For Agostino’s pizzeria, home is a 900-square-foot restaurant nestled in a little strip mall in the St. James area of Winnipeg.
For Agostino’s pizzeria, home is a 900-square-foot restaurant nestled in a little strip mall in the St. James area of Winnipeg. Agostino’s is your typical neighbourhood pizzeria, cozy and filled with the aroma of authentic Italian fare, and after 26 years of business has become a true local institution.
|Agostino “Gus” Mauro, owner of Agostino’s Pizzeria in Winnipeg.|
Pizza has been owner Agostino “Gus” Mauro’s way of life for over 30 years. At 14, he started working at Luigi’s Restaurant, one of the first pizzerias in Winnipeg, where his brother-in-law was a manager. He stayed in food service from then on, opening Agostino’s Pizzeria in Windsor Park in 1984.
“It was one of the first restaurants in Winnipeg that had an outdoor patio with tables and umbrellas,” Mauro says. “We were open for lunch, dinner and late-night snacks.”
Mauro made the move to the Ness location in 2004 and has never looked back.
“We’re close to Polo Park [a major shopping centre], the airport, and all its surrounding hotels,” his wife Cathie says, adding that these factors were important in their location decision. The Mauros opened Agostino’s second location on Henderson Highway in 2007 and ran it for almost a year before the thought of franchising entered their minds. Something had to change when Mauro’s mother, who does not speak English and lives with them, broke her hip and was in a wheelchair. Cathie, who also has an office day job, says that working, helping out Gus’s mother and owning the two restaurants was too much.
“At that point, we really didn’t have a choice. We threw around the idea of selling [the Henderson Highway location], and we had five people approach us right away. One of them happened to be one of our drivers’ father, Alex Ishin,” she says, adding that they couldn’t have picked a better person. “It’s very hard to find somebody trustworthy enough to run your business for you when you’re not there. We needed to find somebody who was going to treat the restaurant the way we treat it.”
The Mauros still have control over nearly everything. If Ishin wants to add something to the menu, he consults them, she says, noting the excellent relationship the three have.
“He’s a wonderful guy and he’s got great staff, and if he’s not there or if anyone needs anything, they have no problem calling Gus or me.”
Depending on what the next few years brings, Winnipeg may see the addition of more Agostino’s franchises. The Mauros have been approached by possible franchisors, but they have decided nothing yet.
As for the original Agostino’s, the Italian family-owned and -operated pick-up and delivery establishment finds a way to stand in a crowd of fast food chains, thanks to its reputation for quality. The pizza sauce, dough and Italian sausage are all homemade.
“Everything is fresh, homemade and made to perfection, and that’s how we stay ahead of the competition,” Mauro says. “A Pizza Pizza just opened about three blocks down, but it hasn’t affected us at all. We do a lot of lunchtime business. Our lunch special is two slices and a pop for $4, including tax. That’s been the price since day one, and we haven’t had any trouble.”
Besides pizza, Agostino’s offers a variety of other affordable meal options. Pastas are homemade and range in price from $5.99 to $9.99. Panini subs, which Mauro says are popular items, sell for $7.99.
“Our baby back ribs are really different from the rest of the menu, but they are a huge hit,” says Mauro.
Combination dinners are priced between $13.95 and $17.95 and are served with a side of baked spaghetti, choice of side salad and garlic toast. A big customer favourite is the veal Agostino dinner: two veal cutlets topped with parmesan cheese, romano cheese, ham and spices and served with a choice of different sides: spaghetti, salad or roasted potatoes, to name a few.
“It was our big special back at our Windsor Park location, and we just brought it back here a couple of months ago.”
Agostino’s also offers a catering service and party-size pizzas.
“We’ll cater barbeques and pig roasts,” Mauro says. He often has customers asking to buy some of his homemade products.
“The house salad dressing is like a homemade vinaigrette,” says Cathie. “It’s nice and thick, but not creamy.” The husband and wife team plan to package and sell the salad dressing in the future.
“They all want to buy my homemade Italian sausage,” he laughs, though there are no future plans for selling the sausage. Quality food is one aspect of keeping customers happy, and happy they have been. In 2006, Citytv ran a yearlong contest where people voted for the best products, stores and restaurants, with categories including best chicken wings, best patio and best pizza, among many others. Agostino’s was voted the best pizza place in Winnipeg.
“We were one location up against all the other chains, and we won,” Cathie says. “Citytv filmed a commercial in our store, they talked to customers and were here for a few hours.”
“Customers were asked why Agostino’s was the best pizza. Some said it was the sauce, or the dough. One person said it was like Tim Hortons coffee, and they just had to have it,” adds Mauro.
Agostino’s isn’t just a hit with the locals. Brad Fotty, the equipment manager for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers Canadian Football League team, has been a customer since day one, says Mauro.
“Thanks to him, Agostino’s Pizzeria is the official pizza supplier of the Blue Bombers and most of the other CFL teams when they are in town. We’ve made a lot of great connections.”
So what’s the secret ingredient to Agostino’s success? It’s really not a secret, he says. He works in the restaurant full time while his wife takes care of bookwork, advertising and doing whatever else is needed. They both know the importance of making your name known in the community.
“Cathie has been a lot of help. I’m very hands-on in what I do, and I make sure my customers see both our faces. They know us; they like to see the boss around. Sure, I’ve taken some time off for holidays and thanks to my father-in-law Bud Schurko, who pretty much runs the show while we are gone and also my staff who do a great job, but I think it’s important that the owner is around.”
“The restaurant business is tough when it comes to socializing,” he adds, noting there have been times where his spouse has had to attend family functions alone while he is working. “She stands right by me and is there for me, and we make it work.”
What’s next on the menu for Agostino’s? “I would like to be named number one pizza again,” he says, adding that, although he wouldn’t go back to a full restaurant, they have thought about opening a few more locations and expanding their services. “When I was in the Little Italy section of San Diego, there was a restaurant that offered a takeout buffet. Customers would come in at lunch or dinner and pick up goods from a hot table. I thought it was a neat concept.”
The restaurant doesn’t do a lot of advertising, and has never had to.
“Every box that leaves the store has our full flyer, but we don’t do any big advertising. Word-of-mouth is huge. Customers want to dine at home with their families and still have a good homemade meal, rather than fast-food takeout, and we can provide that,” says Mauro.
“We love our customers. They walk to pick up their pizza, and sometimes we’ll sit outside and chat. It’s a friendly establishment,” Cathie adds. “If it wasn’t for our customers, we wouldn’t have been voted the best pizza in Winnipeg, and without them we wouldn’t be here at all. We’re just your little neighbourhood pizzeria.”