A bit belatedly, I ran across an article in the Rochester Business Journal profiling Salvatore “Soccer Sam” Fantauzzo, the man behind the Salvatore’s Old Fashioned Pizzeria chain. Like most success stories, it’s interesting reading, chronicling Salvatore’s remarkable rise from a single pizzeria on East Main Street in 1978, when Fantauzzo was fresh out of high school, to eight stores by 2005, and twenty locations today. The article (which can be viewed on the RBJ website - free registration required) also explains some of what lies behind the success of Salvatore’s, such as staying ahead of the competition on some trends (according to Fantauzzo, his was the first local pizzeria to offer chicken wings, for example), and maintaining consistency among multiple locations.
What really caught my eye, though, was Fantauzzo’s stated goal of opening “12 or 13” new stores over the coming year. He particularly wants 32 Salvatore's locations for the 32 years Salvatore's has been in business.
I like to give credit where credit’s due, and Fantauzzo certainly deserves credit for the undeniable success of Salvatore’s, not to mention for his involvement in the local community. Still, I can’t say that I look forward to a Salvatore’s opening in my town. It’s nothing against Salvatore’s in particular, mind you. No, I’m not too crazy about their pizza, but that’s not the issue. I don’t really care to see any pizza chain blanketing the area.
Mostly, I’m afraid that it will cut into the business of stand-alone, independent pizza shops. Worst-case scenario, let’s say you've got a hometown pizzeria, a mom 'n' pop place that’s been there for as long as you can remember. Maybe they've been struggling a bit in recent years, but they're getting by. A chain opens up just down the street, and with its economies of scale, it's able to undersell the mom 'n' pop place. That ends up being the straw that breaks their back, and mom 'n' pop go out of business. In effect, your indigenous pizza place has been replaced by a chain, and the pizza you grew up with is no more.
And again, it’s not about whether the chain makes good pizza. That’s a matter of personal taste. It’s about - to borrow a much overused term - diversity. I love the pizza at the Pizza Stop downtown, but I wouldn’t want to see 30 Pizza Stops all over this area. I like the idea that I can go to 160 different pizzerias around here and try 160 different pizzas, each of which is unique to that particular pizzeria.
A chain, on the other hand, is fundamentally based on the concept of uniformity: that the pizza (or hamburger, or whatever the product is) that you get at one location will be virtually indistinguishable from what you would get at any other location within that chain. Not all chains achieve that ideal, but the successful ones generally do, and whether they achieve it or not, it’s what they strive for.
But there is a more optimistic scenario, too. In the RBJ story, Fantauzzo is quoted as saying that Salvatore’s, which offers a full menu, is “not competing with just pizza chains. We're competing with the sub chains, the taco chains, [and] the burger chains” as well. And maybe that’s the point - that Salvatore’s competes more against other chains than against independent pizza shops.
I hope that’s true, and that customers who enjoy the pizza from their local independent pizzerias will continue to patronize them, regardless of how many chains move into the neighborhood. (Of course, if the local joint turns out poor pizza, that’s a different story. I’m not saying you should patronize them just because they’re independent. But if they’re good, they deserve support.)
Again, this isn’t really about Salvatore’s in particular, except that it happens to be growing at a seemingly exponential rate right now. I wish them continued success; I just hope it comes at the expense of the even bigger chains, and not at that of the little guys.
In the end, maybe the story of Salvatore’s itself should offer some encouragement. Fantauzzo notes that in the early 1980s, “there were rumors that these national chains were going to come to town, and I was nervous.” Salvatore’s obviously weathered that storm quite well. Here’s hoping that the independent pizzerias of today can do so too.