Editor’s note: This is an expanded long-form, digital-only version of the cover story appearing in the June-July issue of PMQ Pizza Magazine. Click here to read the print version of the article.
By Stuart Meyer
Meet the Nelson family from Wappingers Falls, N.Y., just over an hour up the Hudson River from New York City. This is their NY pizza dream.
In 2009, Mike and Vicki Nelson left New York to start a promising new life with their three young children in Naperville, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. They had just sold the commercial snow-removal business they’d spent two decades building into a national company. As part of the terms of the deal, Mike would move to the Midwest to continue working for the buyer, they would receive the proceeds of the sale in installments over time, and everyone would live happily ever after.
Well, actually it’s just the beginning, as our story is about to become a real punch in the gut.
Within a couple of years, the buyer’s company went bankrupt, leaving Mike and Vicki broke and unemployed alongside their three children in the Midwest. Helplessly, they watched 20 years of blood, sweat and tears wash down the drain with the remnants of their former business and future proceeds.
Vicki began driving a school bus part-time to make money. With only a high-school education, Mike bounced from dead-end job to dead-end job within the same industry. At one point, it got so bad that members of their church were anonymously sending them grocery gift cards to buy food for themselves and their three children.
In 2014, after multiple false starts in getting their lives back on track and navigating personal bankruptcy, Mike’s parents sent them gas money and insisted they bring the kids to meet up with them in Melbourne Beach, Florida, for Spring Break to get away from it all.
Mike and Vicki greatly missed many aspects of their former life in New York. One of the biggest was authentic New York-style pizza, which was virtually impossible to find amidst all the traditional deep-dish pies and squares of thin-crust pizza in the Chicago area.
The grueling drive from Naperville to Melbourne Beach took just over 18 hours, and the Nelsons drove non-stop to save money. Exhausted and hungry from the long drive, they met Mike’s parents at the Original Bizzaro Famous New York Pizza as soon as they arrived into town. The road-weary family walked into the pizzeria to find Mike’s parents sitting there with a hot, fresh New York-style pizza on the table and ready to eat. Mike and Vicki raised their slice, devoured their first bite, and, in that moment, everything was right in their world.
Vicki immediately lamented about the lack of New York-style pizza in Naperville and joked about how they should open up their own pizzeria. She truly was joking; despite their family legacy and love for food, the Nelsons had approximately zero experience in the restaurant business. Yet, for the remainder of the meal the idea began to rise like an overactive ball of dough within Mike’s entrepreneurial mind.
We’ll return to Mike and Vicki’s story shortly.
The Pulcini Saga
Meanwhile, I’m pleased to introduce you to the Pulcini family from New Jersey. Michael Pulcini is a second-generation Italian-American and his wife, Lina, is a first-generation immigrant from Naples, Italy. This is my NY pizza dream.
In 1981, building on an early start in the pizzeria business in New York City, Michael and Lina, along with their young daughter, Marcela, moved from New Jersey to, of all places, my hometown of Elizabethtown, Kentucky to open a mom-and-pop New York-style pizzeria and restaurant in a dry county where alcohol sales were illegal. Why, you might ask? Well, that’s another story for another time.
I was a nine-year-old pizza-making fanatic when the Pulcinis took over the shuttered TJ’s Pizza Pub in my hometown. In the years to come, through church and my father’s business, my family became close friends with the Pulcinis, and we often ended up at the Pizza Pub for regular meals and nearly all momentous celebratory milestones.
Michael was the Italian Stallion, a perpetually worried, handsome, Roman-nosed, skinny guy with pizza-maker biceps, a thick Jersey accent, and wicked sense of humor. In almost papal-style, his standard-issue pizza-maker uniform consisted of a white undershirt, white pants and a white apron wrapped around his waist.
Lina was my Italian surrogate mom. Proudly fluent in broken English, she was a spitfire with permed curly black hair who loved to smoke skinny Capri cigarettes, laugh, and sing endless choruses of the Dean Martin standard Volare. To give you an idea of her absolute devotion to food culture from her home country, I once mixed red sauce with white sauce in her presence, and I learned to never do that again.
