Creative in the community
By Canadian Pizza StaffFeatures News Business and Operations Profiles community marketing pizzeria of they year
We celebrate a bevvy of Canadian pizzerias innovating and doing good in their neighbourhood
When we put out a call for Pizzeria of the Year entries was met with an exciting and inspiring array of businesses. You showed us how you innovate, support and motivate your communities! In no particular order, we present snapshots of the entries we received and some of the many ways they engage their communities.
Wabo’s Pizza, Sub & Donair was founded in 1993 in downtown Cheticamp on the picturesque Cabot Trail in Nova Scotia. Owner Marc Neary runs a traditional pizza shop upstairs year round and a dine-in Italian restaurant in the summer months downstairs. Wabo’s offers bursaries to students at the local high school, sponsors several minor hockey teams in the area and sponsors sports teams through pizza campaigns where they sell our slices at games and keep the money from the sale for their fundraising. During the initial lockdown phase of the pandemic last year, Wabo’s offered pizza for pickup and started a “Community Grocer” program. “With only one grocery store in our town of 3,000-plus people, inventory was pretty low and Wabo’s decided to fill the void by ordering bulk, wholesale items and retailing them to our customers,” owner Marc Neary says. They sold flour (sometimes 100 bags per week), chicken breast, steaks, sugar and other items, increased sales and created new loyal customers proving they were a safe, caring place to do business.
Since opening in 2017, but pre-COVID, The Lock Wood Fired Pizzeria of St. Catharines, Ont., has sponsored individuals and full teams from bocce to volleyball, to motor cross. “We also donate to many stag and does with our awesome pizza box prize full of goodies,” co-owners and brothers Josh and Jeremy Paone tells us. “We also have introduced 35 per cent discount to first responders to let them know we appreciate their hard work in the community. We have raised money through selling pizzas for a local elementary school library. The brothers’ annual summer “hottest pizza competition” is a great crowd pleaser.
Pizza on the Fly of Calgary has been selling pizza by weight since 2018. Owner Anna Marchisano and family moved to Canada from Rome a decade ago and brought that city’s specialty with them. They are, rightly, proud to have educated customers about the specialty pizza, unconventional toppings such as potatoes and healthy pizza made with a crust of 85 per cent hydration, 72 hours of proofing and little yeast.
Armando’s Amherstburg near Windsor, Ont., is owned and operated by pizza chef Dean Litster, a competitive chef who has placed third in the International category at the International Pizza Expo and was our Chef of the Year Open in 2019. Litster started working with the Armando’s chain at 15, rose to management and corporate pizza chef, and in 2018 purchased his own store. Litster is committed to working with local businesses. For example, he has an ongoing collaboration with Little Food Foods in Windsor, an artisanal pierogi manufacturer, to create the Pepperoni Paradise Pierogi. The store serves only locally made wine and craft beer and has worked with breweries on a series of pizza flight and beer flight tastings (pre-pandemic). Armando’s Amherstburg competes in Battle of the Growers fundraising for the United Way, sponsors Amherstburg hockey teams, does Pizza for Polio fundraisers and silently donates gift cards for free dinners to families with children battling illness.
If there is something going on in the pizza world, Joe Leroux knows about it. The owner of Amadio’s Pizza in Port Credit, Ont., past Chef of the Year and Pizza With Purpose winner, is well connected and keen to share what he’s learned over 30 years in business. In January 2020, Leroux hosted weekly pizza-making workshops. Participants donated $40 each to the food bank and Leroux donated the ingredients and his time. He has carried out many community-based marketing campaigns, donating pizzas to volunteers with a blues and jazz festival, sponsoring sports teams and banquets, supporting the Mississauga Humane Society Walkathon and providing pizzas for weekly school pizza days.
Pi Co. Pizza in the Greater Toronto Area since opening in 2016. “Our experience give our customers the opportunity to craft their own personal pi with thousands of combinations by choosing from over 50 different toppings,” says publicist Eden Hazan. Like many pizzerias that focus on an in-store customized pizza experience, Pi Co. has pivoted. “We launched our own app that gives customers the opportunity to enjoy this experience virtually, with pizzas delivered to their doors with no-contact delivery,” Hazan says. In 2020 Pi Co. sponsored pizza parties for a dozen hospitals and small businesses and will continue the tradition.
