By Fritz Nelson, editor-in-chief
Wicked Cheesy, a family-owned pizzeria in Tewksbury, Mass., caught our attention when some of our Boston-based staff noticed the pizza-making kits the company was selling when restaurants closed to dine-in customers. (We like pizza
It struck us as a great idea, one of those “win-win-win” scenarios: Family gets a meal; kids get something fun to do in which making a mess is accepted; parents can get things done while kids make them dinner. (OK, and it’s something to do with your kids — one more “win.”) Turns out Wicked Cheesy has been selling these kits for the past couple of years — an idea spun out of wanting to sell other pizza-making equipment and the popularity of its pizza-making parties for kids. The kits didn’t sell all that well online before the coronavirus outbreak, but Wicked Cheesy has reinvigorated the idea to great success and fanfare now that we’re all quarantined.
When I grabbed Wicked Cheesy owner Brian Schofield for a video conversation about how his restaurant is managing through uncertain times, I didn’t expect to hear how well his business was doing. He said sales have actually been steady and that he’s getting lots of new customers, although he thinks there will be some slight drop off.
Wicked Cheesy’s success might make sense for a pizza joint that’s always done well with takeout and delivery in an age of takeout and delivery. However, Schofield was trying to make takeout a less vital part of its business model, having undergone renovations in anticipation of a busy spring. It has been home to after-practice and after-game meals for Little League baseball teams, dance troupes and other groups, as well as end-of-season banquets. Springtime is a busy season for that. Except this spring. And yet, Wicked Cheesy still thrives.
Watch my conversation with Schofield as he talks about the impact of the coronavirus on his staffing, how the company has changed what’s typically a stringent sanitizing regimen by any standard, how it deals with its suppliers and how it’s managing to project sales volume so that it doesn’t overstock inventory. We talk about how customers have responded, and Schofield has some interesting perspective on how to view competition. It’s a refreshing story at a time in which they are difficult to find. And it’s a story that speaks volumes about the support of a local community.
Watch our conversation with Wicked Cheesy’s Schofield in the video above.
Here’s the full transcript of our conversation:
Fritz Nelson: We're joined today by Brian Schofield. He's the owner of Wicked Cheesy, which is a well-known restaurant in Massachusetts. Hi Brian. Can you describe Wicked Cheesy?
Brian Schofield: Good afternoon, Fritz. Yeah. Wicked Cheesy Pizza, we opened up in 2006, my wife Stephanie and I. We were both in the restaurant business for quite a while before we opened. And in 2006, in our home town that we bought our house, we opened up Wicked Cheesy Pizza. We had taken over an existing restaurant and we gave ourselves about three months to get our feet wet and eventually have a big grand opening under a different name, Wicked Cheesy Pizza and that's when Wicked Cheesy Pizza was born, September 14, 2006.
Fritz Nelson: And there are a lot of pizza joints in the world, what's unique and special about yours?
Brian Schofield: What we've basically, our mission statement over the years has been is, you can definitely get a pizza on any block in Massachusetts, in particular. Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, all being high-density per-capita for pizza places. So one of the things that we really embraced from the get go, and actually, our first weekend, we really embraced the community. Our biggest thing has been, we're going to give back to the kids, we're going to give back to the schools, we're going to be in partnerships with sports programs.
And that first weekend that we actually launched Wicked Cheesy Pizza, we went down to the local high school field and gave away 200 pizzas to people at the games. And ever since that day, we blew up, and we've been the leader in town for anywhere that you would go to get your pizza supplies for banquets, to events, we pretty much have something every week, which we do something like that.
Fritz Nelson: And it's in Tewksbury, right?
Brian Schofield: Correct. We're about 20 miles north of Boston.
Fritz Nelson: Okay. Did I say that right? Tewksbury?
Brian Schofield: Tewksbury, correct.
Fritz Nelson: Okay, yeah. There's a lot of little towns around in that area where it's pronounced a little different than the rest of us would say.
Brian Schofield: Well, correct, because any town around this area, you would find some type of history going back to England. So you'll see, I think it was pronounced "Tweeksbury," I think in England and stuff like that. Boston, of course.