We always sat at the newspaper-covered, cigarette ash-dusted table in the small red-carpeted, wood-paneled dining room where Michael and Lina would often join us for a break as Marcela and, eventually, her new sister Angela bounced around their dining room “playground.”
Michael and Lina were brokers of on-point nicknames, and you knew you were a regular if you had one. My dad was either Mr. Lorenz or El Cheapo (bestowed on him by Lina for his frugal tipping tendencies). In the early years, I was dubbed Pugsley, given my shared stature and resemblance to The Addams Family character.
Lina would occasionally leave the restaurant early to go home and cook for hours, inviting us over for a midnight feast of favorite family Italian recipes. We would eat until we could barely move and briefly ponder the possibility that we may have lost our ability to ever be hungry again.
At age 18, I began working part-time for Michael and Lina at the Pizza Pub, delivering pizzas and making sandwiches, calzones and pasta dishes. Sometimes Michael even let me enter his sacred pizza-station lair to stretch a pizza or two when business was slow. I loved cooking on busy nights and developed a deep passion for the art of pizza and Italian food traditions, and I experienced firsthand how mom-and-pop pizzerias quickly become a cherished second home and family to so many. I also gained an entire vocabulary of Italian curse words and learned that if I wore shorts in the kitchen I would soon “see God” in the form of an airborne splash of lava-like molten food matter from a skillet or the flattop.
By the summer of 1991, a fresh crop of less-expensive chain pizzerias had sprouted up around town, and business at the Pizza Pub began to wilt. Many nights after closing, I would sit at the family table with Michael in the darkened dining room. As The Doors blared from the tiny speakers overhead, I listened to the dejection in his voice as he mourned and lamented the inevitable while sipping on a bourbon soda. I would offer up all kinds of crazy—and futile—ideas that were met with appreciative half grins from Michael. The truth is, I felt powerless to turn the tide; as I witnessed it all slipping away into the deep, it truly affected me on a deeply personal level.
The Pizza Pub unceremoniously closed its doors for good that summer with one final night for grieving loyal customers to enjoy. Then it vanished from our lives, along with the Pulcini family, who would soon return to New Jersey to put the pieces back together. The inexplicable loss haunted me and, despite the passage of nearly 30 years, to this day I still occasionally have the same recurring dream that Michael and Lina return to town to reopen the Pizza Pub.
Twenty-three years later, I was in Philadelphia for a client video shoot. With less than two hours’ notice, I called up Michael and said I was heading toward Spring Lake Heights, N.J. for a long overdue reunion at their current restaurant, Naples Pizzeria. Sadly, Lina was ill and at home in bed, but their oldest daughter, Marcela—whom I used to help with her math homework at the family table—was there and following in the family tradition, working alongside her dad at Naples.
It was a quiet Thursday evening as I walked through the door. I was delighted to discover the New Jersey equivalent of the Pizza Pub. It was as if a ghost had risen for one hauntingly remarkable evening as I re-united with Michael, Marcela and so many of those long-lost cherished unique family recipes and flavors. Except for grey hair and a beard, Michael was exactly the same handsome, skinny pizza guy, Marcela was all grown up with a culinary school degree, and we did our best to catch up on the past two decades.
I had all of my video equipment in the car and was dying to film Michael in action during the dinner service. Here was my chance to capture those long-lost memories in living motion and to shine a bright light on the strangely profound, deeply personal bond between independent pizzerias and their customer family. The end result is the short documentary film, “Inside the Pizza Box,” which is available on YouTube free of charge. (Or you can watch it below).
The minutes and hours evaporated, and soon it was time to head back to Philly. As I drove out of the parking lot, little did I know a New York-born couple in Naperville, Illinois, was a mere four days away from opening the doors of a mom-and-pop New York-style pizzeria practically in my backyard.
It’s important that you know the story of my lifelong connection to the Pizza Pub and the Pulcinis to understand and appreciate what happens next.
Let’s head back to 2014 and Melbourne Beach to catch up with Mike and Vicki Nelson.
