Back in April, the owners of Philomena, a pizza spot and sports-themed hangout in Oakland, California, could read the writing on the wall—their operational costs were skyrocketing, business was down, and closure seemed imminent. So they wrote a letter of their own to customers and laid it all on the line.

“We need your help now!” the state-of-emergency letter, issued on May 1, read. “Over the past year so many beloved Oakland restaurants have had to close. We’re sad to say goodbye to these local gems—and it looks like Philomena may be next.”

Reaction to the letter surprised husband-and-wife owners Michael “Rico” Richard and Rachel Fenyves.

Related: What’s your pizzeria’s pain point? Get the solutions at PMQ’s Pizza Power Forum.

“We sent it to maybe 2,000 people,” Richard told Berkeleyside, a nonprofit digital news platform in Berkeley, California. I thought I’d get maybe 10 replies. We ended up with over 100 within a few days, and immediately within 30-36 hours, we were starting to see a lot more people come in the door all of a sudden.”

At the time, Philomena could barely afford to pay its vendors. Richard and Fenyves expected to be broke within a matter of weeks. But the community heeded—and answered—their plea. The San Antonio Station Alliance (SASA), a local nonprofit committed to building a new BART rail station in Oakland’s San Antonio neighborhood, held a meet-up at the restaurant, filling seats and attracting notables such as candidates for the Oakland City Council and the director of BART District 4. That meeting caught Berkeleyside’s attention and led to a substantial feature article about Philomena, its value to the community and the threat it has been facing.

“Without Philomena, we lose more than pizza and tater tots,” volunteer SASA organizer Youngchae Lee told the event’s attendees. “We lose a gathering spot for our community. We’re here to make sure this warm light on 14th Avenue stays on.” 

“We’re a small and tight-knit community with very few businesses,” Ben Matlaw, another SASA volunteer, later told Berkeleyside. “We decided it was only natural for us to take action and try and support them as just another neighborhood group.”

Customers are returning in droves to Philomena, but the pizzeria’s future remains in doubt. (Philomena)

David McKay, an Oakland local, told Berkeleyside that he has dined at Philomena multiple times since he learned about the mom-and-pop pizzeria’s troubles. “It only takes the letter to realize you might lose the restaurant,” he said.

But the letter was more than just a desperate cry for help. It suggested specific ways that customers could help keep Philomena’s doors open and included a timeline for added urgency.

“If you love our food, now’s the time to enjoy it more often,” the letter stated. “These next three months will be critical for us and we’d love your immediate support. Please take action now.”

The letter goes on to explain exactly how fans of the brand, which has a full-service location and a DELCO store, could show their support:

“1. Dine in and spread the joy: Join us for brunch, lunch or dinner and bring along a friend or loved one to share in the experience.
2. Order direct: Skip the 3rd party apps for takeout
3. Gift the gift of Philomena: Brighten someone’s day by purchasing a gift card for them to enjoy.
4. Celebrate with us: Whether it’s a birthday party, backyard gathering or picnic in the park, let us take care of the catering while you focus on making memories.
5. Discover our new location: Explore our newest location at the Adeline Food Hall and indulge in the convenience of pickup or delivery to Emeryville, Berkeley and North Oakland.”

Additionally, Richard and Fenyves provided a survey to identify customer preferences and areas for improvement and immediately started fulfilling the requests, which included more community events—such as classic car shows—and some menu changes.

In 2019, Richard and Fenyves bought Philomena from Warren Rector, who opened the pizzeria in 2016. It became a popular spot for brunch—the menu includes breakfast pizzas and other breakfast items—as well as a gathering place for sports fans, who can sample an extensive and ever-changing list of beers and hard ciders.

Business kept booming for several years, with annual growth of 15% to 20%, and a brunch-to-go program helped keep the lights on during the pandemic. But 2023 proved to be a trying year for the owner couple. A series of break-ins required expensive repairs, and dine-in traffic began to fade. Meanwhile, Philomena’s food costs kept rising, forcing the owners to raise their prices, and those pesky third-party apps were pulling delivery business away. The owners were now seeing a sales decline of between 15% and 30%. 

“All my costs were going up,” Richard said in the Berkeleyside interview. “I was putting a lot of money out for repairs and securing the building. So costs all over the place were going up, and sales were going down and stagnating.”

Employees also wanted more benefits, which Richard said he’d happily provide if the revenue was there. “I would like to offer it to myself. But at the same time, they [customers] want our prices to be this great value. And those two things just aren’t congruent; one affects the other pretty directly.”

The owners boosted their marketing efforts and opened the DELCO location in an effort to reach new customers. Still, nothing was working. “So you get to a place where things are really starting to get serious and desperate, and we just decided to send a letter out to the community,” Richard said.

The letter has worked wonders, but don’t call it a comeback just yet. Richard said Philomena is now breaking even. However, while sales are up, they still haven’t reached previous levels. “It’s mentally taxing,” he said.

“All the business owners still really need a lot of support, not from just the customers but from the city,” Richard added. “We need help in so many different ways. So while there’s definitely a success story with what happened, I feel like it’s very short-lived. There’s a lot of headwind still.”

Regardless, Philomena’s letter to its customers proved that a struggling pizzeria can—and probably should, maybe even must—ask for help from the community when it’s needed. But it’s important to note that Richard and Fenyves did more than that. They called attention to the problem and then provided specific solutions that rallied customers to the cause. The pizzeria’s future might still be in doubt, but the owners didn’t merely lament their plight—they took decisive action with a bold move that might have seemed, in Richard’s own words, “desperate,” but kept that “warm light on 14thAvenue” ablaze…at least for now.

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