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Staying power

How Chef Bondi’s Pizza outlasted over two dozen other local pizzerias to celebrate 50 thriving years


Phil DiLosa had a good job as a linotype operator at The Globe and Mail in the early 1960s.

Phil DiLosa had a good job as a linotype operator at The Globe and Mail in the early 1960s. He had steady hours, good pay, and interesting work. On weekends he helped out his friend Agostino (Gus) Bondi at Chef Bondi’s, his St. Thomas, Ont., pizzeria.

Everything in the store  
“Everything in the store is made from scratch,” says co-owner Phil DiLosa, who says 80 to 90 per cent of his business is takeout.


 

However, when the presses switched to a new process in 1966, requiring him to be retrained, DiLosa decided not only to work full time at the growing pizzeria but also to become partners with his friend.
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He never looked back. Forty-eight years later, at 72, he is thrilled to be at the helm of a business that has outlasted 25 other local pizzerias – he has kept a list – to stand as an important part of the southwestern Ontario city’s history.

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The pizzeria, which has seen railway and automotive booms come and go, celebrated its 50th anniversary in May. DiLosa, who handles day-to-day operations while Bondi prefers a behind-the-scenes role, had special red shirts made to commemorate the milestone. He wore his when Canadian Pizza visited. It reads: “Gooooood pizza [that’s six o’s] and greaaat panzerotti.”

“We also had business cards done up,” he adds with excitement. “There is a $2 discount right on the card, which will go into loot bags for our anniversary open house on the May 2-4 weekend.”

It’s clear DiLosa’s heart is in St. Thomas, a railway city with a population of about 37,000. The “automotive town” was anchored for years by a Ford plant and spinoff businesses Lear Seating, Therm-O-Disc and Timken, but lost much of its industry when Ford closed the plant in 2011.

DiLosa says they used to deliver to Timken at lunch and dinner and during Ford’s heyday they delivered for three meals a day. That thriving delivery route has ended.

Yet he sees a lot of potential in the city and in particular in the restaurant’s downtown location on Talbot Street within easy walking distance to the intra-city railway track being built to link the old Canada Southern railway station with a Via Rail station the city is refurbishing. The project is expected to give tourists a direct route between tourist town Port Stanley and London.

From scratch
“Everything in the store is made from scratch,” says DiLosa, who says 80 to 90 per cent of his business is takeout. He has been buying ingredients from just three suppliers since the 1970s because the quality is good and consistent. Tuesday is “cooking day,” when he makes the sauces. Everything is made at the restaurant, he says.

The veteran pizzaiolo says he believes they have stayed in business by focusing on the traditional items they do best.

The pizzeria serves two styles of pizza: original, which DiLosa describes as crisp and chewy, and Chicago style, where the cheese goes on top and the crust is softer and contains whole wheat. Which sells best?

“It’s about 50-50 between the two,” he says.

He likes to stick with traditional, time-tested ingredients and is not interested in branching out to such items as chicken and broccoli, as some other pizzerias have.

DiLosa also is firm in his baking methods: he is adamant about using only a wood-fired oven.

“With the conveyors, you get steam,” he points out, which he feels makes for a soggier crust. He prefers the even, golden brown crust a wood-fired oven can achieve.

The shop has always sold pasta, he says. Pizza, panzerotti, spaghetti, ravioli, manicotti, lasagna – these staple items sell well, especially panzerotti, which is so popular it’s up there with pizza on the front awning. He sells about 150 pasta orders a week.

DiLosa believes in offering deals, but he emphasizes they are special offerings and ways of combining items, not deep discounts. The shop has had a Tuesday special “forever” and a “3-on-3” that offers three pizzas with three toppings is very popular.

To give some idea of the changes half a century can bring, he says that a case of cheese that is now $200 cost $29 in 1964.

Acknowledging it is tough to make a living in this economy, he says the recent dairy subsidy offered to pizza operators has helped.

The restaurant is licensed, but the focus is squarely on the pizza and pasta, says DiLosa.

Community pizza
Although DiLosa says he has not formally dabbled in take ’n’ bake, he has sent half-baked pizza to Scotland at the request of a visitor who had fallen in love with his pizza. He has also taken orders from afar. One man called from his home in Alberta and asked DiLosa to surprise his father in St. Thomas with a favourite pizza on his birthday. That request turned into a monthly standing order.

