midJersey Business — June 2013
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A Slice Of History
Andrew Wilkinson

De Lorenzo’s Tomato Pies, an iconic third-generation small business, continues to grow by selling a product that has gone relatively unchanged for more than 60 years

Sam Amico is nervous. Every day, before the doors to De Lorenzo’s Tomato Pies swing open, he worries that nobody will show up. He worries that people will stop craving the piping-hot pizza his family has pulled out of the oven since 1947, that a proud legacy will turn stale. Such is life in the high-blood-pressure world of restaurants. And such is life as the steward of a small family business. You sweat the details. Every last one of them.

De Lorenzo’s Tomato Pies currently occupies a sparkling space below a stack of upscale luxury lofts in Washington Town Center at 2350 Route 33 in Robbinsville. It’s less than 10 miles from the restaurant’s humble beginnings in the Trenton row home where air conditioners still poke out of windows. But it is light years from the original cash-only pizza parlor that famously didn’t have a bathroom.

“We lived there,” the 42-year-old Amico says, noting that his family spent every Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner at the restaurant. “I walked home from school to the restau- rant and had dinner at 3 so we could open up at 3:30 every night. I was married in the church around the corner. I went to school there. It was a real family business.”

Studies have long shown that the heartbeat of any local economy is calibrated by small businesses. De Lorenzo’s has been a small, family-run establishment for more than a half century. Outside of the snazzy space it now calls home, not much else has changed about the business.

“I consider them one of our anchor tenants,” says Tom Troy, senior vice president of Sharbell Development Corp., which operates Washington Town Center. “Paramount is the fact that they have such a tremendous history and fol- lowing. There are people lined up to get in all the time. To have that kind of an anchor there is very important to us.”

TrenTon’s Pizza ParTy

Amico is the grandson of Alexander “Chick” De Lorenzo, one of 12 children born to Italian immigrants Pasquale and Maria De Lorenzo in the early 1900s. The family set down roots in Trenton, like many Italian families that came

here in search of a better life. For many, that dream was realized at the Roebling Steel Company. The mill helped to fill neighborhoods like Chambersburg. At the time, similar neighborhoods stretched from Boston to Philadelphia, helping to form the backbone of a developing society during the Industrial Revolution. Each had its own identity. Its own butcher. A grocer. A tavern. And its own pizza parlor.

Originally developed as a peasant food in Italy, pizza was something immigrants brought with them to the United States. It was cheap and easy to make, and it reminded people of home. Well before it was the world’s most popular meal, pizza was comfort food in those neighborhoods.

In 1936, the De Lorenzo fam- ily opened one of the first pizza restaurants in Chambersburg. Papa’s Tomato Pies, opened in 1912, was the first, but the De Lo-renzo name gained a following.

By 1947, Chick set off on his own and established De Lorenzo’s Tomato Pies on Hudson Street. A second De Lorenzo’s, operated on Hamilton Avenue by Chick’s brother Rick, also flourished. The two chains—De Lorenzo’s Tomato Pies and De Lorenzo’s Pizza—are unrelated though. “Same family. Different recipe,” Amico says.

The Hamilton Avenue De Lorenzo’s re-opened at 147 Sloan Avenue last month after closing its original location.

BUILDING A BRAND

Chick De Lorenzo and his wife, Sophie, built the family business. They lived in an apartment above the restaurant and eventually brought their daughter, Eileen, and her husband, Gary Amico, into the business, too. Gary and Eileen’s only son, Sam, followed in their footsteps until he brilliantly charted a new path for the family trade.

It was Sam Amico who carried the business forward and expanded it beyond his ancestors’ wildest imaginations. In 2007, he opened the Robbinsville location, a move that loosely coincided with the closing of the original restaurant on Hudson Street after 66 years of service. The original restaurant has been shuttered for about a year.

While dust collects on those old pizza ovens and the family ponders its next move, the Robbinsville location has flourished. Sam Amico says there was a line at the door the morning the new restaurant opened for business. Like the original, it attracts foodies from all over and is a staple on the Travel Channel and Food Network.

“Seventy years of business obviously helps,” Amico says. “I would never go into the restaurant business without a name. I was lucky enough that my father and my grandfa- ther worked their butts off so that I could put that name on my restaurant. Still, it was a huge transition to go from a 55-seat row home, cash-only business with 15 employees to triple the expenses. I went from handwritten slips to a point of sale system. Major growing pains. Credit cards. Bathrooms.”

You can feel the identity of the original restaurant in the new one. Black-and-white pictures of the old place line the walls. The old De Lorenzo’s sign hangs on a wall next to the entrance. There are photos in one corner that show pizzas being sliced up with clam knives rather than the pizza wheels you typically see. Those same wooden- handled knives are all they cut pies with at De Lorenzo’s today.

PROUD OF THE PAST

Amico was so concerned about the new restaurant staying true to the original that while it was still under construc- tion, he would race back and forth between Trenton and Robbinsville with a five-gallon jug of water to see if the new faucets changed the way the pizza came out.

“People who come here now can’t tell the difference,” Amico says. “My mother can’t even tell the difference.”

