Hometown pizzerias rule in ‘Nova area

Jason Jabaut

This isn’t a plug for pepperoni-mass-producing pizza franchises. This is about pizza on a local level. Forget Dominos, Pizza Hut and Papa John’s.

Meet Garrett Hill, Peace a Pizza and Bravo. Pizza has become an American staple, and the Main Line offers several unique and appetizing options.

On the surface, it seems like the faces of homegrown pizza shops have changed over the years. Here’s the pattern: single shops branch out, then franchise. Now you can buy a slice at Pizza Hut, and some stock options too.

But the homegrown shops, the mom-and-pop stores we all drool over when we think about real pizza, they’re still here. Neon signs have taken over, that’s for sure, but a promotional glow on the exterior doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re only concerned with the price point on the inside. There’s quality instead. Frozen sauce and commercial cheese aren’t the main toppings on every pizza – and especially not here. These shops buy local.

Sean and Solidea Heberling are the owners of Garrett Hill Pizza in Rosemont, Pa. “We have a very good relationship with our local distributors,” Sean Heberling, who’s in charge of marketing, says. “Especially our produce guy. We’re pretty picky about the produce we get. We use exceptional tomato products. This year, the cheese prices sky rocketed, but there’s a reason we use that expensive cheese.” And they’re not changing it for a better price.

“We have a document we’ve been working on,” Heberling says. “It’s called ‘What Makes Garrett Hill So Good.’ First, the service side. We beat up on our employees to make sure they’re doing everything in their power to make a pleasurable experience for our customers.”

Secondly, he mentions the product. “Big companies focus on the cost to goods sold and compete better with price. Most of their supplies come from a national distributor, not a local.” Garrett Hill competes better with product. And at $1.65 a slice, the fresh ingredients are worth it.

Both Peace a Pizza and Bravo Pizzeria promote the same type of quality in their product.

Tad Baker, the manager of Peace a Pizza in Ardmore (and the first Peace a Pizza ever) says, “We spend a lot more money on our quality products.”

Paula Coppola, the owner of Bravo Pizza in Wayne, Pa., agrees. “We have the best cheese money can buy,” she says. “And we make our own sauce.” That sauce is an authentic Italian recipe that she brought with her to America in 1976 from Italy. “We give our customers the best quality of food we can,” she says.

A major difference between these local shops and the large companies lies in marketing strategies. There’s some serious competition between the two, even if it’s subtly noticeable. “We see the competition there,” Heberling says. “It’s hard to tell, but Dominos, the one in Rosemont, is one of the busiest Dominos on the entire East Coast. They can afford to make that kind of a focus (selling only pizza).”

That’s why local shops offer much more than just a plain slice. “We divide our market up into three groups,” Heberling says. “First, the student body. They’re price conscious.

That’s why we offer deals for one or two people.

“Second, the local families. They’re less price conscious. They want good stuff all the time. We try to focus on meal deals for the whole family.

“Third, the companies in the area. We started rolling out some catering packages this year – that’s our entrees and salads that we can make in bulk sizes.”

Peace a Pizza offers salads, soups and different bread choices along with their pizza selection as well. But their market is slightly different than Garrett Hill’s. “We try to target all ages,” Baker says. “But I guess our greatest market is college kids to early thirties.” They’re expanding that range he says, in an effort to draw in more families with kids. “We started a kid’s corner in each restaurant,” he says. “It has a DVD player which is always playing kids’ movies and a couple of benches with balloons.”

Peace a Pizza is looking beyond the local level. Founded in September, 1996 in Ardmore, they now have five shops in Pennsylvania, including four on the Main Line, a store in Delaware and another one in New Jersey in Stone Harbor. “We’re going to try to keep in the Philadelphia area,” Baker says. But they’re becoming a franchise within the next year. That means, “Our product has to be made in our name and with our quality,” he says.

Paula Coppola told me that Bravo already is a franchise. There are 25 of them.

“I’ve been here for eight years,” she said. “They carry the name, and I pay to have their name. I was the first food store on this street, besides the Tavern around the corner.”

Concerning customers, Coppola said, “I take them all. I love kids, they bring money, college kids bring money, families bring money.”

She loves her shop, and she does things her way. “I’m proud of my store,” she said. “I always thank the customers, because they always come back.”

A topic she takes very seriously though, is delivering. “We don’t deliver,” Coppola said. “I’m from the old school; I like things simple. If you’re going to do it manually, then you can’t deliver, it’s too difficult. You need people on the phones who can speak good English and get directions.”

Dominos in Rosemont only delivers. According to Coppola, small pizza shops need to make a choice. Her shop has a large seating capacity, unlike Garrett Hill (who tries to do both). “I really don’t feel like I’m in competition with them,” Coppola said, “because my pizza is so different. It’s the most authentic Italian pizza.”

Garrett Hill also claims authentic Italian pizza, since it’s former owners were Solidea Heberling’s (formerly Di Felice) parents. It started in 1980 as an Italian eatery, when both her mom and dad came over from Italy.

But they’ve grown from that mom-and-pop shop. They’ve entered the new age of the Internet and computerized deliveries.

Garrett Hill isn’t going anywhere soon. They’re centered on expanding their local shop first. Peace a Pizza on the other hand seems to be already looking outward. You can hear the unease of the restaurant through the DVD player in the corner with the kids’ movies. They’re looking to grow.

But some of our favorites are going to stay, maybe not by choice, but by necessity instead.

“The thing is,” Coppola said, “when you have a family business, you have to spend money to make money. And we don’t have that money to spare right now. We’re not fancy.”