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Operating in a new normal

In a pandemic world, pizzeria owners are making decisions using public health advice, lessons learned from other businesses and gut instinct


Photo credit: © ArtistGNDphotography / gettyimages

In pizzerias across the country, workers are doing what they’ve always done: make great-tasting pies for a hungry public. This in spite of the pandemic putting pressure on restaurants from coast to coast.

But it hasn’t been easy.

Provincial governments across Canada ordered restaurants to close dining rooms in late March but continued to allow takeout and delivery service. At first blush, it would seem a simple matter for pizzerias to operate, even thrive, in the COVID-19 environment. But the reality is very different. Pizzerias have had to adapt to the “new normal,” be nimble with their business plans and rapidly transition many elements of their operations.

There’s no established playbook for this sort of thing, no step-by-step business plan to follow. Instead, pizzeria owners are making decisions using a combination of public health advice, results from other businesses that have resumed and sometimes just going with their gut.

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“As soon as we heard the coronavirus was circulating in our community in early March, I jumped immediately to install aggressive new policies and procedures throughout the store,” says Sandi Stoyan, who owns and operates Mickey’s Pizza in Mississauga, Ont. (once featured on the TV show You Gotta Eat Here!) with her son, Alex. With a background in the health-care industry, Stoyan recognized how serious the matter was and how strong measures had to be to protect staff and customers. “I knew we needed to crack down hard because the virus would be around for many months. We have to assume everyone is at risk and that everyone may have it. So, with that in mind, we had to decide how to move forward.”

The first step, according to Stoyan, was making sure staff feel comfortable at the pizzeria. Measures included providing workers with gloves and face masks (“I hired a seamstress who designs ball gowns to sew washable masks,” she says), and installing Plexiglas shields over the counter to provide a barrier between them and the customers they served.

Brian Vallis similarly knew he had to take additional measures to protect his staff. The owner of Piatto Pizzeria and Enoteca, with several locations in Atlantic Canada, he has dozens of employees to consider. “I researched everything I could on the virus and rewrote our policies, procedures and protocols based on what I found,” Vallis explains. “I directed the manager on duty to conduct temperature checks of each staff member upon entering, and I also began an extensive training program on COVID-19 safety, mandating that every employee get a 90 per cent grade. I had to explain to my staff that this isn’t just about their health, but someone else’s as well – your co-workers, your family, our customers.”

But there’s no point in training up staff if there’s no business. Stoyan says sales were down 25 per cent for the first month, and Vallis had to close a few outlets in the wake of plummeting revenue. For the pizza industry to rebound, customer confidence must be restored.

A big part of that is clearly communicating new policies to customers through signage, placing social distancing markers on floors, and reassuring customers through frequent and thorough sterilization of every surface.

“For their safety, we fundamentally changed the way we serve our customers,” Stoyan explains. “We created five-minute service windows, staggering one customer every five minutes, to limit the number of people in the store at any one time to reduce exposure and enable us to sterilize the register, POS units and counters between each customer.”

When customers come inside a restaurant, staff are responsible for directing and managing them to maintain proper physical distancing and observe other protocols.

Many pizzerias have removed dispensers of napkins, plates and cutlery. Instead, they are providing customers with prepared packages containing these items, limiting the number of hands touching them and ensuring the highest safety standards.

New business models have helped pizzerias endure during these past turbulent months. Many have pushed delivery with promotional campaigns designed to encourage people to “give back by taking out.” The mantra always is contactless delivery – that is, prepayment and leaving the food on the doorstep – as health-care professionals have repeatedly stressed the only real danger in take-out food comes during the face-to-face interaction phase of the transaction.

To increase capacity, many pizzerias are signing up for food delivery services, like UberEats, despite the high rates they charge for their service.

Stoyan for one has bucked this trend, even though it may have undermined her revenue. “A lot of people are signing up for these third-party delivery services, but I don’t want to bring someone into the store who I can’t 100 per cent vouch for. If I’m not able to control everyone who comes into the store, I can’t keep my customers and my staff safe,” she explains. Instead, she is encouraging in-store transactions, but to limit the number of people in the pizzeria she asks customers to wait in the car and calls them when their pizza is ready.

Others have initiated contactless curbside delivery – place an order, drive to the shop, and your steaming hot pie will be placed in the trunk of your car.

Vallis has started thinking farther down the road towards reopening his dining rooms. He knows further changes will need to be made to comply with regulations, including smaller caps to dining room and heightened sanitization (such as more thorough, and more labour-intensive, cleaning of tables and chairs between diners).

“We need to adapt,” he explains. “I’ve already cut back on my menus, focusing on fast sellers to reduce costs, and will likely need to keep that in place for the foreseeable future. I’ll be creating separate exits and entrances to eliminate choke points where people might be forced to gather, and I’ll be taking only reservations so we can manage the number of people in the restaurant.”

Still, he’s concerned about what the future holds. “I don’t believe we’ll return to our old norms because the pandemic will change consumer behaviour and expectations,” he says. “Studies have shown it takes 60 days to create a habit. We’re well past that now. Many of the changes to our lifestyle may be here to stay now. So how do we move forward?”

That’s a question Stoyan is grappling with as well, especially with a new restaurant slated to open this year. But she firmly believes all of the extra measures are worth it.

“I think we, the pizza industry, help create a sense of normality and comfort by being open,” she says. “People are craving that.”


Andrew Hind is a freelance writer from Bradford, Ont., specializing in food, history and travel. He is the author of 25 books and the proud father of one.