Dollar Pizza Reconsidered
A thought-provoking piece in the Wall Street Journal yesterday by Sophia Hollander ("Economics, Sliced") bemoaned the decline of the neighborhood pizza slice, especially in Manhattan, and blamed it pretty squarely on the dollar slice joints, also fingering gourmet pizzerias with elevated prices in passing. We learn, for example, that there are 12 2 Bros. pizzerias in the borough, plus nine owned by 99-cent-Fresh-Pizza, with more to follow. I disagree with four of the article's salient points and implications: 1) that the dollar slice places are the biggest culprit in the decline; 2) that it is principally Manhattan pizzerias that are affected; 3) that the dollar slices are necessarily a bad thing; and 4) that the neighborhood pizzeria is in mortal danger.
The neighborhood pizza parlor as a phenomenon dates to the post-WWII era, as the article makes clear, when gas ovens made it possible to reheat slices. (And when a lot of operators, many returning veterans, could suddenly afford to buy the ovens and get started in the pizza business.) At the time, Italian food meant Italian-American food, a red-sauced entity that had originated in New York and other cities near the end of the 19th century. Pizza as we know it was invented at Lombardi's on Spring Street a little before 1900, and these new 1950s neighborhood pizza parlors carried the earlier coal-oven traditions forth with gas ovens. Many of these ovens bore the name Bari--the capital of Apulia in southern Italy, and the name of the company that pioneered the gas pizza oven.
During the latter half of the 20th century, neighborhood pizzerias flourished, and "two slices and a Coke" became a standard working-person's lunch in nearly every corner of the city. Its main competition was provided by deli sandwiches, hamburgers, hot dogs from carts, or something brown-bagged from home. But as immigrants from other cultures streamed in, different forms of plebeian food emerged. In many parts of town, you could soon get falafels, street-cart curries, tacos, and, from Korean vegetables stands, hot dishes, salads, and sushi. The working-class palate was expanding, and pizza was joined by dozens of other opportunities for a cheap lunch.
National pizza chains like Little Caesar's and Domino's have had a profound impact on the marketplace, mainly with discounted pies that can retail, with toppings, for as little as $5. Other national franchises like McDonald's, Burger King, KFC, and Taco Bell also invaded post-1980, accelerating their efforts during the Bloomberg era and being joined by many other franchises. Over the long run, these national franchises have reduced the number of customers for local pizza parlors much more than dollar slice places have done.
I started noticing a decline in the number of pizzerias in other boroughs about 10 years ago. The same factors--nationally franchised restaurants, other types of cheap lunches--were already decimating their numbers, especially in traditional Italian strongholds from Bensonhurst to Corona. It was in poorer neighborhoods with few economic opportunities for restaurateurs that pizzerias remained strong.