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Thursday, July 22, 2010

A Genuine Neighborhood Pizzeria in the 19th Ward: Menezes Pizza

Menezes Pizza on Chili Avenue has been in business for 24 years, all under the ownership of Freddy and Jill Menezes (pronounced "men-EZZ-ez"). In a business in which both pizzerias and their owners come and go with some frequency, that's pretty impressive.
I recently had the opportunity to chat with both Jill and Freddy about what's kept them going all these years, and about how the pizza business has changed since they started out in 1986.
I'll refer you to Menezes' website for the story of how Menezes Pizza got started on Genesee Street and how it ended up at its current location, in the former site of a Pizza Hut carryout franchise (score one for the little guys!).
When I read that story prior to my visit, I was impressed by the Menezes' commitment to their 19th Ward neighborhood, and that very much came out during my conversation with Jill. With obvious affection for the area, she termed it a "very special neighborhood," both in its diversity of residents and because it is a very real neighborhood, where people still talk to each other.
That neighborliness has been a factor in the success of Menezes, which, without the kind of advertising budget that its larger competitors have, has had to rely to a great extent on word of mouth. Jill recalled that the day that Menezes opened after relocating from Genesee Street, they had 300 orders, despite almost no advance advertising, simply because word had spread among the customers and local residents. Clearly there's a symbiotic relationship at work here between Menezes and the neighborhood, many of whose residents found their first jobs at the pizzeria.
But it's unlikely that Menezes would have stayed in business for this long had they not turned out good pizza, and provided good service. And what was also apparent from talking to both Freddy and Jill is their commitment to both. She described Fred - who oversees most of the pizzamaking operations - as someone who has always striven to make the best product he can, adding that they were both determined from day one to "treat people the right way."
What has also benefited Menezes over the years is the contrasting yet complementary personalities of Freddy and Jill. He's a people person who takes a hands-on approach and is able to roll with the punches, while Jill, with an academic background in both art and economics, tends to look more at the big picture, trying to keep up with the latest technology and coming up with innovative approaches to business issues and marketing.
Freddy's passion for quality was evident in the frustration he expressed over some changes in the pizza business since he started out. Back in the day, he told me, the cheese and pepperoni were all hand-sliced. Today, workers' comp issues and customers' expectations of a fast turnaround time have made that impracticable. Even the sauce has changed over the years; as Freddy explained, cooking helps bring out the flavor of tomatoes, but these days the idea has taken hold that fresher always means better, so now tomatoes go from the vine to the can with minimal processing.
And while it's not exactly news that the government can make life more difficult, here's one that never would have occurred to me:  sauce is best kept at room temperature before it's spread on the pizza, so that it can cook in the oven; if it's cold when it's applied, precious minutes will go by in the oven just warming it up. But keeping sauce out at room temperature doesn't sit right with the Department of Health, whose inspectors insist that it be kept refrigerated when not in use.
There have been more serious challenges too, not the least of which is the recession and the continued sluggish economy. The deep-pocketed chain pizzerias have responded by slashing prices and spending heavily on advertising, neither of which small independent shops like Menezes can afford without going into debt, something that Freddy and Jill have always tried to avoid.
On top of that, there was a snafu earlier this year when the phone company printed the wrong phone number for Menezes in the phone book. That was eventually straightened out, but in a business that relies heavily on phone orders, that's more than just an inconvenience.
Clearly, then, running a successful pizza business is not as simple as one might think. With all the obstacles that are out there, the pizza had better be good, and consistent, and Menezes' pizza is both. I got a quick walk-through of the process, starting with the massive mixer (think KitchenAid on steroids), and moving on to the dough retarder, where the dough is chilled to allow for a slow fermentation. Eighteen-year veteran Jay Trudeau (seen in photo) was busy pressing out the dough and topping it with Menezes' house-made sauce and other toppings, and from there it was on to the ovens. Pizzas at Menezes typically go in to the oven on a tray (screens are  no longer used), then finished directly on the oven's stone deck. If  you, like me, prefer your pizza to be baked without the tray, just let them know when ordering, and they'll accommodate you.
Talking with Freddy and Jill gave me newfound respect not just for the real-life "moms and pops" out there who run our neighborhood pizzerias, but for small business owners in general. It takes both brains and heart, to understand the business but also to genuinely care about taking good care of your customers. At one point in our conversation, Jill made the comment that she and Fred "try our hardest every day to serve people the best we can." I think that as much as anything else, that sums up why Menezes has been in business now for 24 years and counting.
Menezes Pizza, 445 Chili Ave., 328-3010
Mon. - Wed. 11 a.m. - midnight, Thu. - Sat. 11 a.m. - 1 a.m., Sun. noon - midnight
Note:  Menezes Pizza will be participating in the Second Annual Taste of Chili Avenue Festival from noon to 6 p.m. on Saturday, July 24. The event will take place along Chili Avenue near Thurston Road. Other features include two stages of entertainment, a basketball competition, face painting and activities for kids. Parking will be available at HSBC, the Progressive Cathedral Church of God in Christ, and the Gardiner Recreation Center. Admission is free.

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