By Kendall Fisher, executive producer
Una Pizza Napoletana is a beloved dine-in restaurant in New York City specializing in wood-fired pizzas, for which their simple but carefully selected ingredients are the star attraction. The dedication and diligence owner Anthony Mangieri has put into his craft during the past couple of decades has earned him and his restaurant a loyal following and rave reviews, including being called “the finest sit-down pizza in all five boroughs” by The New York Times’s prickly, well-known food critic, Peter Wells.
We hosted Mangieri on the “Grow Wire Podcast" a few months back, which we recorded from his restaurant’s Lower East Side location just a month or so before his planned opening of a second Una Pizza in Atlantic Highlands, N.J. Since then, the New York City location has been featured on Showtime’s megahit “Billions.” Mangieri’s and Una’s stars continued to rise.
But now, because of the coronavirus, the New York restaurant is on hiatus, while the New Jersey one is defying the brand’s heritage as a dine-in shop, instead keeping the lights on as a takeout establishment. That’s a tricky proposition for any restaurant that serves cuisine made from ingredients that perform best in a carefully controlled environment that depends on a certain level of predictability. Pizza may be the ultimate takeout food, but not necessarily this pizza -- or so Mangieri worries, especially as he introduces new customers to his pies in suboptimal conditions.
Ever-dedicated to his craft and to his customers and family, Mangieri tells us in this more recent, far-ranging video conversation that he has been sleeping at a friend’s house on the floor near the New Jersey restaurant, going in to make all the pies while standing up an e-commerce site on the fly and thinking about concepts such as contactless payment while his New York City location sits idle.
It’s about survival, he says.
Mangieri talked with us about why he chose the takeout route at the New Jersey location only, his challenges in finding some of his main ingredients reliably, the state of restaurants in New York City, how he is dealing with his employees, how he’s figuring out how to negotiate the expenses his New York restaurant continues to incur and the prospects and new ideas for when things turn back around.
Here’s the full transcript of our conversation with Mangieri:
Fritz Nelson: We're joined by Tony Mangieri. He's the owner of Una Pizza Napoletana, which is a beloved and well known pizza restaurant in New York City's Lower East Side. And actually, Tony just opened a new pizzeria in Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey. And for those who haven't listened to our podcast with Tony, maybe just tell me a quick description of Una Pizza.
Tony Mangieri: Sure. Thank you. Una Pizza Napoletana is a wood fired Neapolitan style, naturally leavened dough pizzeria where our focus is on the pizza. We have a very streamlined menu and operation, and we've been in business since 1996.
Yeah, we now have two locations, and we went from New Jersey to New York City to California, back to New York and now one in New Jersey where we started again. So, we've had a couple versions and locations of that same restaurant over the years.
Fritz Nelson: Yeah. And for those of you who want the full download on the history, you can listen to our podcast on Grow Wire. I want to talk about the current state of the world that we're in and the impact it's having on your business and on the restaurant business in general.
So, let's start here. When it first became clear that restaurants were going to have to shut down as places to dine in, and Una Pizza is ... I think The New York Times called it the best sit-down pizza joint in all five boroughs. So, definitely a dine-in kind of place. What were the first thoughts that went through your mind?
Tony Mangieri: Yeah. Well, I mean at first, I was debating whether or not to shut down. I think I could have stayed a couple more days. I made the decision on a Sunday night. And then during the course of that week, starting on Monday is when things really started going where they were shutting down.
Yeah. I mean, I don't know. I think it's going to be a tough road for a lot of the restaurants. For us, we definitely are a sit-down restaurant. The one in the Lower East Side, especially just the way it's built, the way it's set up. Even when we're open running normal business, we just don't have a to-go business. We never have.
I don't think people even associate that location with to-go. And the neighborhood itself down there is a pretty quiet area as far as residential. So, in a situation like this, I thought to myself, "What's the options here?" I mean to go in there and go through all the motions of making the dough every day and firing the oven up and getting some people to come in, I just quickly made the decision that the only option was to close.
