A Pizzeria Hangs on Despite Competition and a Struggling Economy

Story and photo by Teresa Roca

Gennaro Chiarello, onwer of Gennaro’s Restaurant and Pizzeria on Staten Island, says he keeps adding to the menu to keep up with his customers and the economic pinch many of them feel.

More than 235 businesses in Staten Island sell pizza. Some succeed, some fail. Gennaro’s Restaurant and Pizzeria is one of the survivors, a family pizzeria that has been in business for more than 42 years.

Business at Gennaro’s has been slower in recent months because of the weak economy, losing 15 to 25 percent of its yearly income, says Gennaro Chiarello, the owner of Gennaro’s. “To stay in business, we keep up with the changing of times and cater to what our customers want,” he says. “We offer shrimp, clam, and broccoli rabe pizza, pepper-and-egg heroes, and more original plates.”

His closest competitor, Chris Haynes of Villa Monte Pizzeria, just down the street, says he goes one step farther.

“We don’t just offer different toppings, but different sauces,” Haynes says. “Our vodka sauce pizza with fresh mozzarella on top, grandma pie with chunks of delicious plum tomatoes, garlic, fresh mozzarella, and parsley, are our most sold pizzas – that Gennaro’s does not offer.”

He adds, “What makes us the better pizzeria is our diverse selection of pies.”

Overall, the number of pizzerias in the United States fell last year, to 64,951 in March from 67,554 in July 2009, according PMQ Pizza Magazine’s Pizza Power Report. Despite this decline, pizza sales have held steady amid the struggling economy, with a national total of $36.3 billion in December 2009 – the latest figures available – down only slightly from $36.6 billion in January 2009, according to Pizza Power Report of 2010. It seems likely that as people cut back on dining at fancy restaurants, they turn to pizza.

At Gennaro’s, one element of its success is its location. Gennaro’s is on New Dorp Lane, a busy street off of Hyland Boulevard in Staten Island, surrounded by New Dorp High School and shopping centers filled with clothing boutiques, shoe stores, a movie theater and more.

Gennaro’s benefits from passers-by, advertises in phone books and with flyers and counts on word of mouth.

“I have been coming to Gennaro’s for 10 years now,” said a JP Morgan Chase consultant, Giuseppe Ciaccia. “I started coming here because my friends would always rave about it. With the homemade food, reasonable prices, and friendly staff, I recommend it to everyone.”

To distinguish itself from the many chain pizzerias, Gennaro’s seeks a homemade taste. “We use fresh mozzarella and simmer our sauce to perfection,” says Chiarello. “With various seasonings, our customers are left with a sauce that is recognizable of its fresh tomatoes. We make sure to never run out of pepperoni and mushrooms, our two most sold toppings.”

Its longevity has turned Gennaro’s into a neighborhood institution.

“This is a family restaurant, it’s like a neighborhood,” said a waiter, Santos Orea, who has been working at Gennaro’s for 17 years. “I know most of the customers who come here and they are mostly families. I have watched families grow and children grow up, it’s a really nice place to work.”

One reason many businesses fail is because of rising expenses. With the price of gas, electricity, food, water and other necessities going up, owners of pizzerias and restaurants are forced to raise prices. Aware that its customers are also facing tighter budgets, Gennaro’s emphasizes its special.

“We give full dinners starting at $11.95-$18.95, a special for the kids, and from Sunday- Thursday we give a pie and pitcher of soda for only $12,” says Chiarello.

But another competitor, Francesca’s Pizzeria, says Gennaro’s doesn’t go far enough.

“What is wrong with Gennaro’s is that they don’t deliver,” says Louis Brown, a Francesca’s employee. “No one wants to go out anymore.”

Chiarello must agree – he’s planning to add delivery soon, hoping that will increase his sales, which are currently about 1,000 pizzas a week. “We have had some of the same customers since 1969 coming in every week,” he says. “We treat our customers with respect, and we make sure they are served with fresh products and generous portions. Ask anyone and they will recommend Gennaro’s.”