Small is beautiful
By Martin ForguesFeatures Profiles
How the humble minds behind Gerry Pizza challenged industry trends and made local history
At first glance, Gerry Pizza has everything it needs – to close down, that is.
At first glance, Gerry Pizza has everything it needs – to close down, that is. Driving there means mazing through Charlesbourg, Quebec’s industrial park. The place – a tiny wooden shack with a dimly lit sign – is easy to pass by a few times. This writer (shamefully) did. Twice. And going through the menu for the first time guarantees a panic attack for your wallet – which tends to happen when a 12-inch pepperoni pizza goes for $25, almost double what one of Gerry’s main rivals charges (Normandin, who, unlike Gerry Pizza, delivers).
And yet, the tiny wooden shack with its dimly lit sign, outrageous prices and absolute requirement to drive to its secluded location has been around for 43 years, making history in its own right decade after decade.
Pizza made its first North American appearance in 1900s New York City, but Quebec City diners couldn’t taste it for decades without driving south of the border, until the 1960s, when Gogo Pizza, Quebec City’s first pizzeria, opened. This inconvenience, along with recurrent trips to Maine and upstate New York, gave Gerry Pizza’s founder, Gérard Trudel, an idea. In 1968, the longtime salesman for Scott Papers bought a small trailer that was selling hotdogs and french fries next to Canadian National’s railroad track in Charlesbourg. His breakthrough idea: he added a Blodgett pizza oven to the trailer’s culinary arsenal.
“He was a hard worker. He kept his day job at Scott Papers while establishing his restaurant,” says Claude “Gerry” Trudel, Gérard’s son, who currently owns and operates Quebec City’s second pizzeria in history since the original Gerry’s passing in October 2011.
After four years of relative success, another idea struck the salesman-turned-entrepreneur. After moving the trailer to another location about 500 metres westwards on Henri-Bourassa Boulevard, he decided to build a more permanent restaurant, in his own original way. “There was this century-old barn on the lot,” recalls Trudel. “My father carefully dismantled it and built his restaurant with the materials,” he adds, citing his father’s affection for antiques in explaining the rather unorthodox idea.
The pizza maker had to wait another decade to see his hard work finally pay off. “The restaurant finally became profitable around 1982,” says Trudel. He has his own explanation for the sudden soaring in revenue, and advertising was never a part of the strategy.
|Claude “Gerry” Trudel in Quebec City’s Gerry Pizza. |
“In the ’80s, people started to go eat out as part of a multi-event night, as a first step before going to the movies or to a bar or nightclub,” he says. “Since they were in a bit of a hurry, we were able to rotate through multiple customers.” Never a fan of advertising – he would barely place ads in local newspapers – Gerry Trudel Sr. bet on highly personalized service, never changing his ingredients and recipes (even if it meant higher prices) and word of mouth. Lifestyle seems a reasonable explanation for the ’80s soaring, but a more folkloric story lies behind it. And it had to involve hockey.
“This is the first place where the famed Statsny brothers, Peter and Anton, ate after they defected to the West,” Trudel proudly boasts. Gerry Pizza also became the unofficial restaurant of the Quebec Nordiques in the early ’80s, with most of its roster and then-head coach Michel Bergeron being regular patrons.
The restaurant still features its famed, oft-booked Table bleue where the Statsnys had their first meal in the Capitale-Nationale.
But times have changed. “Since the ’90s, business has been stagnating since people going out now tend to do only one activity, either going out eating, or to a movie, or going out dancing and drinking,” Trudel says.
The only way to pump up profit that Trudel can think of would be franchising, which is totally out of the question.
There hasn’t been any renovation to the building since the 1970s; the still-cozy 52-seat dining room has retained its original look and the menu is made of cheaply manufactured plasticized paper – and Trudel doesn’t need or want to expand. “It would betray the restaurant’s essence,” he says.
After being greeted by a portrait of former Quebec premier René Lévesque – evoking the founder’s staunch sovereign views – and glancing through the menu (which features only pizza and lasagna), there was still no real explanation for the Gerry Spécial – the 10-incher I ordered with a hefty $25 price tag.
But the puzzle was quickly solved at the sight of the pie, a classic “all-dressed” pizza complemented with bacon and onions. Real bacon. Whole strips of it. Real cheese. One-half-inch thick. And all-beef pepperoni prepared as per Claude Trudel’s specifications in an undisclosed location.
Trudel is proud of the establishment his father built, but taking back Gerry Pizza with his sister was not part of his plan. Trudel, a culinary school graduate, worked outside of La Belle Province, both in the rest of Canada and abroad in his 20s, but never imagined he’d be back in the family business.
“I love money,” Trudel says. “Making pizza is my living, but my real passion is stock trading,” he admits, confessing that much of his income comes from what he still describes as a hobby.
Trading also led to an unlikely gig. In 2010, after what was supposed to be a one-time appearance, he became a regular cast member of local web-based station Radio-Pirate, hosted by maverick radio personality Jeff Fillion, who is credited for Trudel taking his father’s namesake as an avatar. Since then, Trudel has truly become Gerry Pizza for the station’s audience, who, according to the pizzaman/stock trader, contribute to rejuvenating his aging patrons.
The changes in his career may have led to new opportunities, but Trudel has maintained the integrity of the business. “We never changed anything in 43 years,” says Trudel. This also explains the aging yet regular clientele, greeted by the restaurant’s latest hire, 22-year veteran Claire St-Louis, who knew a retired couple’s usual order by heart, and served them complimentary, pre-meal coffee. These small but personal touches contribute to the success of Gerry Pizza. “Small is beautiful. My father was a humble man, like this place.”
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