For three generations, Arcata Pizza has made a big impact on the city of Windsor, Ont. “Arcata is always supportive of local charities, and our local fundraisers whether it’s a local youth sports teams or the unemployed help centre, Salvation Army or our homeless shelter, we believe that giving an extra hand could help many,” says owner -operator Bob Abumeeiz. Recently the winner of a March Madness pizza vote on Facebook, Arcata ships pizzas across Canada to homesick Windsorites who have moved away.
The Barrel Restaurant of Simcoe, Ont., has been a family owned operation for 33 years and a strong supporter of its local hospital, schools, teams, events and festivals over that time. Recent fundraisers include campaigns for the local Heart and Stroke Foundation, Simcoe Little Theatre, United Way and local Norfolk Hurricanes hockey team. Led by partners Nick Kokkoros and Nick Zographoshe, the family restaurant thrives and consistently increasing sales each year. One of the partners previously served on the local hospital board and is currently on the local chamber of commerce board. They work with schools and college to hire and mentor students.
Tops in Pizza in Orillia, Ont., is well known for its tradition of inviting the community in for free pizza slices on Christmas Day. The family-owned shop has kept very busy serving Orillia and area since 1974 in many other ways. For many years they have delivered complimentary pizzas to first responders and essential workers, including multiple OPP organizations, paramedic services, fire departments and hospital staff. “In 2020, instead of offering slices at our restaurant, we served over 100 people at our local shelter for their annual Christmas Eve Luncheon,” co-owner Christopher Marinakos says. Tops also sponsors sports teams, works with 15 local schools for their weekly pizza lunches, and for 2021 have committed to helping a local family in need by supplying them with monthly meals for the entire year.
This next pizzeria will touch your heart because it’s from two daughters each sending their own shout-out to their hardworking, quietly giving dad, Rick Swinemar. Big Red’s in Chester and Lunenburg, N.S., opened in 1977 and is owned by Swinemar and his brother Derrek. “I’m tearing up writing this,” writes daughter Jacqueline Swinemar. “He would take the shirt off his back for anyone. He has done so much for the community over the 40 years.” There is plenty of evidence of Big Red’s giving: daily donations, sponsoring sports teams, events, school lunches, food banks. The pizza is famous on the south shore for its sweet sauce. Daughter Colleen Swinemar tells how their mom’s modified bread recipe forms the dough, which is made fresh every day. “Big Red’s is home, family and community. A perfect representation of Canadian!” We couldn’t agree more.
In 2020, Andrew Craig, director of operations for Fiazza Fresh Fired in the Ottawa area, started a new initiative called “Pizza with a Purpose,” where Fiazza collaborates with other local restaurants. Restaurants create new pizza concepts that are sold at Fiazza with part of the proceeds going to a local charity. In fall 2020 they collaborated with successful restaurant group Beckta Dining. “Fiazza promoted the partnership, the partner restaurant, the chef and the pizzas he created to our customer base through social media, local TV, newspaper and radio promotions.”
After working at Lancaster Restaurant & Pizzeria, opened in 1992, Adam Kluver took the leap and bought it in 2018 from his former employers. “Our pizzeria supports many community functions, from fundraisers to donating $1 to the Canadian Cancer Society for every large pizza we sell, raising a total of $5,227 in 2020,” says Kluver, who sat in the dunk tank on Canada Day to raise money for charity. Lancaster sponsors its local hockey team, the Char-Lan Rebels, and the Char-Lan Skating Club and supplies their pizza parties.
We featured Una Pizza + Wine as part of an article called “Going green” in 2016. Since then owners Kelly Black and Jayme MacFayden have continued to raise the bar for sustainability in terms of the environment and their staff. The Calgary business, which opened its doors in 2010, showcases local product quality, ingredient-based menu items and pizzas and a large wine list. The restaurant is all about inclusivity. “We never compete but always collaborate,” Black says. “We’ve participated in collaborations with local breweries such as our friends at Trolley 5, and Two-House Brewing. We work with local growers and farmers.” They consistently talk one on one with each staff member about their goals, ambitions and passionate causes, which they help support through UNA’s Community Love Partner program encouraging direct donations from patrons. They sponsor research and development trips abroad for their chefs.
