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Rebuilding a legacy

How Maria’s Original Pizza endured a devastating fire and rallied its community


April 24, 2020
By Colleen Cross


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Maria’s Pizza was established in 1968 by Maria and Virgilio Risi. Photo courtesy of Maria’s Original Pizza

This is a story about resilience, past traditions and hope for the future.

As Gino and Bobbie-Sue Risi, watched a massive fire destroy their Brantford, Ont., pizzeria, Gino vowed to rebuild the namesake pizzeria opened half a century ago by his parents, Maria and Virgilio Risi.

“Take pictures because we’re rebuilding this thing,” he said, thinking of his late mother and her practical attitude. “She would have just said, “It’s a building. Nobody got hurt. Let’s just do it again. And that’s kind of what I went for. There wasn’t even a hesitation to think about it.”

He recalls the fateful day – Sunday, June 4, 2017. “We got the phone call in the morning. We live about 10 kilometres away, and driving into the city, I could see the smoke. I was sick to my stomach.”

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When he arrived at 428 Colborne St., his pizzeria and his sister’s business and home were engulfed by flames and beyond saving. But thanks to a practical and positive outlook, the family legacy would go on.

Gino and his wife, Bobbie-Sue, have owned and operated Maria’s Pizza in downtown Brantford, Ont., for the past five years. Prior to that Gino operated a location of Maria’s on busy, plaza-heavy King George Road. Bobbie-Sue started working for Maria’s 20 years ago making the sauce two days a week while teaching kindergarten. She retired from teaching when the fire happened to work full time. They are a thoughtful, high-spirited tag team.

Maria and Virgilio Risi started the business in 1968. At one point in time there were three stores in Brantford. The two remaining stores have been run separately for the past five years.

Rebuilding process

The family forged ahead with what turned out to be a lengthy rebuilding process. “We went to an architect we knew who worked alongside us to give it that old charm it had but with some new things to make it more enjoyable and better workflow – like air conditioning, higher ceilings and better windows,” Bobbie-Sue says.

“Then we got a builder. Waiting for all the permits to come through, that process took a long time,” she adds.

Community response: ‘If you build it, we will come”

While the couple waited for permits for the 2,600-square-foot shop, the small city of 100,000 rallied around them. “We had so much love and support going on even when we were doing the rebuild,” Bobbie-Sue says. A couple days after the fire, firefighters took the “Maria’s Pizza” awning off the building before demolition. Gino and the couple’s teenaged sons, Virgil and Robbie, stood it up at the worksite on two by fours. “That did something to so many people,” she says. “There were so many posts on social media. One fan, Joshua Wall, who is now a Ward 5 councillor, did a big post saying, ‘This is the kind of thing that makes you want to get up and do stuff.’ ”

Their delivery driver, Patti Parker, drove by one night and saw chalk words in front of where the pizza shop had been: “If you build it, we will come.”

“It was like Field of Dreams,” Bobbie-Sue says. “It was awesome.”

During Maria’s soft opening in June 2019, two years ¬– almost to the day – since the fire, they posted on Facebook they’d be selling 100 pizzas on a first come, first served basis. The city was hungry for the business to reopen and they ended up selling more than 350 pies that afternoon.

Later that summer, they showed off their newly rebuilt pizzeria and thanked their staff and the community that stood by them. The grand reopening included special golden tickets for a large half Canadian pizza for $10 instructing customers to come during specific time periods throughout the day.

Their family, friends, staff, local politicians and the tradespeople who helped rebuild the business came out to celebrate. Gino’s aunt and Maria’s sister, Rosa, cut the ribbon after studying a collage of more than 200 photos of the family and business at the front of the shop.

Same pizza, same experience – only better
In rebuilding, the couple decided not to mess with the layout, ingredients or the other elements that customers love about Maria’s.

One of those elements was the doorway. “We wanted the doorway, with that little alcove, or nook, so it looks inviting,” Gino says.

Another key thing was installing new Garland gas deck ovens similar to those they’d had for 28 years in order to re-create the taste of their signature pizza. “They’re a little bit different model but they’re cooking pretty much the same,” he says. “We wanted them in the exact same spot so that when people come in, it reminds them of the old one because the counter’s in the same spot roughly – and the kitchen is the same.”

They’ve also kept the same ingredients: the same dough Gino was making before the fire, the same sauce Bobbie-Sue learned to make from Zia (Aunt) Rosa and the same cheese.

Gino says he had offers of less expensive cheese from different companies. “I said, ‘I’m sorry – we’ve got to stick with what we’ve been doing.” As if to explain why, he describes a text they received recently from a longtime customer who enjoyed reliving the experience of eating Maria’s pizza with a Coke he’d had 20 years ago.

“That means a lot to me,” Gino says.

The couple were serious about re-creating the pizza that made Maria’s so popular. That meant seasoning new trays until they got the taste right. “The pizzas weren’t coming out the same in the beginning as they are now,” Gino says. “It took probably a couple hundred seasonings per tray to get them to cook decent. Now they’re coming out beautiful.”

A few precious items were salvaged after the fire. The 40-gallon sauce pot, the dough machine and a large fork – welded by Gino himself – used to pull pizzas out of the oven.

