Time Capsule: Aurelio’s Pizza

After Joe Aurelio Jr. got a loan for $2,500 to buy a struggling four-seat pizzeria in Homewood, Illinois, in 1959, business was initially slow at

Aurelio’s Pizza (aureliospizza.com). He kept afloat through sales of his beef sandwiches—only six or seven pizzas were usually sold in anevening—but made some adjustments to his pizza dough and sauce after a couple of years; by the mid-1960s, business was swinging, with a line of customers frequently stretching outside thedoor.

Aurelio’s soon expanded by taking over a second storefront, and by 1977 the business had moved into a 12,000-square-foot building that seated 600. Meanwhile, Joe Jr. began to sell franchises in 1974, a decision that has grown Aurelio’s to 43 locations in six states. “My dad did everything in those early days of the pizzeria,” recounts Joe Aurelio III, current president of Aurelio’s and Joe Jr.’s son. “He wanted to be an achiever. He believed in keeping it simple and not doing more than what you’re good at.”

But Joe Jr. was also an innovator. He helped develop a sausage dispenser that would take the manpower out of sausage prep, which proved especially handy at Aurelio’s since Joe III says 98% of all pizzas sold at the restaurant—which serves up to 8,000 customers per week—feature sausage. Today, the company guarantees both consistency and uniqueness by branding its main products, which are made to Aurelio’s specifications by suppliers; making its own sausage; and distributing supplies out of a commissary, allowing the franchise to keep food costs low through bulk purchasing.

Although the pizza may have remained essentially the same after 50-plus years—and pizza now makes up to 75% to 80% of sales—efforts to evolve with the changing times have helped attract new generations of Aurelio’s fans. Kirk Mauriello, Aurelio’s director of franchising, has recently coordinated radio and billboard ads to increase brand recognition, and the company garnered more than 10,000 fans within a year of starting its Facebook page. “Sales were up 6% last year,” Mauriello notes. “Our goal is to price our product profitably and stay competitive.”

Meanwhile, Joe III, after spending a lifetime in the pizza business, still lives by his dad’s creed: Stick to basics, offer quality food and customer service, and give back to the community. “Believe in your product, and never skimp on quality,” he advises. “And be a giver, not just a taker. When you give back to the local community, you’ll feel the love in return.”