A Goodfella's pizza is hard to find -- for now

Aug. 12, 2003

I love the intro sound bite on the Web site of Goodfella's Old World Brick Oven Pizza & Pasta. Open the home page and you'll hear Salvatore Russo, the company's pizzaiolo cum spokesman, explaining the Goodfella's magic:

"The pizza that we create, OK, you could put sauce and cheese on it, OK?" Russo says, in a heavy Brooklyn accent. "But what you need is a little somethin' extra. What I'm talking about is a li'l passion, a li'l love, and a group of people that has your back. That's what makes a great pizza."

But perhaps the most interesting feature of the site is the claim written at the bottom of each Web page: "We're New York Italian."

In this age of marketing, branding and positioning, that's a bold statement. It's a promise that

Steve Coomes, Editor

Goodfella's is both unique and authentic, qualities many other restaurant companies claim but don't deliver.

So can Goodfella's back up that claim?

The answer to that question is known only to owners E. Jay Meyers and Scot Cosentino. Since opening their first unit in Staten Island, N.Y., in 1993, the men have developed, refined and finally franchised a company that now boasts 15 units. Another five are slated to open before year's end, but as Meyers told me several weeks ago, "We're so busy right now that we hope a couple of them might slide in to next year."

Currently the company has sites in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Connecticut and Indiana. One far-flung site in Puerto Rico should open in a few months.

While delivery-carryout units represent the majority of pizza industry site growth in the past two decades, Goodfella's cannot be counted among their number. Its sites are full-blown restaurants seating as many as 200 and serving a broad menu with a suitably matched wine list. Each unit delivers, too.

Its systemwide per-transaction average is $28.30, and per-person average is $13.25. Do the math and you'll find that these properties are capable of generating seven-figure annual sales.

All the tools for a great restaurant are there, and the machine is running, but if these 'fellas really want to make it hum, they've got to deliver that "New York Italian" experience outside of New York.

Can they?

Food, family, fun

Multiple victories in pizza industry contests prove the company's brick-oven pizza is top notch. Personally speaking, I've had none better. On a recent visit to the company's Carmel, Ind., unit, my wife and I split a small Sally Pie (Russo's prize-winning concoction of roasted potatoes and

chicken tossed in rosemary and lemon, and topped with fresh mozzarella and cheddar) and a shell steak (a cut of beef short loin sometimes called club steak) seared on the deck of its gas-fired brick oven.

No doubt about it, the shell steak was one perfectly cooked cut o' cattle, but in the end, we wished we had ordered only the Sally Pie. Great beef is easily had in Kentucky, but Sally Pies are nowhere to be found in the Bluegrass State. Knowing it will be a long time until I get such a treat again, I wish I'd have savored it solely.

Multiple other pies are listed on the menu, as well as a bevy of tempting pastas, salads, sandwiches and desserts. And as we saw that night, such a breadth of offerings priced favorably draws all types of diners: families looking for choice, college kids seeking pizza only, and retirees who can afford $20-plus steaks.

That's great news for guests, but it poses a stiff challenge for kitchen supervisors. Maintaining such a large inventory and executing a vast array of dishes consistently will test the staffs of each and every Goodfella's restaurant. And as Meyers and Cosentino surely have discovered, the further their restaurants stray from home, the more difficult it is to duplicate and ensure the standards set in Staten Island.

To pull that off over the long haul, the men just about need to clone themselves by finding owner-operators who are as passionately perfectionistic as they -- not to mention well heeled enough to franchise a Goodfella's unit. My guess is they'll find plenty of prospects with money, but far fewer with the necessary moxie to run such a serious restaurant.

Perhaps the toughest challenge has been and will continue to be replicating the New York atmosphere of the original Goodfella's. Here's a good example of that: When the Carmel store opened, the training crew of New Yorkers worked to teach the Hoosier staff to say things like "mootz-ah-rel" (mozzarella) and "pro-szhute" (prosciutto).

Today, however, the pseudo-accents are all but gone, said Bart Taylor, the restaurant's manager. "We've had a lot of turnover, and it's been hard to keep that going and retrain that. When E. Jay and the guys come back out, we'll see if we can get that going again."

Let's hope they can do it, because such touches give an operation a memorable personality -- that New York Italian feel Goodfella's is after.

Perhaps some lessons on how to duplicate a concept's theme can be learned from the 101-store Buca di Beppo chain. Much of Buca's "Southern Italian immigrant" theme rests on its freshly prepared, oversize, family-style portions, walls plastered with innumerable black-and-white photos of families, Italian icons and Catholic-centered scenes, and predictable tunes sung by Italian-Americans playing on the sound system.

Quite simply, those elements which make Buca's tasty, tony and hilariously tacky shtick stick are fixed: recipes, a fairly brief menu, décor and atmosphere. Servers merely need to fit into each restaurant's high-energy, festive mold.

To me, locking these things in is much simpler than teaching others the nuances of a New York accent.

Going forward

Like every good company before it, Goodfella's will face growing pains along the way. Maintaining consistently high standards across a growing system is an unspeakable challenge that will stretch the small company's time, talents and abilities.

Though both Cosentino and Meyers are as fun-loving and affable as the day I met them four years ago, both are clearly busier, on the road more, wedded to their cell phones and focused on operations beyond their Staten Island fiefdom.

And yet, they seem to smile more than ever. Like experienced parents expecting another child, they're beyond fretting over sleepless nights, even though they know more are on the way. The excitement of a new creation entering their world seemingly hides the sobering truth that their next restaurant, like a newborn, will need a lot of nurturing, training and TLC.

The great news is that, so far, Meyers and Cosentino have reared 15 darn good kids. And if the pizza pops follow the patterns and plans that got their other operations where they are today, the new ones are destined for success, too.

Maybe the company's future success boils down to doing what Russo emphasizes in Goodfella's Web site intro. If you apply a little passion and love to something, it becomes special. And that's clearly something one can say about Goodfella's.

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