“There were a few things I managed to keep, like our measuring cup that doesn’t actually measure anything. That’s how the ladies used to measure stuff. I wanted it so bad and I found it in the rubble,” he says.

“The dough machine was the biggest thing because it holds 750 pounds of dough per batch and it would have been very expensive – about $80,000 – to replace. I got my father-in-law (Brian Squance) to completely refurbish it. Without that machine, the financial stress would have been huge because the insurance didn’t pay near what it would have cost to replace it.”

Gino’s advice to those starting out or starting over: “Get better insurance. I was underinsured on everything. That’s one thing that will never happen again. But the insurance company did pay right away to the full extent of the policy.”

There were a few unexpected health and safety features they had to install and put them over budget significantly, Bobbie-Sue adds. “For the rebuild we wanted to do some type of lunch counter for sandwiches, desserts, a slice of the day and pastas. That was an upgrade. To do the kind of convection oven that I wanted you needed to have the whole system with a hood on top. Big bucks! And when you’re already in it, you just do it.”

“For wheelchair accessibility, the washroom had to be a certain size,” Gino says. “You needed the automatic door openers, which were $4,000 a piece. Even though we don’t have the restroom for the public because we are strictly takeout, they said we needed to have it wheelchair accessible for our employees.”

They made a few important changes simply to improve the shop. “Gino and I dreamt about it,” Bobbie-Sue says. “We picked out colours and tiles. I had a little vision of what it would be and I’d show Gino and he’d say, yes or no or maybe,” she says, referring to the bright red and contrasting bright yellow tile, new counter and modern fixtures.

“The kitchen is basically how it has been for 50 years and it worked pretty well,” Gino says with a laugh. “We changed one counter. Instead of the girls making the pizzas facing the wall, now they face us and the ovens.”

“It’s good for the communication,” Bobbie-Sue adds. “We found when the girls face the wall and make their pizzas, they weren’t part of the flow. Now they see and hear things because they’re looking at whoever is on ovens.”

Fewer mistakes are made, they both agree. For example, their first Friday night they had no problems with orders. “That never happened before,” Gino says. “It’s cool that changing one aspect so that the pizza makers are involved – with the stretchers, with the ovens, with the front – can make such a difference.”

They also added acoustic panels to soften a distracting echo. “It was terrible,” Gino says. “We couldn’t even put our fans on because they were so loud. The panels helped the situation immensely. It still isn’t as cosy as I’d like in the sound department – but we’re working on it. It’s just about trying to get the feel we had before.”

In that same vein, something they have kept is the name. “We actually thought when we did the rebuild that we would have a name similar to Maria’s, like maybe “Son of Maria,” “Mama Maria’s,” Bobbie-Sue says. “But you can’t mess with it. So we went with Maria’s the Original – that was the original location, that was hers and Gino’s dad, Virgil’s.”

Staff like family

Because the couple take to heart the idea of a work team as family, their first Christmas party after reopening saw a few tears flow. “I love these kids and these people who work for us: they are ours,” Bobbie-Sue says. “We both broke down trying to thank them because without them we don’t have a pizzeria. If you want to do well, you’ve got to make sure you treat your employees with respect – and we do.”

They also wanted to support their staff emotionally. “They were scared (when the pizzeria was destroyed) because of the history of Maria’s,” Bobbie-Sue says. “A lot of the kids’ parents used to come for their Friday night treat. They were telling us memories of their dads or their granddads coming in to get pizza. It was emotional.”

‘Overwhelming’ response to call for new staff

Four longtime Maria’s staff returned when the pizzeria reopened. When it came time to hire new staff, the response was overwhelming, Bobbie-Sue recalls. Front window coverings displayed the logo, and invited applications. “We had a stupid amount of resumés – I couldn’t even get to all of them. I don’t want to sound cocky, but I swear it was in the hundreds.”

Many of the new staff were young and known to the family: “I had some type of relationship with their parents, or I had taught them or I knew of them through a friend of a friend.” She had taught four of the girls in kindergarten and they all go to their son Robbie’s school.

Maria’s is like a second home to many staff. “A lot of our staff are champions in their own way, whether it’s through sports or through music or through honour roll,” Bobbie-Sue says. “We go to their games or recitals or whatever is happening with our staff and give them a shout-out on social media. They are very impressed and proud to be given any type of platform.”

She tells of another tradition that has changed slightly since pandemic measures took hold in mid-March. “In October we started opening on Sundays. We thought, what else are we going to do this winter? Might as well open. We have a little staff of six that does a shift from 4 to 7. Afterwards we would take them out to a local pub or restaurant and buy them dinner. It was kind of our thing: we’d go out for wings and a burger. It’s nice to talk and laugh and find out what is going on in their life. Since COVID-19, we can’t eat at our favourite places, so we’re just getting takeout and having it at our pizza shop. We’re keeping it up in a different way – it is weird, it’s still where you work – but it’s still nice. They’re getting a little treat and no one’s coming in to say, ‘Number 32!’ and we can just sit and have our meal.”

To learn how Maria’s adjusted to meet the pandemic’s social distancing measures, see Cross-Country Viewpoint in the March/April issue of Canadian Pizza.