A Bold Risk
Later on the same evening of the Nelsons’ Bizzarro New York Pizza family reunion, a peaceful, warm Florida breeze drifted across the front porch of his parents’ trailer as Mike sat in front of the glowing screen of his laptop. His previously burdened mind was now churning with ideas stemming from Vicki’s light-hearted jokes earlier in the day about opening their own pizza shop.
In the search field on the screen, Mike curiously typed “pizzerias for sale in Naperville Illinois.” The top result was a small take-out/delivery pizzeria that had closed a few months earlier in a sleepy hidden neighborhood strip mall in the Southeast corner of town. All of the equipment from the former pizzeria was on premises and available as a turnkey opportunity.
Mike shared the news with Vicki, and they ended up calling from Florida to make an appointment to see the space, pleading with the property owner not to do anything until they got back to Naperville.
Though Mike and Vicki knew nothing about the pizza or restaurant business, their lives were rich in family food culture and traditions. Mike grew up around DeLenos, his Uncle Tony’s Italian family restaurant, which operated for decades—dating back to the 1950s—as a local institution. On Vicki’s side, every Sunday her grandparents, Little Gram and Little Pops, would host cherished Sunday family dinners filled with the comforting aroma of meatballs frying up and fresh Sunday gravy being made. As for pizza, Vicki’s brother, Louis, and her nephew, Steven, operated a pizzeria in Maybrook, N.Y. named after their cherished grandfather, Little Pops.
Upon returning from Florida, Mike and Vicki checked out the small pizzeria space and knew from the first moment that it would be the perfect start. Vicki reached out to Louis and Steve, who agreed to share the family recipes and guide them through the process of opening and running a pizzeria. To honor Vicki’s grandfather, they would also name their pizzeria Little Pops.
They shared their idea with their church community and received an outpouring of support and encouragement. Everything was coming together except for one little detail: They didn’t have an experienced pizza maker. So Mike sent a “Hail Mary” pass spiraling through the air and placed an ad on Craig’s List for a pizza maker with experience in New York-style pizza. As luck would have it, they received a response from Erwin, an experienced pizza maker from Staten Island who was presently living just across the border in Wisconsin.
With the help of family and friends, they worked around the clock to get the pizzeria and kitchen ready to open as quickly as possible. As opening day approached, Mike and Erwin drove up to New York for a week of hands-on training at Little Pops in Maybrook and soaked up as much knowledge as they could. They headed back to Naperville a couple of days before Little Pops was supposed to open. At that point, they hadn’t even cooked their first New York-style pizza in the ovens and were anxious for a little practice before opening. Upon tasting their first test pizza, their stress-fueled exhaustion gave way to energizing inspiration and joy: This was what their NY pizza dream was all about. And soon they would be sharing the same nostalgic and first-time joy with their customers. The wind returned to their sales, and opening day was within sight.
Opening day was supposed to be a quiet soft opening; they didn’t plan to promote their new pizzeria for a couple of weeks so they could ease into operations while serving the surrounding neighborhood and their friends. Instead, almost immediately upon opening, the phones started ringing and never stopped as they fought to keep up with all the orders with only one experienced pizza maker.
Mike and Vicki’s first couple of weeks—and months—were filled with mistakes, unexpected minor catastrophes, constantly ringing phones, realizations of the inadequacy of their early ordering system, and embarrassingly long wait times as they white-knuckled their way forward. But none of those things mattered as overjoyed East Coast ex-pats emerged from all directions, seemingly out of nowhere, to converge upon Little Pops for a long overdue slice of home and a dose of authentic New York food culture.
A Life-Changing Discovery
Five months later, around 10 p.m. on November 6, 2014—15 years into my quest for New York-style pizza in the Chicago area—I was scrolling through my Facebook feed when my thumb came to a screeching halt. The WGN-TV food show, Chicago’s Best TV, had posted a call for the best New York-style pizza in Chicago. As if the post could hear me, I immediately responded aloud, “Yes, I would very much like to know as well.” In the hypnotic glow of my iPhone screen, I noticed there were already 25 comments. With anxious skepticism, my pulse accelerated as I tapped the screen to review the comments. To my astonishment, the first comment at the top simply said, “Little Pops in Naperville.”
