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Restaurants find unexpected boost from frozen pizza during pandemic

Restaurants find unexpected boost from frozen pizza during pandemic

Katie's Pizza & Pasta

Katie's Pizza & Pasta Osteria in Rock Hill

At Gioia’s Deli, owner Alex Donley calls it the Payroll Pizza.

“It’s literally keeping my crews working,” he says.

You know Gioia’s as the century-old Hill destination for hot salami, roast beef and other sandwiches. And you can still order those standbys for pick-up during the coronavirus pandemic.

But as fast-food and high-end restaurants alike adjust to a time of socially distant dining, Gioia’s is one of a few St. Louis establishments getting an unexpected boost from that grocery-store staple, the frozen pizza.

In fact, Gioia’s frozen pizzas grew out of a collaboration with Dogtown Pizza, the St. Louis company that produces frozen pizzas for retail purchase. Donley says the success of the Dogtown collaboration led Gioia’s to experiment with making its own frozen pizzas in-house.

“It’s been in the works for about three months,” he says. “But then obviously everything gets sped up when the world ends.”

Donley decided to go ahead and make the pizzas available for online ordering. Gioia’s sold 160 in two hours.

“The margin on those pizzas basically paid my payroll,” he says.

Katie’s Pizza & Pasta Osteria in Rock Hill and Town and Country is already known for pizza, of course. But the restaurant has won acclaim for pizza that’s not your typical frozen grocery-store pie. Porchetta. Fig and squash. Even the pepperoni is from local artisan Salume Beddu.

A few weeks ago, owner Katie Collier realized her restaurant would have to change in light of the pandemic.

“Right when we saw the writing on the wall, we started to brainstorm as quickly as we possibly could,” she says.

In 2017, Collier launched a home-meal-kit service called Vero. It didn’t last, but Collier and her husband and business partner, Ted Collier, still had Vero’s delivery packaging and walk-in freezer space.

“We’ve had all this debt from that, and now that’s the silver lining,” Katie Collier says. “We’re getting to use this stuff and repurpose it and keep as many as jobs as we can.”

Katie’s customers have responded strongly to the frozen pizzas — so strongly that by the end of last week the restaurant said production is running three to five days behind.

The frozen pizzas’ success has given Collier additional space to navigate a tricky path.

“Obviously, right now, we’re worried about two big health concerns, which is COVID and then the depression and anxiety and suicide and addiction that comes from poverty,” she says.

“So we’re trying to fight both of those, and this is our solution at the moment, but it’s hard.”

For Melanie Meyer and Chris Ward of Party Bear Pizza and Tiny Chef, frozen pizza isn’t a different approach but a return to basics.

The couple was preparing to celebrate the first anniversary of the restaurant they run inside Bevo Mill pinball and punk-rock bar the Silver Ballroom when the pandemic forced the end of dine-in service. Party Bear Pizza and Tiny Chef serves pizza and Korean street food, but before Meyer and Ward opened the restaurant last year, they sold frozen pizzas to friends and family.

Their new frozen-pizza operation is scrappy, plagued by a shortage of supplies (“I took for granted flour,” Ward says) and limited freezer storage.

“We’re able to make what we can make, and then that’s it,” Ward says.

The pies feature handmade dough and pizza sauce, with a layer of garlic-butter sauce applied between the two. The cheese is whole cow’s-milk mozzarella with a touch of buffalo-milk mozzarella.

“Every time we’ve been able to stock up on supplies, we’ve sold out,” Meyer says.

Customers place orders mainly through Facebook Messenger and pick up the pies curbside at the Silver Ballroom.

“Everyone’s just trying to do what they can to get by,” Ward says. “We can’t solve the world’s problems with pizza, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.”

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