Janet Duran has dreamed of running her own pizzeria since she was young—very young. We’re talking six or seven years old. When her dream finally came true in June, the timing wasn’t exactly perfect, with the coronavirus running rampant in Texas and many restaurateurs struggling to keep their doors open. But Duran wasn’t going to let a pandemic get in her way. And neither were her many supporters, who showed up in hordes for the grand opening of 550 Pizzeria in her hometown of Laredo.
Although 550 Pizzeria is her first shop, Duran is far from a novice. She spent years working at the now-closed Laredo Pizza Factory under Jeff Trevino, who became a mentor to her. It was Trevino’s daily reminder to always “turn the oven on to 550°F” first thing in the morning that inspired her own pizzeria’s name. After Trevino closed shop and moved away, Duran started making and selling pizzas from her home for years, building up an enthusiastic client base as she made plans to open her store.
Now she’s firing up the oven for pies of her own invention, many of which draw inspiration from Duran’s Mexican-American roots, such as the Chicken Chori-Queso (made with a tomatillo sauce, chorizo sausage, tomatoes, onions and chicken, topped with cilantro) and the Heatwave (crushed red pepper, Italian sausage, chorizo sausage, jalapeños, marinated tomatoes, Tabasco sauce and cilantro). In honor of Trevino, she also created The Jefe, a specialty pizza topped with pepperoni, smoked ham, sausage, mushrooms and black olives.
“I had prepared 400 doughs for Saturday, and after advertising my opening-day hours of 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., I sold out by 7 p.m. and had to close my doors early! My sales were $7,000 that day, and all 400 doughs were gone.”
— Janet Duran, 550 Pizzeria
Along with more than a dozen signature pizzas, the 550 Pizzeria menu features wings in Buffalo, garlic Parmesan and lemon pepper flavors, all prepared with Duran’s homemade breading, as well as a selection of three pasta dishes and calzones, such as The Meats, The Four Cheese and The Mediterranean.
Warm, friendly and madly in love with her job, Duran talked to us about the challenges of opening her store in the midst of a nationwide crisis—and all the worrisome “what ifs” that come with the territory.
PMQ: Tell us about your grand-opening weekend.
Duran: What a weekend it was! What I thought would be a small, intimate ceremony proved to be so much bigger—in a good way! Leading up to the 10 a.m. ceremony, I was a nervous wreck. For years, I had envisioned what my grand opening would look like, but nothing can really prepare you. As 10 a.m. drew closer, I kept seeing car after car coming into the parking lot, as my family and friends all came out to support us. Then came the dignitaries—our local congressman, who’s a big supporter of small businesses, our sheriff, who is a solid customer of mine, and even our county tax collector. Before I knew it, the ceremony began, and it was beautiful—every last detail planned out, from a message from my mentor and former boss, a congressional certificate, and inspiring words from my new landlord, to my family and crew helping me cut the ribbon. It was all perfect! And just like that, 550 Pizzeria was open! Eight years in the making, and I couldn’t believe the day had come, especially while in the middle of a global pandemic!
PMQ: Once you opened your doors, how did the rest of the day go?
Duran: After the ceremony ended with the ribbon cutting, the rest of the day was a blur. Walk-in after walk-in, phone call after phone call, it never stopped! I had prepared 400 doughs for Saturday, and after advertising my opening-day hours of 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., I sold out by 7 p.m. and had to close my doors early! My sales were $7,000 that day, and all 400 doughs were gone. Before leaving for the night, my crew and I made more doughs. We had planned on opening for a limited time for Father’s Day the next day, but again, a few hours into opening, we found ourselves having to close our doors early after selling out! In total, we sold 560 pizzas during our grand-opening weekend—not including my specialty wings, fried pickles, calzones and drinks.
“My biggest challenge was always the ‘what ifs.’ Looking back now, my message to others is that there will always be ‘what ifs,’ but you must fight to get through them and not let them get in the way of your dream.”
— Janet Duran, 550 Pizzeria
PMQ: How did the pandemic and the lockdown play into the opening of Pizzeria 550?
Duran: Opening 550 Pizzeria has been a dream of mine for such a long time that I’ve had years to think about every detail, every menu item, the ideal location, pricing, etc. I have also faced challenge after challenge, having overcome each with the help of God and my family and friends. So when the coronavirus hit our community and Governor Greg Abbott ordered all restaurants to close down, I took the extra time it gave me to reflect on what I could do to help. And the answer was staring right at me—use my pizza making skills to feed frontline workers! Our hospitals and ERs were overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients, and healthcare providers were not able to take a break to eat. So I became a woman on a mission, delivering my pizzas to everyone in town who was doing their part to keep our community together—from nurses and physicians to teachers. I made hundreds of pizzas and delivered them every day to say thank you for all they do.
PMQ: You had built up a large following on social media, especially Facebook, before Pizzeria 550 had even opened. How did you do that?
Duran: The increase in followers happened gradually after the former pizza place I worked at closed. I had been working out of my kitchen at home. Customers continued reaching out to me on my personal social media pages, asking if I could make them a pizza—and I never said no. Every week, especially weekends, I spent cooking pizzas. And I was happy to do it, because it gave me the opportunity to perfect my recipes and try out new pizza combinations and ask my “customers” and friends for input. I made each of my pizzas from scratch in my kitchen at home, baked them on a grill outside in my backyard (which reaches 1,000°F). Before I knew it, word-of-mouth spread, and soon I was cooking pizzas seven days a week! Crazy, right? This approach, plus showcasing my pizzas at local farmers markets, really helped grow my followers through word-of-mouth. Laredo is crazy—at a population of 260,000, it thinks it’s a big city, but word-of-mouth still rules here!
PMQ: How important was Jeff Trevino in your life as a pizza maker?
Duran: To this day, I consider my former boss one of the greatest influencers in my life. He constantly motivated and inspired me to work hard and never give up on my dream. And here I am, years later, standing in my own restaurant and doing what I love to do—making pizzas and seeing the smiles on my customers’ faces!
PMQ: Throughout the long process of getting ready to open, what was the biggest challenge for you?
Duran: My biggest challenge was always the “what ifs.” Looking back now, my message to others is that there will always be “what ifs,” but you must fight to get through them and not let them get in the way of your dream. Like I always say, we have to believe in ourselves. It also helps when you have a great support system. My husband and daughter, my close friends and customers, always encouraged me to never give up. Their words of encouragement were constant, never doubting my ability to make great pizza. And it showed each time they ordered a pizza! It’s great now, seeing each of them walk into 550 Pizzeria and shout at the top of the lungs, “You did it!” Some of them just start clapping when they walk through the doors. Each time, I fight back the tears behind my face mask, because it is still hard to believe 550 Pizzeria is finally here and open for business.
Rick Hynum is PMQ’s editor-in-chief.