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Pizzerias

This Small Chain Aims to Recapture Pizza Hut’s Glory Days

Washington, D.C.-based Pupatella uses soccer parties and classes to attract youths and build a sense of community.

Pupatella Neapolitan Pizza, a chain with eight stores in the Washington, D.C. area, has a plan to win customers’ hearts, minds and stomachs by recapturing the cozy, hometown Pizza Hut experience of yore, according to Nation’s Restaurant News (NRN).

There was a time when a night out at Pizza Hut was a major social event, particularly in smaller markets where pizza wasn’t easy to find. A Pizza Hut store’s iconic red roof served as a beacon in these communities, bidding a wholesome welcome to families with children, Little League teams, school clubs and even nighttime office gatherings for pizza and beer. The chain famously dished out thick-crust pan pizzas in piping-hot cast-iron skillets as the jukebox played familiar hits and the kids vied for high scores on Galaga or Ms. Pac-Man.

Pizza Hut remains a pizza powerhouse and the second-largest pizza chain in the world. But takeout and delivery have taken priority in response to shifting consumer demands. Meanwhile, Pupatella wants to do what Pizza Hut used to do so well—turn every location into a neighborhood gathering spot, NRN reports.

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“We think that’s one of the things that’s gone by the wayside from our past,” Pupatella Managing Partner Michael Berger told NRN. In its quest to become the old-school Pizza Hut of the 2020s, Pupatella is targeting local youth sports in particular, along with families looking to celebrate special occasions. “We’re hosting a soccer party for a local soccer team; the nine- and 10-year-old girls just won a championship,” Berger said. “But also [it’s] a great place to take your mom on Mother’s Day for a nice night and a good bottle of wine.”

In fact, soccer parties are a Pupatella specialty; the company has partnered with Excite Soccer Programs to create in-store events that include a 45-minute soccer class taught by an Excite Soccer professional coach, along with a pizza party for the participants.

Positioning Pupatella as a haven for soccer-loving kids, their parents and their coaches makes good branding and marketing sense. The sport’s popularity has soared in the past two decades; in 2022, a poll by the Washington Post found that 8% of Americans ranked soccer as their favorite sport to watch, compared to basketball at 12% and baseball at 11%. That same year, more than 800,000 boys and girls in high school played soccer, representing growth of 300% in the past 40 years, CNN has noted. “Today, football has just over a 200,000-person advantage over soccer in the number of high schoolers who play the game,” CNN reported last December.

Of course, Pupatella is a regional Washington, D.C. chain, dwarfed by Pizza Hut in sheer number of locations. So if Pupatella aims to become the next Pizza Hut, it will likely do so on a much smaller scale. But Algarme and Laufenberg are working to expand the brand through franchising, with their sights set on the Philadelphia Metro area; Richmond and Virginia Beach, Virginia; Raleigh-Durham and Chapel Hill, North Carolina; and Newark and Wilmington, Delaware.

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This photo shows the Filetti DOC pizza, topped with mozzarella, cherry tomatoes and basil.
The Filetti DOC (Pupatella / Facebook)

Another key difference between Pupatella and Pizza Hut: Pupatella is a VPN-certified chain specializing in authentic Neapolitan pizza. The company was founded in 2007 by Enzo Algarme, who grew up in Naples. He started out peddling pies in a food truck in Arlington, Virginia, before opening his first brick-and-mortar location in 2010 with his wife, Anastasiya Laufenberg.

For younger consumers, Neapolitan pizza might not have the universal appeal of standard American-style pizza, but Pupatella has earned kudos from the media for its fare. In 2018, Today’s website named Pupatella’s Arlington location as one of the country’s 10 best pizzerias. “The nondescript strip mall that houses Pupatella may scream suburban U.S., but once you get inside, it’s all Naples,” Ben Abramson, editor of USA Today Eats, told Today Food.

In 2020, the Washington Post ranked Pupatella among the D.C. area’s top 10 pizza shops. “The pillowy, salty and light crust has a slight tang, which informs every bite of a pie fashioned with the finest ingredients Naples has to offer,” the article said.

In 2021, Pupatella raised $7.5 million in its second round of funding—the first round in 2018 netted $3.75 million—with the goal of growing the concept to 20 stores, Restaurant Hospitality reported. But Algarme’s goal for using pizza to bring communities together hasn’t changed. “Our focus is always going to be neighborhood Neapolitan, and our most recent capital raise gives us the opportunity to bring the true Naples pizza experience to more communities,” he told Restaurant Hospitality at the time. “It’s a dream that keeps growing for us.”