Pizza Nova, established in 1963 by Sam Primucci, has grown to over 140 locations in Ontario. President Domenic Primucci, Sam’s son, told us each of Pizza Nova’s locations continues to use family recipes, traditional preparation methods fresh, locally grown ingredients. Well known for its work supporting its communities, this company seems to support more causes year by year. In 2020, they reinvented a much-loved annual event, That’s Amore Pizza for Kids Day, where for years $1 from each medium pepperoni pizza has been donated to Variety – the Children’s Charity to raise $1.8 million for the charity over the years. When COVID prevented gathering, Pizza Nova contacted suppliers to raise $120,000. For 18 years, they have laced up for and donated pizza to the Gutsy Walk, an annual fundraiser for Crohn’s and Colitis Canada, raising more than $60,000.
Fun-loving, floating pizzeria Nimrod’s in the Charlottetown harbour so excited its community on opening that fans pre-ordered $15,000 worth of pizzas through Kickstarter to help launch the little business with big ideas. Rising to the occasion, friends and partners Mikey Wasnidge, Nigel Haan, Bruce Rooney and Jesse Clausheide engineered a floatable building carrying a 5,000-pound pizza oven within four weeks. That first fall, they partnered with the local soup kitchen to sponsor a meal for someone in need for every pizza they sold. It cost them their first-year profit, but “we felt very strongly that we owed it to those who supported us early on,” Wasnidge says. In December 2020, they used summer revenues to turn an old KFC restaurant that had sat vacant into “P.E.I.’s first locally owned, locally sourced, drive-thru fast-casual restaurant.”
We often hear about mom-and-pop shops – how about mother-and-daughter shop. LG’s (Little George’s North) in Nanaimo, B.C., run by Rohini Chaitanya Mehendiratta, was opened in 1997 by her mother, Pina Monga Mehendiratta. As a young teenager, Rohini helped her mother make its own meal deliveries every day. Instead of hanging out with friends, Rohini was working 14-hour days in the pizzeria with her mum. “We had big dreams, but they could only be accomplished by hard work and time management,” she says. They operated seven days per week and stayed open on Christmas Day for people who otherwise would not get to celebrate Christmas. Her mom has since retired, and Rohini’s son is now the age she was they first opened shop in 1997. “Hopefully he will be helping out soon. He is a foodie as well,” she says.
Moo’s Pizza in Cobble Hill, B.C., on Vancouver Island is legendary for giving to the community. The shop sponsors many teams and clubs, donates a portion of sales from one of its pizzas to the local food bank and has stories to tell like this one told by owner Melissa Cottam (Moo): “One year shortly after we opened, a customer lost their son suddenly. We rallied with the community and sold take ’n’ bakes to people all over the island. We worked and worked and got the pizzas made, 750 take ’n’ bake pizzas sold and the money donated to help the family.”
The business has doubled in size since opening in the mid-1990s and seen its sales climb eight to 10 per cent year over year. They plan to open a second location in a nearby town soon.
Frank’s Pizza House in Toronto’s Corso Italia has been in business for 30 years and this pandemic proved to be a challenging time. “I was fortunate to have many loyal and caring clients offer me financial support,” says owner Giorgio Taverniti, who is legally blind. Grateful for offers of financial support but unwilling to accept them, he channelled the goodwill into a community fund. “People can donate as much or as little as they can, add on to their order and the funds go towards paying for someone else’s meal. I typically don’t sell pizza slices, but we created the pay what you can $0 to $3 for pizza slices. My customers are more than just that, they are a family, and a community that works together to take care of each other.”
With an impressive 3,900 followers on Facebook, Ali Baba Pizza, founded in 1986 by Georges Murr, has grown to six locations in the Victoria area, and B.C. Ferry terminal in Vancouver. Now into the second generation of family, they always supporting local events, charities, fundraisers and the homeless, says Elisabeth Hage of the Langford, B.C., location.
Venga Cucina in Toronto’s Junction neighbourhood is the vision of Gino Benevenga, who brings a little piece of his home region of Campania in Italy. Benevenga specializes in Roman-style flatbread pizzas – the pinsa Romana – and is a certified master in this style. In December 2020 Venga Cucina donated 100 pinsas to Villa Charities for frontline workers battling the coronavirus. In February 2021, each week $1 of pinsa sales went to various charities serving Toronto including SickKids Foundation, Covenant House Toronto, Fred Victor Centre and The Scott Mission.