Fritz Nelson: Yes. And so a restaurant like Wicked Cheesy Pizza becomes a local favorite and everybody supports it and you support everybody. And in this time, we're going through this healthcare crisis, which is causing a financial crisis for a lot of people, what's been the biggest impact on your business?
Brian Schofield: So it's funny, well not funny, but a few months ago we really renovated out restaurant to be able to get away from the delivery aspect of our business because of how involved we are with the community. We really wanted to create a place where you could come down with all your kids from your baseball team or everybody from your dance group, and come down and enjoy a nice family atmosphere and banquet atmosphere at our place. So we actually redid the whole inside over at Wicked Cheesy Pizza. We put a brand new HVAC system in, we put in gaming for the kids, where you could play with 16 kids at a time. And we really revamped our whole restaurant in anticipation for the spring, which goes into our busiest times of the year.
So it was very bad timing for us. But it really didn't deviate from what we do. Because we still had a lot of takeout, because we still had a lot of delivery, we didn't really see a drop off. What the biggest impact for us has been is the fear. All our employees don't know what's going on or don't know what's going to happen. So what we've had to do is, we've had to go down to a skeleton crew. My wife and I are there now 24 hours a day. And it's been hard to retain people to come back to work, because of maintaining a safe environment. So we've done huge, tremendous efforts to make sure that we're taking all precautions here.
I mean, us in the restaurant business, this isn't new to us. Sanitizing surfaces, wiping down all our equipment, I mean this is stuff that all of us in this industry do on a continual basis, so that hasn't really disrupted the way we do our job. Just now it's going that extra mile to make people feel a little bit more comfortable coming into a public restaurant.
Wicked Cheesy has remained open for business despite COVID-19 forcing a pause on dine-in events.
Fritz Nelson: And what have you heard from your customers during this time?
Brian Schofield: Confusion. A lot of customers are, "Do I come in? Do I give you only a credit card? Can the driver leave it at the doorstep, and have no contact?" So it's just been knowledge. And we've been proactive about it. We're on Facebook all the time, we're always updating our customers and our employees on, "All right, now here's our new... this is what we're doing today." Actually, we closed today to do a sanitation day. We wanted to reload, get a little rest for our employees because we're on such a short staff, we're trying to push everybody into possibly six or five days a week, instead of trying to get everybody spread out on seven days. And this way, we can really battle being staffed.
Because, to be honest, we really haven't seen a downtick of business, it's just been a little bit more chaotic. We're seeing a lot of new customers. We're seeing a lot of people with a lot of questions. So we try our best while being short staffed, to combat these issues.
Fritz Nelson: So your business has really just stayed steady-
Brian Schofield: Right.
Fritz Nelson: ... from a financial standpoint?
Brian Schofield: Well, I would say it's projected to be a loss, because, again, this is running into our busiest time. So you're running into our April, May, and June, which is close to our three busiest months of the year. So it's definitely going to probably be off a little bit, but it hasn't been too much. So I'd say that we've been lucky.
Fritz Nelson: Yeah. These are the times when the baseball teams are coming in to celebrate the ends of their seasons.
Brian Schofield: Correct.
Fritz Nelson: ... even just after a game, right?
Brian Schofield: Right. Right. I actually coach two teams myself, I have an 11-year-old son, an 8-year-old son and a 6-year-old daughter, and I coach two teams myself. So after the end of each game that we have, I have a pizza party after every game. And a lot of coaches come to us and get pizzas for after their games. So right now we'd probably be doing the end of the year basketball banquets, we'd be doing hockey parties for their end of the year, we'd be doing a lot of school events, the fundraisers that we do for them.
But I would say that the biggest thing that has kind of reversed for us has been, we've always been there for them, we've always been there when they want to do an event and now what you're seeing is, you're seeing everything come back twofold. You're seeing people come and support us now, because of all the times that we've been there for them. So I would say, because of the model that we put into place at the very beginning, 15 years ago, is now being exposed, now, where people are trying to come out of their way to come support us. Even though they might not feel so comfortable, but they feel comfortable enough about knowing us, knowing me, knowing my wife, knowing my kids, and having that trust that we do the right things here at Wicked Cheesy.
