Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana has been a coveted restaurant among pizza lovers for decades. With the original location on Wooster Street in New Haven, the family operation has since experienced tremendous growth and expansion.
At Pepe Pizzeria, the goal is to create a delicious pie while maintaining the integrity of the original recipe. Total Food Service had the opportunity to sit down with Frank Pepe Pizzeria President, Gary Bimonte.
For those of our readers who are not familiar with the history of Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana, can you explain how it began and how it has grown over the years?
My grandfather, Frank Pepe, immigrated to the United States from Italy when he was a young teenager. He began working in New Haven, CT at a macaroni factory, until he traveled back to Italy to fight in World War I. At the end of the war my grandfather returned to New Haven, now married, and began working at a bread bakery. One day, he decided to flatten out a piece of bread dough and put tomato sauce on top. Originally, he would carry these small pizzas on his head and sell them around the neighborhood. Eventually, he implemented a pushcart and became a staple within the community. Having trouble keeping track of debts, my grandmother suggested having the customers come to him. My grandfather accepted a small loan from a family member and opened up Francesco Pepe – Now known as Frank Pepe The Spot. As business grew, he eventually expanded and created space for tables, allowing him to accommodate customers who wished to dine in. Remaining in business through the depression, he eventually outgrew the space and in 1936 relocated to a larger building, which is now known as Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana.
The oven that your grandfather used was one of the most incredible in the industry. As you expanded, how did you replicate such a phenomenal oven?
We were very apprehensive. Fortunately, we were able to find some documents that detailed how the original oven was constructed. Basically, my grandfather had the blueprints. I knew a gentleman who was able to review the blueprints, and repair the original oven. Our general contractor watched him very closely, documenting his work, and now we have our own updated blueprints. However, there was certainly a learning curve. Our first oven had some flaws, but the last three ovens we’ve built are perfect.
What were some of the technical issues that made replicating the oven so challenging?
The challenges revolved around an insulation issue. When the original oven was built there was a chamber at the bottom that contained sand, which held the heat for the deck. For the first oven that we built, the sand was replaced with insulated bricks. However, we discovered that sand yielded a far better result. That’s why our ovens weigh about 100,000 pounds. In addition to the brick and the steel, there’s tons of sand underneath.
As consumers have evolved over the years, have your customers’ tastes changed, or are you still making the same great pie that your grandfather created?
We’ve absolutely continued making pizza based on my grandfather’s recipe. Over the years we experimented with a few changes. For example, we briefly switched from in-house sliced pepperoni to pre-sliced pepperoni and our customers recognized the difference immediately. As a result, we returned to slicing the pepperoni in-house, as my grandfather did.
When did the decision to expand come about? Please talk about that vision.
We’re very pleased with the growth that has occurred. It started about twelve years ago. My oldest cousin, Anthony, contacted a business lawyer who connected us with a consultant. The consultant was brought in to assist in managing the New Haven restaurant. He introduced us to a third gentleman who praised our product and suggested that we try to duplicate it in another location. When we were trying to decide where to open a new location, it was between Fairfield and Waterbury. We had a strong client base in both cities, but we chose Fairfield, and it was a homerun. [Years later, Pepe’s opened a location in Waterbury as well.]
What were some of the lessons learned in the first year of expansion?
A large part of the learning curve was getting the oven right. At the time, we were unaware that the bricks contained moisture and needed to dry out to avoid any undesired effect on the essence of the flavor. Now we fire up the ovens two months before opening a location to avoid that issue.
Please talk a little bit about building a management team, and creating a culture within the restaurants.
Our consultant helped to secure a location, and was in charge of opening the Fairfield location. We went on to create the Pepe Development Company, and made the consultant, Ken Berry, the CEO. He’s worked in the food industry for over forty years, so he had many contacts. Berry led the interviewing process, brought in the managers, and through building a team he created a culture. Now, twelve years later, we’re working on our tenth location.
Through the years, many other pizza brands and concepts have emerged. Do you tend to focus on your own project, or do you find yourself thinking about potential competitors? What does the pizza industry look like at this point?
The pizza industry has grown leaps and bounds, but we tend to focus on what we have to do. We work every day to continue making the terrific product that my grandfather created. My grandfather always said, “You need to do one thing, and do it the best you can.” We’ve held on to that wisdom. We’re not in the pasta business, and we don’t make subs. We focus on making great pizza.
When you operated a single location, you could work with a local vendor for pizza dough and toppings. However, when you expanded and began delivering to various areas, did that require any strategic change with the vendors you worked with?
Yes, that changed as soon as we started expanding. When our sole operation was in New Haven, I used local vendors. However, as soon as we opened in Fairfield we needed to make the necessary adjustments. Now we use a single distributor that serves all of our locations.
What is your strategy in terms of marketing and advertising? I’m sure you were accustomed to lines down the street, but as you expanded into new locations how did you attract new customers?
We have a marketing department, and our CEO was instrumental. Now we have billboards, and social media has proven very beneficial.
Can you discuss the beverage side of your business?
My grandfather went through prohibition. He had bottled beer and draft beer. He never served wine, but we serve wine now. At this point we also offer craft beers, IPA’s and seasonals. The Director of Operations makes the decisions regarding beverages for all of the locations.
Have you incorporated online ordering or other digital solutions into your business model?
We’re currently experimenting with it. We do online orders at our Yonkers and Chestnut Hill locations. At this point, we’re trying to find the right software, but we are certainly looking into it.
To learn more about Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana’s history and location, visit their website.