The business reaches out to the St. Thomas and area community by doing catering for such events as buck and does and midnight wedding buffets. Another community initiative, school delivery, the shop finally gave up after 25 years because it proved to be a losing proposition for the restaurant given the time and labour spent preparing the pizzas and the slim margins that resulted.

The biggest change over the years, says DiLosa after some thought, has been in the demand for more toppings. Ham and pineapple – Hawaiian pizza – was unheard of in the 1960s. But while that innovation took hold, other items over the years did not, always bringing them back to their old standbys. He recalls introducing charbroiled Bondi Burgers, which were popular but turned out to be too costly, with the open flame elevating their insurance rates.

Low staff turnover
DiLosa takes pride in his hardworking staff of eight. His crew is made up largely of employees in their mid-20s and 30s. They work on a four-hour shift basis, with shifts staggered to have more staff on at peak times of 4 to 8 p.m. Three teenagers work as dishwashers. The boss is keen to acknowledge all employees. He offers a list, nervous about forgetting anyone: Charlie, Haillie, Aidan, Riley, Spencer, Katharine and the two Andrews.

The longest-serving employee, Charlie, has worked for the business for 44 years. He and Charlie work weekdays and on Saturdays and Sundays DiLosa oversees a separate weekend crew.

He hires through the government employment office, which does a good job of matching employee and employer needs. He says his secret to retaining happy employees is to give them some responsibility; for instance, if an employee wants a day off, he tells them to arrange it with the other employees. Trust is key in his business. “It’s always been like that,” says DiLosa. The driver pays before he leaves. Staff write the orders on the pizza box, instead of using paper slips.

Flexibility is also important, he says, adding that he tries to be approachable. “I tell everyone, if you have a problem just come to me and we’ll solve it.”

A former employee, he likes to point out, went on to become a vice-president at CIBC and later to establish a large, successful business of his own.

Six months ago, an employee built a website for Chef Bondi’s, and even though they gave up their Yellow Pages listing, business has increased more than DiLosa expected. “I paid $350 for a line and a Yellow Pages listing, but I’ve done more from that website,” he says.

Community hockey pride
After showing us his oven and his homemade tomato sauce, and extolling the virtues of a web presence, DiLosa realizes he has overlooked something. “Did you see our picture wall?”

Hockey Wall 
The shop is covered in photos of teams he coached and sponsored over the years, including those of his sons and 10 grandchildren.


 

The shop is covered in photos of teams he coached and sponsored over the years, including those of his sons and 10 grandchildren. A prominently displayed plaque honours a local team that made it to the OMHA finals in 1978-79.

The centrepiece of the wall is a large black-and-white photo of Bobby Orr showing Orr flying through the air as he is tripped after scoring the winning goal in the Stanley Cup in 1970. The NHL legend gave the photo to DiLosa. Below it is a newspaper photo of the Ken Danby print signed by Orr. “To my friend Phil, Best wishes,” it reads. “You probably can’t see it anymore,” says DiLosa, “but it also says, ‘Love your pizza!’ ”

St. Thomas mayor Heather Jackson added her kudos to the landmark business. “I would certainly congratulate Phil on a very successful business career in downtown St. Thomas. This is a great milestone to be celebrating!” she wrote in an email to Canadian Pizza.

When asked for funny stories, he thinks for a moment, then offers this small gem. “For years, every Friday night, this guy would order a pizza. I’d tell him ‘Now, make sure you carry it flat.’ And he would just tuck it under his arm like a newspaper.”

When he and Bondi sell the business, he says, it will go to someone who will nurture it and who is a good fit. He is committed to helping with the transition, however long it may take.

“I worked so hard,” he says. “I’m not just going to give it to anybody.”

DiLosa and his wife, Linda, have four grown children, none of whom is in the pizza business. Two sons, Joe and Paul, are chemical engineers in Sarnia, a third son Patrick works in advertising in Aurora and daughter Anne is a speech therapist in Waterloo. He is pleased with their diverse paths – and quick to point out the pizza business put four kids through university.

He is slowing his pace a bit and plans to spend more time at the family’s cottage in Port Stanley, where he enjoys fishing when not attending personally to continual business requests.

“It’s been a good life,” he says.