Fritz Nelson: And so just because there might be some downtick, or you weren't even sure at first, are there any cost containment strategies that you've put in place?
Brian Schofield: Yeah, so there was a lot of rumors going around, probably about a couple weeks ago, maybe even a week ago, where we were getting text messages, "Hey, they're going to shut down the state. They're going to shut down the country." So we really didn't know what to do, we were like, "Well, we don't want to over order all our stock and be stuck with spoilage," and taking precautions like that. So we were just kind of in limbo. We just didn't know. So what we did was, we just said, "You know what? Let's trust the system and listen to our customers," and we went for it, and luckily, we were prepared.
Fritz Nelson: And in terms of managing that inventory, especially with perishables and things being delivered every day, are there extra precautions you're taking or requiring your suppliers to take?
Brian Schofield: Yeah. So a lot of contact free, a lot of social distancing. Taking extra precautions on washing our vegetables, making sure that all the tables that we're using is sanitized even more often. The local board of health has been instrumental on communication here in the town of Tewksbury. And it's just, again, normal things that we would be worrying about, but it can't hurt to... better be safe than sorry.
Fritz Nelson: Sure. And one of the things that caught our eye about what you guys are doing is you created these pizza making kits for kids. And during these difficult times, we're seeing so much invention or just creative thinking around what people need. Have you always had that or is this something you guys came up with?
The shutdowns provided a reason for Wicked Cheesy to reinvigorate a pizza-making kit offering.
Brian Schofield: Well actually I did come up with it probably around a couple years ago. And we wanted to basically have the kits always available. And we wanted to sell pizza stones and pizza cutters and aprons and chef hats. And we always wanted to have this interaction with... it all started when we were doing birthday parties, where kids would make their own pizza. So we would have a birthday party, and the person's birthday party, we would give them a pizza paddle. And they would have all the kids sign the pizza paddle and that would be the gift that we would give to the birthday boy or girl.
And during that time, they would make their own pizzas. I'd go out to the table and I'd greet 20 screaming kids and say, "All right, here's how we make a pizza." And they would all make them and they would put their names on them. They'd put them on parchment paper. And then I'd take them back and I'd cook them all off, and they'd bring them home, and it was a big hit. So I was like, "Oh, maybe this'll be something really cool that we could always have." So if any kid wanted to make their own pizza, it's something that we could have readily available.
So they kind of went away and never really took off, because in places like Boston and New York and New Jersey, people don't look at it that way. They look, "Well, I can go get a pizza and it'll take five minutes and I can be home eating my pizza." Well, they didn't really look at it the way they're looking at it today. Now, five years later, two years later, now they're looking... We thought this would be a great way to reenergize this idea with, basically, having family time.
Anybody can go and buy a couple pizzas and have it delivered, but the art of cooking with your family and seeing those creations and having that creativity of what you want to do and the kids want to do, the response has been unbelievable. Our Facebook page has blown up with mentions and likes and loves and shares, and it's really been supportive. And we love seeing all the kids making their own pizzas, and it's really been a big hit for us and them.
Fritz Nelson: Yeah. It's a great idea. Are you working with or talking with other people, other restaurant owners, and seeing and hearing what they're experiencing that's different than you?
Brian Schofield: So I've always had this mentality of my competition, I never liked the idea of being enemies. So ever since we opened, 15 years ago, I've always had the communication with other pizza shop owners, even ones that closely resemble our product. And I just didn't believe in ever knocking down another entrepreneur. We're always battling enough things in this business, the last thing we need is somebody on the other side sabotaging your product. So I'm very close with, I'd day, about six pizza shop owners here in town. I'd say another six sit-down places.