And also, I already got a sense the week before from some of the people that work for me that they did not really want to be out and about, and this was before the shutdown in Manhattan. So, that also played into my decision-making that I didn't want to be the guy that is forcing people to go out in this situation even before they said you had to do it. Now, it's not an option really unless you were to do to-go only.
Una Pizza Napoletana is serving its iconic pies to-go in the wake of COVID-19.
Fritz Nelson: And do you only shut ... I think you only shut the New York location down, not the New Jersey one.
Tony Mangieri: Right. I was trying to figure out what to do with both locations. And the New Jersey location, it's in a small town. It's got a captive audience and coincidentally it has ... And I didn't put these in, but it has these two enormous windows on either side of the entrance that open all the way up and create basically this counter.
And it looks like we made it for this thing. And I was like, "Oh my gosh, this is perfect." These windows are on a hydraulic and I can just open one up, it's totally safe, no one can come into the restaurant, everyone can keep their distance. And we've been really blessed. I mean the people down there are really pumped on us doing this and being there and having a place for people to go pick something up to bring home and eat.
We've been relatively busy. More importantly, people are just pumped on it. And the cool thing with that spot is that I can easily do it down there by myself, so I'm basically doing it with myself and my friend that I opened it with and one other person that was local that's coming in and just handing the pizzas to the customers, and that's pretty much it. So, we're doing it bare bones. I'm sleeping on floors at night to be able to do this.
Fritz Nelson: Oh, wow. Well, that's fantastic. In the New York City location, what have you heard from customers? They're like, "Let us do takeout, something." What's the response been?
Tony Mangieri: A little bit. I mean, honestly, not much. I think most people in New York, especially right now in the last week or so, or a couple of days, it's really gotten where I don't think most people are going out. I mean it's pretty locked down here. I don't think it's really in anybody's head to go down to the Lower East Side and get takeout.
Like I said, that neighborhood is just not unfortunately residentially dense. I don't really think most of our customer base for that restaurant even lives in that neighborhood. So, I don't think the people that would normally be concerned about coming in or thinking that they can get a pizza to-go anyway, unless we started doing citywide delivery. And that's just another dynamic that our restaurant isn't really equipped to handle.
And honestly, I know this might sound silly in this time of crisis, but I'm also still concerned about the quality of the pizza. And even in New Jersey at that location, I've been stressing just on my own little tiny bubble of a world that I live in that a lot of these people are getting the pizza for their first time ever to-go, and we're busy, and the pizzas are sitting before they pick them up or whether they're driving with them.
And I'm like, "God, I hope this doesn't become people's interpretation of the pizza for their first time ever to eat it like this." They don't know really where it can go. I'm thinking bigger picture of I don't want to ruin what our quality is just to get through this little moment in history.
So that being said, I'm even monitoring how far we can go with the New Jersey spot, because I just want to maintain our standard even in this moment, even if that sounds silly.
Fritz Nelson: It doesn't. I mean, there are a million pizza joints, and you don't want to just be lumped in with them because you can do takeout.
Tony Mangieri: Yeah. And I mean at a certain point, if you're banging them out and they're sitting around, you're kind of defeating what we built 25 years of a reputation on. So, it's a fine line. We'll see where it lands with the New Jersey spot. But people down there have been really beautiful on supporting it.
Fritz Nelson: I was listening to a podcast with the owner of Misi and Lilia, and they were talking about Missy Robbins. If you even spend more than 30 seconds taking a picture of your pasta, she comes out and yells at you for ... Because the food starts to not be as good. That's a big concern when we're talking about high-quality food.
Tony Mangieri: Yeah. I mean, the more you put into it, it's for real, so you really care, and you just want people to experience your life's work in what you're presenting. So, at the same time, I mean for me personally, it's also about financial survival.
I'm making all the pizzas and all the dough myself and like I said, sleeping on my friend's floor a couple nights a week so I can do it. My family is up in the city without me, and I'm doing what I got to do to survive this. So, we'll see how far that can go.