“Little Pops in Naperville?” I exclaimed. “I live in Naperville, and I’ve never heard of Little Pops!”
How did I miss a New York-style pizzeria by the name of Little Pops opening up in my hometown? Was this some kind of hidden New York pizza speakeasy tucked away in the back of an industrial park? An exclusive club for pizza-deprived East Coast transplants only? A mirage? Was I actually asleep, experiencing a new version of my own recurring NY pizza dream?
The fog of mystery lifted upon a quick Google search, which informed me that Little Pops NY Pizzeria was, indeed, a real place and exactly 4.9 miles from my house, tucked away in a tiny neighborhood strip mall I’d never seen before. After all, Naperville is a sprawling suburb of nearly 150,000 people.
They were already closed for the night, but the next day, even after a breath-depriving barbecue feast with a restaurant client an hour away, I embarked on a secret drive-by mission to case the alleged New York pizza joint. As I drove slowly along the street past the strip mall, I could confirm there was, in fact, a hasty vinyl banner draped across the storefront that said, “New York Pizza.” At that point, my intensifying curiosity guided my unmarked vehicle into the parking lot, where I found a parking space in front of Little Pops.
It was past the lunch hour, and there were no customers inside. From my car, I peered through the front window of the shop space. My excitement increased as I spotted a long counter-top display case containing a small collection of over-sized pies. It could only mean one thing: NY slices.
At that point, I cast my cover aside, emerged from my vehicle, and headed straight for the front door. As I walked inside, to the left was a large bulletin board map of the United States inviting customers to add a tiny round push-pin to their hometown. As I gazed up toward the Northeast, there were so many push-pins, I couldn’t even see the outline of New Jersey, New York or Connecticut.
I moved in close toward the huge slice pies, and a hauntingly familiar aroma traveled through my nostrils and directly into my heart. Suddenly, an animated, slightly chubby guy with a Little Pops logoed flat cap emerged from the back kitchen and exclaimed, “Welcome to Little Pops! Is this your first time? My name is Mike.” Reflecting on my NY pizza mentor Michael Pulcini, I thought to myself, “Of course your name would be Mike,” as if the NY pizza spirits were there, winking at me and wondering what took me so long.
Mike and I chatted a bit. He told me about his wife Vicki, who was out on an errand. We shared stories, and soon I was headed out the door with a cheese slice to go on a paper plate in a proper sleeve bag. Before leaving, I looked directly at Mike and, in the covert tone of a spy, said, “By the way, this never happened, and the next time you see me walk through this door, we’ve never met.”
Why? Because my wife is from New York, and I had promised to bring her along on my first trip to Little Pops. Sorry, I couldn’t help myself.
The drive home was only 11 minutes, and I was already stuffed from my barbecue lunch. But I had evidence to destroy and couldn’t wait any longer. Before I even left the parking lot, I tore open the bag, folded the molten slice, and took my first bite.
I paused for a moment, awaiting the verdict from my taste buds. Suddenly, joy-filled tears welled up inside my eyes, and it wasn’t because I had just burned every square inch of my mouth.
Little Pops NY Pizzeria had opened its doors a mere four days after I bid farewell to Michael Pulcini and Marcela at Naples Pizzeria in New Jersey. My own recurring dreams of the Pizza Pub and New York-style pizza were beginning to merge with Mike and Vicki’s NY pizza dream to both create a new livelihood and share their own family’s legacy in creating joy, connection, and belonging in the lives of their customers through New York pizza and food culture. Although I couldn’t save the Pizza Pub at age 18, I was determined to do whatever I could to help Little Pops succeed and thrive.