So a lot of times, I'll send out a group text, and say, "Hey, what's everybody doing about the rise of minimum wage? What is everybody paying for cheese these days?" And it's a good way of keeping our vendors honest. It's a good way of... we do a lot of background checks with employees, "Hey, this guy told me that he used to work for you." "Oh man, I wish I didn't lose him, he was a great kid." Or, "Hey, be careful, this happened." And it's a lot of good communication. It's been more helpful than not. Some of the older guys that have been doing a lot longer than I have, they never believed in that. They didn't like to share secrets, they didn't like to give any type of edge to anybody, and I just didn't believe in that.
So a lot of the times, I'm reaching out because I need, either, help or I want somebody's opinion, "Hey, listen..." And the time that I got his idea was actually at the International Pizza Expo. So we went to our first International Pizza Expo in Las Vegas, back in 2007, so a little bit after we had opened. And we had a very successful first year, so my wife and I wanted to reward our employees, so we took them to Vegas, and we went to the International Pizza Expo and we had a great time. We learned a lot.
Wicked Cheesy has donated pies to medical workers.
And one of the best things that we ever learned was, at the end of each day at the pizza expo, they had a segment called beer and bull. And what it was is, they served beers at these big open function hall and all the pizzeria shop owners would sit at a round table and somebody would basically stand up and they'd say, "Hey, I tried take-and-bake pizzas and it failed." And somebody from Kansas would stand up and say, "Yeah, I actually tried it and it was a big hit for me and this is why." And it was a great, great eye-opener of how we can help each other in this industry. And I always say, "They're not my enemy, they're my friend." And if we can stick together in times like this, we can succeed as an industry.
Fritz Nelson: And are there any stories from this time, now, people dealing with the closure of restaurants that you're hearing? And is there a general support for one another in trying to get everybody through this without seeing people go out of business, I guess?
Brian Schofield: Well, it is a little too early to tell. I do believe you're going to see a decrease in the amount of restaurants open at the end of this. And that might not be because of the coronavirus, in general. We saw this in the town of Tewksbury where, five years ago, the board of health had gone around to restaurants and they basically told us, "Hey, you need to come up to code on our external grease trap." So our external grease trap, for people that don't know, we have two grease traps at our restaurant, one is an internal one, where you put something down the sink, it goes into a grease interceptor, and then it makes its way out into the sewer lines and then it goes into another grease interceptor, and then eventually goes into the waterline.
So the town of Tewksbury, five years ago, gave everybody five years to come up to code. And what either they realized or didn't realize was, you got a lot of older buildings in a lot of these towns, and it wasn't just necessarily the grease interceptor that was a problem, that would cost generally around $10,000 to $20,000, it was a refitting of all the piping in these buildings to get those pipes to the grease interceptor. So some people were incurring bills of $50,000, $60,000, $70,000 dollars and, basically, somebody who's been doing it 40 years looks at those numbers and says, "You know what? I think it's time to retire."
So I think a lot of people use... we saw I think four or five restaurants in our town basically close doors December 31 of this year, because this was the last time that they could operate under the grandfather clause of not having the grease interceptor. So we saw that, we saw people that maybe lost the energy to run day-to-day operations. I actually think that this coronavirus will do a similar thing in a either global or national aspect.
Fritz Nelson: Yeah, it's hard to run a restaurant. The last thing I want to ask you, you mentioned some of your employees and cutting back hours, there's a lot of talk and efforts and different programs to help aid workers who can't work right now, are any of your employees dealing with that? Are you helping them try to find some of these sources of relief?
Brian Schofield: So, I mean, we haven't stopped giving the hours. A lot of the people that we hire are full-time employees. And one of the things that we did at the very beginning, and this is probably a week ago, or even two weeks ago, we reached out to those employees and said, "Listen, if we get shut down, we're prepared to continue to have you on the payroll." So we gave them that reassurance that, "Hey, listen, if you're not feeling comfortable coming into work, for whatever reason, fears or you think you're sick," or whatever it was, we wanted them to play it on the safe side and stay at home. It's a difficult decision, it's not something that the average person, when they look into our restaurant will see, but it's something that we thought was a responsible thing to do.
Fritz Nelson: That's great. Brian, best of luck. I can't wait to taste your pizza when I'm in town next and thanks for joining us.
Brian Schofield: Thank you very much, Fritz. It was nice meeting you.