Fritz Nelson: Yeah. What I want to know in the New Jersey location is did you have to build anything like an e-commerce part of your site so that people can order? Or was that already there?
Tony Mangieri: Right. No, it wasn't. So, that again is a whole new business model I think for myself and many restaurants that are even, I would say, tend towards being classified almost as fine dining. I mean, I know personally quite a few chef/owners that have decided to try to go that route also in fine dining where they're doing to go with fine dining, where they've never even allowed takeout.
I think many of us were scrambling to find some kind of way to get through this. I mean, especially if they're saying that the shutdown might go until mid-May, June. I mean, you're talking about, for myself, many of these other independent guys. There's no salary then. There's no income. It's that simple. It's literally like the day I closed New York, that's the day I cannot get paid. So, I have to figure out a way to squeeze something out.
I mean it makes you tough I guess, but I'm willing to do whatever I’ve got to do to get by. Okay. That is the Neapolitan in me, I think. Yeah, I did have to add a new platform to the business. And again, like many of these companies that offer these platforms are being marked right now, and it's really, really busy.
So, you have to do your due diligence and find out which one is going to offer you the best setup, the best rates, the most streamlined depositing of your money. For me too personally, also companies that I don't need to sign a long-term contract with because I don't want to necessarily be locked in to this kind of a platform where I'm going to do online ordering and this and that, all these other things that I normally wouldn't do and I don't plan to do once we get back to normal.
Fritz Nelson: Sure. Let's go down the business route a little bit more. So, you closed the New York City one. When you think about your survival ... Now, we're almost in April as we record this. Do you think in terms of “I need to survive April,” or do you think in terms of “I need to survive the next three months or six months”? What are the things that you start to think about in terms of cash flow and what you can ... Costs that you can mitigate, put off and so on?
Tony Mangieri: Yeah. I mean firstly, most restaurants already kind of do that on a day to day. The restaurant business is a very small margin business. So, anyone that's doing this for real and does this for a living and it's not a side project already kind of has their head in this mode on an anormal day-to-day existence of what can be paid, what can't be paid, which vendors let things slide longer than 30 days. Which ones are really tough? Which ones are going to cut you out if you don't pay on time?
It's sadly the case for most restaurants unless you're a super big corporate restaurant. So, most independent restaurants I think already operate like that in normal times. So, this is just taking that into full ...
And for me, luckily, I've always been involved in the cooking and the baking and the hands-on operation even when the place was at its best in the Lower East Side. So, it's easy for me to quickly re-adapt back into being like, "Alright, I'm making all the dough. I'm making all the pizza."
Right there, I'm cutting out a lot of expense, and I'm able to keep some kind of cash flow going by just really running super lean. I mean, if need be, I could literally go down and run the restaurant completely solo if I have an online ordering where literally the orders are coming in online and I'm getting them on my tablet and I'm seeing them, I'm making them and I'm bringing them over to the window. If need be, I can do that.
I think there’s benefit to always staying pretty deeply entrenched in the day-to-day of the restaurant. So, yeah, I don't know if that totally answers the question, but ...
Dining in is usually a critical part of the Una Pizza experience; now, it's takeout-only.
Fritz Nelson: Yeah. No, it does. But I'm also wondering: Your New York City place is closed, and certainly you're not ordering inventory for it. In New York City, my understanding is that the cost of space is a much higher percentage of your overall costs and almost any ... Well, I mean anywhere in the country by many points. So, are your lease holders being flexible? What kinds of things are you thinking about there?
Tony Mangieri: Right. Yeah. Well, first off, New York City in general I think is a city where the majority of all of us are living on the edge on a week to week basis to begin with. Let's be honest. You know what I mean?
Rents are too high commercially and residentially. The majority of people out here aren't making the kind of income that justified them even living here. And so something like this occurs, which is almost like a ... I would say like an act of God in a sense where it's like out of your hands. I think many people in New York City are going to be pretty close to disaster if not already within a week of this happening last week.
That being said, I think myself and many other people with these small restaurants, I just think pretty much most restaurants or just in New York City were not paying any bills. That's it. Like, tough. You know what I mean? That's kind of been my approach to certain things in New York.
If the government is telling me that I'd be open to make money, then I'm telling you I'm not paying my rent. And that's pretty much been my very unprofessional approach to this situation. I don't know how long that will last. I think any wise landlord of a commercial space is going to also realize that you have two options in this situation.
You can either say, "All right, I want my rent or I'm throwing you out. Or you're going to have to suffer like the rest of us." Considering 90% of the landlords are overcharging everybody anyway and don't really handle things the way I think it should be handled to begin, maybe this will actually be a reset button for a lot of things in New York City and the rest of the country hopefully.
I mean, I just think a lot of landlords in New York city from my impression over the years just raise these prices up on commercial space so that they can keep remortgaging their buildings. Because they can show what the potential is to generate on a space even if it's based on absolutely nothing. And it just kind of becomes across the board approach.
You end up with rents that are two and three times personally what I think they should be in a commercial space. And sadly, that also leads to not being able to run cool restaurants and be able to go make the kind of food and present the kind of things you want because you go in and you're under so much pressure and you're under such pressure with the rent that it becomes sink or swim pretty much before you even open the doors to start with.
So, I think that's where most of us are probably at. I don't know for everybody, but I know myself and other people that I know personally. I would say we're kind of like ... I ran my payroll in New York city so everybody got paid for the days they worked. I paid a few things that were necessary. And then at that point I was like, "All right, there's no money coming in. The business is closed." We're essentially out of business, but we still have a location.
Fritz Nelson: To come back to? Yeah.
Tony Mangieri: Scary.
Fritz Nelson: It is scary. I imagine too, what are they going to put in these spaces? So, they're smart if they just kind of work with you. I wondered too, there are a lot of relief efforts going on, and many of them focused on the restaurant industry. I know James Beard Foundation has a relief fund. There's the Restaurant Workers' Community Foundation. The Restaurant Association is working on some things as well. So, there's things from people like you, restaurateurs. There's things for your workers. Are you looking at any of those? And what seems promising in that regard?
Tony Mangieri: Yeah. I've been looking at some. I'm not sure really. I'm not informed enough to know which one I would say to follow and the chase down. From what I can see so far, most of them are ... And I don't want to say this in a negative way, but I don't know really what they're going to really end up doing at this point.
I still don't know what's true, what isn't. Things are still kind of up in the air. One place will tell you there's this, but then another source is saying there's that. I actually put my mind and heart in the thought that there's going to be this bailout that's going to save the day for me personally. It's just not my nature. I never built my life on that, so I'm not going to start now in a time of a so-called crisis. It's just not my way of operating.
I mean at the same time, I mean if there's something that becomes legitimately available to make it be where the restaurant could be in a safe place, then I would do that. But so far, what I'm seeing is like bits and pieces of things. Nothing really concrete. Nothing for sure. And so I don't want to say one way or the other.
For right now, I only know what I can do for myself and what I can make sure is actually for real, which is doing whatever you got to do to pay your personal bills and survive to some degree.
Fritz Nelson: Sure. Has anything changed with your suppliers? I mean, you have a very distinct and carefully crafted network of suppliers. Are they doing okay? Are you getting the inventory you need to make the pizzas the way you like to?
Tony Mangieri: Yeah. No. I mean I would say the smaller guys that I deal with are kind of not working right now also. The buffalo mozzarella, which is somewhat essential to the pizza, is not available. Luckily on the flour side of things, I have quite a bit of a backstock, and I have people that have it in if I need it. But no.
Again, even that, it's like becoming like not exactly what you would want. I mean I have enough backup that I can get through, but it's going to run lean. I've actually been in a little bit of a scramble even with that trying to find a few other sources that I can go to their warehouse and get some stuff individually like that as opposed to expecting anyone to deliver.