Telling the Story
Upon finishing my short documentary film, Inside the Pizza Box, I gave Mike a sneak peek. He loved it, and we began talking about doing something similar about a “day in the life” at Little Pops. I had bigger plans in my mind as their backstory was compelling and full of the humbling struggles to which we can all relate as human beings. After talking about it for quite a long time, we finally cut a deal for me to produce what would be a feature documentary film with 100% creative control in exchange for a small fee and a substantial food credit. That’s right—for all intents and purposes, NY Pizza Dreams was paid for with pizza. The funny part was, Mike joked with me that my family would never eat through all that credit, yet within four months it was all gone.
The film was shot over two days late in the summer of 2018 and released in February 2019 on YouTube. Upon the release, we also worked out an arrangement where Social Frequency (i.e. me) would continue to tell the Little Pops’ story as a marketing strategist, media creator and business analyst. As a former CEO of a national food trade association, I also knew that, in the restaurant business, the numbers tell as important a story as the creative.
This journey has been an answer to my own recurring NY pizza dream. I’ve been able to help a hardworking family pizzeria thrive and succeed where I was powerless to do anything for the Pizza Pub at age 18. As for the road head, I’m just getting started!
NY Pizza Dreams: Lessons & Case Study
Upon the release of NY Pizza Dreams in February 2019, Little Pops almost immediately began doubling its monthly revenue growth year on year, which has become the new norm ever since. In 2019 vs. 2020, there was an overall 36% increase in year-on-year revenue growth. With growth comes growing pains as Little Pops has outgrown its current space. An expansion plan is currently in the works.
The film basically shone an honest and humanizing spotlight on the Little Pops story, which has generated an even stronger attachment to Mike, Vicki, and the pizzeria. However, the countless ways in which the story of NY pizza dreams continues to be told on a daily basis through everything Little Pops does is the true key to growth and success.
Lesson 1: Your story is as important as your pizza—maybe more important.
Within the heart and soul of every pizza business is a one-of-a-kind authentic human story. Your story is the most powerful all-purpose business tool you have at your disposal. The reason is rooted in science: The human brain is hardwired for stories, which are simulated personal experiences for which we form an attachment. Loyalty is born when staff, customers and entire communities form an attachment to your story as it continues to unfold on a daily basis.
Case study: A new piece of our NY pizza dreams unfolds every single day at Little Pops, and we make everyone a part of that story. Our story serves as a guide for ideas, decision-making, problem-solving, interactions, and finding our way out of the “weeds.”
Lesson 2: You are the main character in your story
Stories require a main character with whom we form a powerful attachment. If you own a pizzeria, you are that main character, and your pizzeria is your stage. You are the “captain” of the ship. Remember the immortal lyrical wisdom of Billy Joel’s Piano Man: “It’s me they’ve been coming to see to forget about life for a while.” If you are tucked away from view in the back kitchen all the time, it’s tough for you to be that main character. Also, if you don’t love people, it might be time to consider a career change.
Case study: On busy and slow nights alike, Mike prioritizes spending time in front of customers at Little Pops. He strikes up unique conversations with each customer, using observation, humor and wit. He also listens to what’s going on in their life. If you are convinced you’re the only one who knows how to make pizza or prepare dishes at your restaurant, you’ll struggle to carve out time to be the main character of your story in the eyes of customers. Hire, train and get out of the way of those who can help give you more time to make a meaningful connection with your customers. The same holds true for employees—they should be allies and supporting characters in your story. Lead by the example your story has set and be careful to not turn allies into villains.
Lesson 3: Great stories are rooted in struggle and humble beginnings
The human brain is also hardwired to help others who are struggling, especially those with whom we share a connection or attachment. Your story should include—and never lose sight of—those humbling moments of struggle you’ve faced in your own dream to build a successful pizzeria. More important, be willing to be vulnerable when you find yourself in a major struggle which threatens your ongoing story. These pandemic times would be an excellent example.
Case study: When the stay-at-home order was issued by the governor of Illinois in late March, panic-fueled scrambling kicked in as a major twist in our ongoing story at Little Pops. From the first moment, the goal was to keep the dream alive in the face of uncertainty. The whole team was united around the story, and Little Pops was quick to involve the neighborhood in the story. We could write an entire separate article on this topic, but the main point here is that we offered specific ways in which our Little Pops neighborhood could help us save our NY pizza dreams.