Throughout the years Luigi’s Lasagna & Pizzeria of Milton, Ont., has supported the Milton Hospital Auxiliary Foundation, The Spitfires Wheelchair Sports, Milton Ultimate Club and the Milton Street Festival. In December 2020 they launched a #MiltonStrongPizza campaign through which they created a new “Milton Strong Pizza” with ingredients voted on by the community. For each Milton Strong Pizza sold they donate $1 to Halton Food4Kids. In the last year they opened their kitchen to a few virtual restaurants that were looking for a commercial grade kitchen to operate from, says CEO Sameem Nabil.
Bluebird Café and Grill in Orangeville, Ont., in business since 1982 is a playbook on ideas for engaging your community. “Our fundraisers for our community generally always involve our pizzas as they are a number 1 seller,” say owners Michelle and Rick Arsenault. “Every year at Christmas we do a pizza promotion with a local organization called Believe Bags, which is a non-profit organization that puts together bags with gifts/gifts cards for single moms at Christmas. We donate a portion of pizza sales to them for the purchase of gift cards for their bags.” Recently they did a pizza fundraiser for a local organization called Branching Out Support Services who were participating in the Coldest Night of the Year walk in support of the local food bank. Bluebird donated $1 from every pizza sold for a week and they sold a record 350 pizzas that week. They took part in an online cooking class with local chefs in which people bought tickets to view the class online with proceeds to the Rotary Club.
Mercasa Little Italy Eatery, the only restaurant in Brantford, Ont., specializing in Roman pizza, has done a lot of charity work in just three years in business. Mercasa supports many community programs, including Nova Vita women’s shelter ($5 from every feature pizza donated), Why Not City Missions for at-risk youth (40 hot meals every week), the seniors’ resource centre and Brant Community Healthcare Services. In 2020 they donated more than 5,000 hot meals to community members in need. “We even brought Nav, the Toronto Raptors’ “Super Fan,” to town and visited partners to make donations and raise spirits,” says founder and executive chef Tom Mercante, who draws inspiration from his family’s home regions of Abruzzo and Lazio in Italy.
“We love our communities!” says Aaron Gehrman, director of operations of Emilio Finatti Pizzeria, with three locations in Langley, Port Coquitlam and White Rock, B.C. The business shows that love in different ways: 20 per cent off to all first responders, donations of 20 per cent of gross sales to fundraisers with local schools and the personal touch. “We personalize every pizza box with a handwritten message, ‘Thank you and Enjoy!’ and a fun drawing when we can, says the competitive chef, who finished in first place, International division, at Pizza Expo in 2015. ”
Dax Guest Ross launched Pizzamor’EH in Kelowna, B.C., in February 2019. The team participates in school fundraisers where the fresh and frozen pizza deals give 40 per cent of funds back to the school. They provide a bursary for the Youth Ambassador program and promote the event. Ross and his team are constant innovators. In response to the abrupt shift of sales from mostly dine-in to mostly takeout in March 2020, they opened a pizza drive-thru. They trialled their first production run of flash-frozen pizza in February 2021, with plans to launch in retail outlets in the Okanagan Valley. Other bold initiatives include an in-store retail outlet called Local’EH that sells foods and crafts from small-scale local producers.
Gabriel Pizza’s 40-plus locations in eastern Ontario and western Quebec have participated in countless non-profit and charitable events since Michael Hanna and family opened the store in 1977. Here are highlights from that long list. On the first Tuesday of each month (Toonie Tuesday) they donate $2 from every large pizza ordered to the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario. Ray Skaff, marketing manager, describes a campaign close to their hearts: “Gabriel Pizza learned of Ollie Pickering’s love of our pizza through his mother, Dawn’s blog chronicling Ollie and his family’s journey with childhood cancer. In April 2020, during a rough stretch in Ollie’s treatment while in Toronto, all Ollie wanted was his favourite green olive and cheese pizza, which Gabriel Pizza delivered to him, his family and the caring staff at the Sick Kids Hospital in Toronto.” Ollie’s Pizza campaign launched in May 2020. The chain donated a portion of every Ollie’s Pizza purchased for the rest of 2020 and in partnership with Candlelighters, raised $13,200. Best of all, Ollie is now eight, recovered and doing well.
What a great note to end on!
After reading about the smart, creative and just plain good things these pizzerias are doing, we’re confident you’ll take away a handful of ideas and inspiration for your own business!
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