, but rather than anger customers Passalacqua, who was still able to source the high-quality ingredients he always uses thanks to long-standing relationships with suppliers, said he took a cut on his margins.
Maplewood Pizzeria didn’t increase prices at all.
“People lost their jobs. What are you going to do?” Golinkski said.
Despite all of the issues, the pizza business is a good one to be in right now. Dimaio’s, which opened in 1969, has seen a lot of changes in the world over the years. Passalacqua didn't know what to expect when the coronavirus first came to New Jersey.
“This is unique,” Passalacqua said. “It just picked up, and it’s been pretty steady. I feel very fortunate that we have this restaurant, because a lot of places have closed.”
More on NJ Flavor: