Good Neighbours: Johnny Rocco’s trucks hit hospital parking lots with custom-made pizza
By Canadian PizzaCOVID-19 Updates Features Business and Operations
Johnny Rocco’s Italian Grill in St. Catharines, Ont., stepped up to show appreciation to local health-care workers by bringing their food trucks on site and making customized pizzas for hospital staff.
When the pandemic hit, Johnny Rocco’s, which has two locations in Niagara Falls and nearby St. Catharines, focused on making family meals to go, pizza kits for kids with instructions, lasagna and cannoli kits, and selling product wholesale directly to customers.
Tony Visca is co-owner with Fern Colavecchia of the 43 North Restaurant Group that owns two Johnny Rocco’s locations in Niagara Falls and St. Catharines and several other restaurants in Niagara Falls and Hamilton.
“In April we decided that since the frontline workers were working hard, we’d support them,” Visca said.
The team decided to put their mobile trucks to work at five Niagara Health hospital sites over five days: Welland hospital, Greater Niagara, St. Catharines hospital, Port Colborne hospital and Douglas Memorial hospital in Fort Erie.
“Over the five days we made 3,500 to 4,000 nine- to 10-inch pizzas,” he said. “We asked all of our guests if they wanted to write a message to the workers. Messages such as “My hero wears scrubs” and “I can’t thank you enough for your sacrifices” were written on the pizza boxes.
“Staff were very appreciative of the hot food. Other restaurants brought food as well. We were making pizzas on the spot. Every hospital department would send one or two people down. They’d pull up with wheelchairs and carts to pick up their pizzas – sometimes as many as 50 at a time.”
The team served lunch and supper shifts but sometimes lunch would stretch out, he said. “We’d keep going. We’d regroup.”
They were working on adrenalin. “My brother and business partner were on site. They would call me and say, “You’ve got to bring us more dough!”
“We’d feed all staff, including technicians and janitorial staff – not just doctors and nurses. They loved it. We heard from them for weeks afterward. They really liked having a pizza custom made.
“We brought a smile to their faces. If we had to do more work, it was all worth it.”
Some suppliers sent donations of cash or product. Lactalis Canada’s Galbani Professionale line, for whom Johnny Rocco’s is an ambassador, was one such supplier.
“We want to do our part to help so we donated Galbani Professionale cheeses and Lactantia chocolate milk bottles to help them feed our health-care heroes,” the company said in a news release.
“We expected to make 3,000 pizzas but we actually did 3,500 to 4,000,” Visca said. “I’d say 1,400 to 1,500 pizzas were distributed at Niagara Falls alone. These are estimates: I can only go by the number of doughs that were going out.”
During the pandemic, the restaurant’s two locations, which have large dining rooms, were hit hard by the shutdown. They closed their doors but kept delivery and takeout going. Now they are doing extended hours with the ability to seat on the patio.
Visca took a moment to tell us a bit about their COVID-19 experience. They’ve been working eight-hour shifts – shorter shifts than the typically 12-hour shifts they were pulling before the pandemic.
“It’s funny, I was telling my friends that mentally it was more exhausting to try to keep ahead and think about our next steps,” Visca said.
Some employees are coming back but finding good staff is still a challenge. In one sense, that task is a little easier by the shutdown. “In Niagara, a region with many hospitality businesses, normally to try to get a cook is nearly impossible,” he said. “This year at least we have a bigger pool to choose from.”
“For all of our properties we started about a month ago telling staff they’d need to wear gloves and masks and holding training meetings. Even if some measures aren’t mandatory, such as temperature checks, we’re doing them. We can’t afford another shutdown.”
“When we’re able to open up inside, our restaurants are all ready. We’ve installed glass in between the booths, taken out tables and limited our capacity.” They are taking another time-consuming but important step to assist with contact tracing if needed. The team is taking down guest names and contact information – from guests willing to share it.
“The extra measures are important in themselves but also for optics,” Visca said. “I’ve had people say, we’ve been watching your staff and their doing everything right. They appreciate the effort.”
Thank you to Gold sponsor Parmalat and Silver sponsor HungerRush, formerly Revention, for supporting this initiative to recognize pizzerias being Good Neighbours. Know a pizzeria who is being a Good Neighbour? Let us know!
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