Canadian Pizza Magazine

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Restaurant revamp

Itza-mazing what a difference a reno can make


When the owners of Mediterranean 57 Pizza decided to retire, the future of a 36-year-old local institution was up in the air.

When the owners of Mediterranean 57 Pizza decided to retire, the future of a 36-year-old local institution was up in the air.

June7RickNixonPZ 
Itza Ristorante & Pizzeria co-owner Rick Nixon is at home in the restaurant’s renovated kitchen.


 

The Mediterranean opened its doors in 1969 in Nelson, B.C. In no time at all, it became a hot dining destination with a reputation for delicious pizzas. As the years went by, the owners didn’t invest much in maintaining the building or its decor. By 2005, the pizza was still as popular as ever, but the space was in rough shape.

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Enter Rick Nixon. In just a few years, he went from first-time restaurant owner to finalist in the Canadian Pizza Chef of the Year contest.

Nixon and his partner, Annick Sirois, bought the Mediterranean in 2005. “We were tired of working for other people, and we thought ‘we’ll go start our own restaurant’,” says Nixon. “When we went around town, we found out people still loved this pizza. We couldn’t let the place die, so we went in and said, ‘OK, let’s take over here’.”

That’s just what they did. Under new ownership, the Mediterranean continued to serve up nostalgia, but many of those much-loved pizzas were being carried out the door. The restaurant’s appearance (think traditional Greek restaurant circa the 1970s) was more shabby than nostalgic.

“Some people didn’t want to bring their dates there,” Nixon says. “When their family came to town, they didn’t want to bring them by.” But, he’s quick to add, “they might order a couple of pizzas to bring home because everybody loved the pizza.”

Nixon describes the situation as “almost borderline embarrassing.” The corners of the walls were chewed up, crumbling a little more with each passing year. In the kitchen, cabinets and cupboards were falling apart. Despite the less than ideal conditions, Nixon and his staff stayed focused on the food.

“We were always trying to make the food better and better, and there just came a point where we said, ‘OK, we can’t keep improving our food with the current state of affairs. We need some better equipment and if we’re going to do that, then let’s change the dining room too’.”

Fast forward to July 2010, A one-month-long renovation gave the restaurant a new lease on life. The smooth, repaired walls are painted warm gold and vibrant red, contrasting with the dark tile flooring. Customers in the sleek, modern 50-seat dining room can watch as the open kitchen preps pies and handmade pastas. Diners can choose between a cosy wooden table and a seat at the restaurant’s small bar.

Along with the new look came a new name: Itza Ristorante & Pizzeria. The name change has been important when developing a new brand. “We do want [customers] to think about the pizza,” says Nixon. “That’s why we made sure we kept pizzeria in our name. But we wanted them to know that things are different now.

The run-down pizza joint people didn’t want to bring their dates to has transformed into a classy destination for dinner, dessert or a nightcap. A new, expanded menu features mouthwatering dishes like black forest ham and smoked Gruyère rosalini and penne di mare made with scallops, mussels and prawns. But despite the new offerings, pizza remains at the heart of the business.

Several customers had already approached him to request more vegetarian choices. Nixon decided not only to expand the restaurant’s range of vegetarian options, but also to feature a wider variety of seasonal veggie toppings.

When the time came to dream up the new pizzas, he began experimenting. One of those experiments – the Italian Garden pizza, made with a basil and walnut pesto sauce and topped with sundried tomatoes, fresh spinach, zucchini, artichoke hearts, roasted red peppers, tomatoes and asparagus – earned him a spot in the Canadian Pizza Chef of the Year finals.

After Nixon’s strong showing in the Chef of the Year contest, demand for the Italian Garden spiked. An article in the local newspaper, the Nelson Star, helped build the buzz. For the next week, the restaurant struggled to keep up with topping preparations for their suddenly very much in demand pie. “Everyone in town had to come and try it. That was the flavour of the day.”

As the weeks went by, demand for the veggie laden pie levelled off. The next pizza to go gangbusters was the Meat Lovers, loaded up with pepperoni, salami, ham, cappacolli and lean beef.

This wasn’t the first time demand for one particular pie caught Nixon and his staff by surprise. In fact, it’s become business as usual since the restaurant re-opened after last year’s makeover.

“It’s baffling to all of us because up until we started the new restaurant, we always pretty much knew what our customers were having,” Nixon says. “We knew that on Friday nights, it was always going to be the fully loaded pizzas and a lot of them were going to be takeouts. Tuesday through Thursday was always going to be the one, two, three topping pizzas for the families going out to hockey or the theatre or whatever. That doesn’t exist anymore. Our clientele is all over the board.”

Nixon’s explanation for this phenomenon is simple: “It seems like we’re getting everyone in town coming through our doors and they’re bringing their tastes with them.”

If only every neighbourhood pizzeria faced such a challenge.

Take-away tips

  1. Evaluate your brand. Do you like what it says about your restaurant? About you?
  2. Solicit feedback from customers. Incorporate their suggestions where possible and appropriate.
  3. Be flexible. Today’s top seller can be tomorrow’s dud. Customer preferences change over time, just as your restaurant does.