In terms of construction and ingredi- ents there may be nothing simpler than pizza—or tomato pie, as it came to be known in the hardscrabble Trenton neigh- borhoods where its local roots are sown. It’s dough. It’s cheese. It’s tomatoes.

But in the 10 minutes that a De Lo- renzo’s tomato pie cooks in one of the restaurant’s 550-degree stainless steel roasting ovens, something happens that goes far beyond the confluence of any of those ingredients, the spices, and the sear- ing blast of gas-fired heat. Something else is baked into these pies that you can’t find in any restaurant supply store.

The secret ingredient is a level of pride, craftsmanship, and care that is lost on big businesses but is familiar to most small, family-run operations. “You have more stake in it,” Amico says. “It’s your life. It’s not all about the money.”

small business school

Amico started working when he was 14 years old. His first job alongside his parents and grand- parents was washing dishes. Eventually he learned every aspect of the busi- ness by spending long hours in it. “It was hard to separate business and family,” he says. “When you came home at night, there was no separation until I closed my bedroom door. I worked with my grandmother, my grandfather, my mother, my father, in between everyone.

“Second- and third-generation busi- nesses, everybody knows their roles, they know where they belong, they know what to do, and they care about the product because it has their name on it,” Amico says. “You’re not working for someone else. You’re working for your family, and that means a lot.”

Sam Amico graduated from Rider University with a master’s in business administration. He was able to build on what he’d learned in the restaurant business in the classroom. He says he re- ceived his diploma from business school around lunchtime and was back working in the family restaurant by dinner that night.

When he returned to the restaurant, he was armed with the knowledge to take the business to the next level.

The original De Lorenzo’s was a cash business. Employees were all family. Not much changed on the business side for more than a half century. “In Trenton, you really didn’t have to know cost analysis because there was no overhead,” Amico says. “You owned the building, you lived there, so you didn’t have to run it like a regular business.”

That all changed when Amico realized the original shop could only take him and his family so far.

“Things were changing in Trenton,” he says. “I knew it wasn’t going to provide for me. I was sitting out front of the restau- rant, twiddling my thumbs, waiting for a door to open or someone to pull up. So I had to make a decision.”

The business student in him came to life, and he applied all the skills he sharpened in the classroom. Amico began working on a plan that would make it so his family and his parents could still be successful doing what they had done their entire lives.

He decided they needed to move the restaurant to a new market. They needed to expand and grow the brand.

MaKinG a moVe

Many businesses had already left Trenton for the suburbs in Ewing, Hamilton, Law- renceville, and Robbinsville by the early 2000s. New homes were being built, new shopping centers were being constructed, and it was hard to ignore where people were heading. A new shopping center was being built on Route 33, just off Route 130 South, complete with enticing retail space and a modern, upscale feel that was far from De Lorenzo’s humble beginnings. The space afforded Amico the opportunity he was searching for and a new beginning to breathe fresh air into the family busi- ness.

He went out in search of a loan that would allow him to expand but was turned down twice by bigger banks before he was finally approved by Yardville Bank.

“I supported my plan and my bottom line with 40 percent growth from that business to here,” Amico says. “It was enough, but apparently it wasn’t enough for the first two banks.”

A year after the move, the economy crashed, but the tomato pie business was recession proof. De Lorenzo’s offered a place where you could feed an entire fam- ily and still have cash left for ice cream next door. While many restaurants closed during the recession, De Lorenzo’s thrived.

The business got stronger by introduc- ing the product to a new market. “My customers come from Manalapan, Mon- roe, Freehold, and up in that area,” Amico says. “Those people grew up in Brooklyn, Queens, and Manhattan, and all of a sud- den they’re transplanted here and they come here and they say, ‘Man, this reminds me of what I had when I was younger.’”

De Lorenzo’s has since exceeded those early growth projections. Amico has plans to eventually open another De Lorenzo’s Tomato Pies, perhaps across the river in Bucks County. Right now though, he is growing the business the only way he knows how: one pie at a time, same as his father and grandfather did it.

His only job when he is at the restaurant is in front of the oven, making tomato pies.

And as long as the oven is hot and he’s got hungry people to feed, Amico has far less to worry about.

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“They have such a tremendous history and following. There are people lined up to get in all the time."

Mid-Jersey’s Favorite Pizzas

super slices from monmouth to mercer

De Lorenzo’s Pizza HamiLton

147 Sloan Avenue 609. 393.2952 delospizza.com

De Lorenzo’s tomato

Pies robbinsviLLe 2350 Route 33 609. 341.8480 delorenzostomatopies.com

Denino’s Pizza Place aberDeen

Aberdeen Townsquare Route 34 732. 583.2150 deninospizzaplace.com

FeDerici’s FreeHoLD

14 East Main Street 732. 462.1312 federicis.com

Luigi’s Famous Pizza ocean

3329 Doris Avenue 732. 531.7733 luigisfamouspizza.com

PaPa’s tomato Pies trenton

804 Chambers Street 609. 392.0359 papastomatopies.com
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