Fritz Nelson: In terms of dealing with ... I mean, everybody is having to do this right now, but you've obviously had to let go the people in the New York City location, and you're down to a lean staff of just you and your partner basically in New Jersey. What advice do you have for people in kind of managing through that situation?
Tony Mangieri: Yeah. First off, regarding letting people go: I mean, that's really the thing that I think is the status of this whole situation is like I have people in the New York location that I really care about and that have been with me and been loyal. It goes beyond just like a day-to-day work kind of environment because it is a small business and I'm always there, so it's more personal.
I've been in communication with them. Again, I don't know what small people like me can really do. I know some people are trying to create like this virtual tip jar and all these kinds of things, but I mean, the numbers on those things from what I hear from people that are doing them is so small. It's like you're doing it, you're generating 200 bucks and you're going to divide that up between 15 people.
It's not worth even going through that or putting yourself out like that. And also for me personally, again, I think it's also my own personality might be my worst hindrance on some of these things because I'm just not going to be going out and being like, "Come and help me and help us." It's just not my way.
I'm more of an independent kind of a person. So, that being said, I'm kind of just trying to do what I got to do, but I do wish that there was a way for my pizza guys to be making pizza and be with me. It hurts me a lot that they're not. I hope this thing somehow works itself out. I think what's going to be tough on the back end of this whole scenario is that ... And not only for me, but for all these restaurants is that when this thing ends ...
And let's say it ends tomorrow, it's not going to be so easy to just be like, "Okay, tomorrow we can go back to real life. We're going to reopen." It's like, well based on what, it's like ... The guy that I've been teaching to make dough is in Ecuador right now and didn't come back. You know what I mean?
My pizza guys might be like, "We're going to move back home." One is from California. One is from Colorado. There's more to it than just getting through this and going back to work. There's going to be all the repercussions after this ends and trying to rebuild. It's almost going to be like starting in some ways for a lot of people. Almost starting a whole new business.
And especially depending on how long this thing lasts. If it goes until May, June, July, whenever, people might start making some life decisions when they come out the other end of this that are going to change your workforce. And if they do, honestly good for them. I'm not stopping them, because I would like to make some myself, not for nothing.
Una Pizza has found support from fans despite temporary closure of its dine-in restaurants.
Fritz Nelson: No. I hear you. Maybe one last thing and we're talking to a lot of businesses that are having to kind of out of necessity try new things. And some of them are like, "Wow, we may keep doing this once everything comes back to normal." Is there anything you're finding in that regard yet?
Tony Mangieri: Yeah, that's funny you would say, because on a personal level, kind of one of my dreams my whole life has been to have the pizzeria be basically a little free-standing building by itself with a parking lot. I mean small, like you come up, and it's like a window, you don't even come in and you just look in and it's almost like those California taquerias.
It's like you're at the counter, you can see the oven. There's a fridge with drinks in it, wine by the box and all you have is picnic tables with umbrellas outside. And man, I got to tell you, when we're down there in New Jersey and I have the window open and nobody is coming in and there's no table service ...
I mean, obviously we don't make the same kind of money as you do when people sit down and buy a bottle of wine and all that. It's like, "Boy, I like it." And it kind of has made me feel like definitely that thought that I always had since I was a kid of having a spot like that. This has re-circled that in my head.
So maybe one day, that will come to a fruition based on this experience that I'm going through. But other than that, for me and for Una Pizza, I would say no. Like I said earlier, these platforms that I'm using and adding more in the coming weeks as far as total online ordering and contactless ordering and all this kind of stuff, it's just not the way I do business. It's not what I like. It's not the way that I like to do business. I prefer having humans come in and interact with them and deal with them on a face-to-face basis and have them call up and all this stuff.
Again, like myself and many of these smaller guys are doing whatever we got to do right now to survive. And hopefully, we can get through it and reopen and have a place to have people come back to.
Fritz Nelson: I hope so too, and I wish you the best of luck. Thank you so much.
Tony Mangieri: Thanks. Thank you.