"When we created this business, the commonality was our fondest memories growing up," &pizza co-owner Steve Salis says of the chain that has rocketed to popularity in D.C. over the past 17 months.
Salis and partner Michael Lastoria opened H &pizza (1118 H St. NE) in July 2012, bringing their vision of the classic pizzeria with a modern twist to the District. Aiming to shake up the pizza game (which Salis calls "stale" and "[lacking] innovation"), &pizza has done to the the pizza parlor what Quentin Tarantino did to the crime genre with Pulp Fiction. Rather than sell pizza by the slice or the standard, circular pie, the restaurant offers long, rectangular pizza. Customers can build their own, or tweak the suggested pies that are offered and watch as they're prepared.
The whole idea about the individuality of our pies was strictly a result of fast-forwarding to the future and thinking that, given all of the potential health or dietary restrictions, it makes less sense to be sharing pizzas with each other or to be able to purchase a slice of a pre-made pizza," says Lastoria.
However, Salis and Lastoria know that letting customers choose their pizza isn't what makes their business unique. "You’ve always been able to customize pizza, the difference today is that the experience has to be more visual," Lastoria acknowledges. "The assembly line just sort of facilitates that because it allows the opportunity for customers to get creative, then share that creativity with others [through social media] which brings other people into the store because they feel like they can have some ownership over what it is that they’re building."
Prior to relocating from New York in 2011, they targeted D.C. after identifying it as an evolving market that was the perfect match for their concept. "It seems like the marketplace has been predominantly driven by government and law, but I think the market is becoming more well-rounded and the hospitality industry is definitely an emerging one," Salis explains.
In the wake of H &pizza's success, they opened another location along the historic U Street Corridor (1250 U St. NW). What's comforting about the &pizza brand is the genuine respect for the neighborhoods that the restaurants inhabit. While D.C.'s recent "gentrification overdrive" reflects economic growth, it's alienated some longtime residents, resulting in a burgeoning gap between new and old. That's not what &pizza is about.
"One of the things we try to do as a business before we open our doors is spend 90 to 120 days in the community speaking to people, learning about what’s going on, learning the "who is who," and talking about our brand and what we’re all about. Letting people know that there are people behind this business—that it’s not just a business," Lastoria says. Building that trust pushes &pizza closer its goal of being a neighborhood cornerstone.
Part of being that fixture involves incorporating elements of the individual neighborhoods, which are even reflected in the logo's ampersand. "The rivets represent the different roads and streets in the U Street neighborhood. The brass pays homage to the jazz influence in the neighborhood. The photos are customers, but locals that have been around for years," Lastoria adds.
In the near future, Salis and Lastoria plan to take &pizza to other neighborhoods in the D.C-area, including two outside of the District's limits. According to Salis, the same consumer demand that drove them to U Street led to them developing locations in the Brookland section of Northeast D.C., as well as the Maryland communities of Bethesda and Germantown.
"As for the other restaurants that we’re building, Monroe Street is similar. It’s another neighborhood that’s turning the corner and we think every neighborhood needs a good pizza parlor," he says. "Germantown is a little bit different, but they need a pizza parlor as well. It’s an opportunity to look outside of the marketplace and see if we have an opportunity away from D.C. proper. Bethesda is in that kind of in between phase with a little bit of D.C. and a little bit of the suburbs. All of these neighborhoods that we enter, it’s really about the consumer."
As &pizza continues to grow, its owners realize that the little details—as well as the overall experience—drive its success. "At the end of the day, you’re not going to remember how you built your pizza. You’re going to remember how it made you feel when you walked into the restaurant; how it made you feel when you interacted with someone; how it made you feel when you heard a song that prompted a memory," Salis reveals.
Always thinking ahead, Lastoria wants to keep pushing the envelope. "We just hope we can be pioneers in getting other interesting concepts here, as well as challenging the ones that are already present."
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