Lesson 4: Create an engaging setting for your story
I hate the word “customer” because it connotes a degree of transactional divide. Even the word “guest” has become a bit contrived. Your pizzeria is the setting of your story, and whether you realize it or not, it’s a pretty important place for those who support you regularly. In my film, Inside the Pizza Box, Michael Pulcini talked about feeling like a priest at times in his 40-year pizzeria history as people arrive to connect and share their life stories. Beyond physical space, think about what your pizzeria represents in the lives of those who love everything you do. Make sure you at least have a subconscious understanding of how the neighborhood pizzeria serves as a micro-community within a community.
Case study: At Little Pops, the physical location is a tiny, hidden neighborhood strip mall. Building upon NY Pizza Dreams and Mike’s story about his Uncle Tony’s restaurant, where regulars would walk in the back door and hang out, the story of our setting is: “Little Pops isn’t a pizzeria—it’s like its own little neighborhood.” When we reference Little Pops “the pizzeria and restaurant,” we refer to it as the Little Pops Neighborhood because everyone who walks through the door is viewed as a “neighbor” and are treated accordingly.
Lesson 5: Make your customers a part of the story
While stories create a simulated personal experience in our brains, thus forming an attachment, finding ways to involve your customers in the story will help you reach new levels of loyalty. From community group fundraisers and special causes to social media contests, testimonials and shared positive online reviews, find a way to involve customers in the story where they play some type of role.
Case study: NY Pizza Dreams has offered endless ways to involve our neighborhood in the story. For starters, we hosted a virtual and physical YouTube premiere to release the film. We chose a Monday night when the pizzeria was closed and hosted a special “golden ticket” watch party at Little Pops. Tickets were available via a social media contest, and we provided a big-screen viewing experience and a generous spread of complimentary pizza and pasta. Everyone else joined us on YouTube for the interactive watch party. Throughout the evening, we took video and photos and posted to social channels as part of the ongoing story so everyone could feel like they were present. Beyond the premiere, we continue to use excerpts from the film for story posts on social media and have even posted NY Pizza Dreams crossword puzzles and word searches contests.
Lesson 6: Social media is your main storytelling channel
Every social post should be rooted in your daily story as derived from your backstory and culture. As the main character in your story, you are also the chief storyteller. While you can hire people to manage your social media strategy and channels, they won’t be in the pizzeria every day as great stories unfold all around you. Be proficient and active on social media, sharing regular daily stories, including photos and videos that advance your backstory and culture. Let your authentic personality shine and provide a “front line” point-of-view.
Case study: At Little Pops, I handle all planned social media story points and story lines, but Mike is very active on social media, too, utilizing both his Little Pops accounts and his personal account so people know responses are coming directly from him. I’m not even allowed to respond to comments or messages because he handles each of them personally. I function at the “neighborhood” level while Mike functions at the pizzeria level, and it works exceedingly well. The combination has created an extraordinarily active and ever-growing following, yielding daily organic social results and engagement most others could only achieve through paid reach.
Lesson 7: A story is a protagonist on an uncertain adventure toward a meaningful goal.
Finally, great stories follow a certain formula that mirrors the human experience, which is something we all have in common. While there is an abundance of information out there regarding how to tell a great story, all approaches share the same fundamental premise of a likeable protagonist/main character who sets out on some type of uncertain journey toward a meaningful goal, striking up audience curiosity. Think about this formula in terms of your approach to telling your backstory, your daily story, and the story about the future you are working to “write” in your great pizza adventure!
Case study: NY Pizza Dreams is the inspiring story of a humble New York family who turned hard times into a New York pizza movement in Chicago pizza territory—through faith, hope, love, and a family legacy.
Stuart Meyer is a lifelong pizza-making fanatic and founder/chief storytelling officer with Social Frequency Media Communications. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
You can watch NY Pizza Dreams on YouTube at: https://youtu.be/2KDn4MxYgto
You can watch Inside the Pizza Box on YouTube at: https://youtu.be/-7yssYeiIE0