Mario's Pizzeria has survived the shock of the covid19 pandemic, but now the "new normal" of social distancing measures suggests its future has changed.
Even after the lockdown was lifted, until recently in-house dining at restaurants was banned. Customers can now eat on the premises, with some restrictions, but the pandemic may have long-term effects – even for Mario's, part of the TT landscape since 1972, with 21 branches.
The chain is likely to focus on smaller outlets plus its takeaway service.
Business Day met CEO Roger Harford to find out where the company stands now. He said like everyone else, Mario's had been hit hard by the covid19 lockdown.
"We were shut for six weeks, for the first time in the history of the company. We ended the fiscal year not on positive terms."
Despite that, Mario's will open its newest branch early 2021 in Guaico, near Sangre Grande, in the planned Xtra Foods Plaza.
Already, Harford said, "We opened a branch in St Helena in August. It has been performing as expected. We hope it will continue to grow."
He was optimistic, as that outlet is at a junction with high traffic. The company is also about to open a branch at Munroe Road in Caroni.
Mario's has a long history and deep local roots, which have probably helped it to survive. It was founded in 1972 by Roger Harford's father, Richard, at age 28 with a few friends, whom he eventually bought out.
Staff's the reason for success
"There's a lot of nostalgia associated with our brand. It's something you grew up with."
He even recalled couples getting engaged at Mario's.
"We have had cases where people ordered pizzas for their wedding."
Richard, now 76, still goes to work every day at Mario's headquarters in El Socorro, San Juan.
Roger recalled, "I grew up in Mario's as a kid – worked in summers, worked on holidays, weekends."
Another factor in its longevity and survival are its staff.
Harford paid tribute to them, including three who had worked there 30 years: Pamellon Raphael, Lynis Martin and Joanne Roberts.
"Mario's was their first job. They've grown with the company. We have generations, including mother and daughter, working here.
"They built the business. They are the reason we are still around. They have grown with us and built a career out of it."
Harford said Mario's has staff who had worked even longer, typically for 35 or 40 years.
"Our staff is our number one ingredient." Mario's also likes to tease its customers with seasonal special edition pizzas – like its famous smoked herring pizza for Lent. "We have a very active marketing calender throughout the year. We take note of the main peaks and troughs and build around that, so Christmas, Lent, Carnival, summer, back-to-school and Divali are some of the main events, but there are also smaller campaigns in between celebrating things like Mother's Day, Valentine's Day and Halloween. And customers appreciate the seasonality. "We offer smoke herring pizza during Lent and it's popular then but drops off after, so we keep it at a limited time."
Catering to new eating experience
Business Day asked whether patrons are eating at Mario’s since the Government had allowed in-house dining at 50 per cent capacity during the covid19 pandemic.
“People are still a bit sceptical or concerned with dining out, so are choosing to takeaway rather than dining. Most are doing so. It may take some time for our customers to have that confidence to once again dine out. But I think as their schedule gets busier for Christmas, shopping and decorating and so forth, they may become more willing to dine, as they are already out and about shopping.” He noted, though, that from the onset of the pandemic, the company say increased numbers in call in orders for delivery compared to walk-ins.
What safety measures are in place at Mario’s against the virus?
“Basically our rules are no more than four persons per table. We have tables places six feet apart or more. Only 50 per cent of the tables are out.
“We also encourage people to keep their mask on up until the point in time they're ready to eat. They keep it on until they sit to dine.” Patrons who go to talk to a staff member or use the washroom should wear masks.
“Children are to be limited in their movements around the restaurant. Parents have to keep them under control.”
Harford added, “And of course the usual. You must have on your mask and you must sanitise.” The sanitisation is by spraying hands upon entry.
“There is plexi glass along the cash registers.”
And outdoor dining to curb covid19.
“In select stores we do have outdoor dining already, an outdoor area. It’s definitely something we are thinking about. In our new store in Sangre Grade we have a small outdoor area as well.”
Standing up to US brands
Mario's has been able to fend off an influx of large US brand rivals.
"We've been around for 48 years and I think we cater to the local palate, for people's taste."
Harford said Mario's uses local cheddar cheese, not the mozzarella used by US pizza firms. This may be one reason why it's held its own against foreign rivals.
"We represent 50 per cent of the pizza industry," said Harford, pointing out that the pizza business was an expanding pie in TT.
"It has been in the last ten years, with the introduction of Domino's, Papa Johns and Little Caesar's. The pie has increased and at the same time I don't believe we've lost our share of the pie. The pie has grown."
Even before the pandemic, in the last three years Mario's has focused on deliveries as a growth pole, to give consumers convenience.
"That convenience would have been born of increased traffic, increased crime and less family time because everybody's life has become busier. So you want the convenience of being able to order and have a pizza delivered to you in the safety of your home."
But now the pandemic has speeded up some of the changes in the business.
"Covid19 is the great accelerator. It has sped up what has already been on track to happen. It has accelerated trends already in place."
Asked about the traditional visits to Mario's by families taking their children to eat and play, Harford replied, "We've changed our focus and covid19 has made us rethink that whole playpark model. So our focus going forward won't be on playparks per se.
"We'll be looking at convenience, smaller stores, smaller footprints that offers fewer dining facilities but more convenience in terms of delivery and ordering.
"Even before covid19, we realised the future of the restaurant business, including the pizza industry, is about convenience and making it easier for the consumer to order and get the product, not necessarily to come in-store and have a dining experience."
A transformational year
Aligned to this change is Mario's presence online.
"We have the largest following online of all pizza brands. We have focused heavily. Social media is serious business. We are always monitoring our pages and responding." Most orders still come in through the traditional pathways, but Harford said the company has an app in development – currently being tested in selected locations – and would be launching online ordering soon. The company was also an early adopter of third party delivery app Skip the Line and is also available on Food Drop.
He said 2020 was a very dynamic year for Mario's.
"We have done things quicker, with decisions at a moment's notice, because we are living in a time of so much uncertainty."
The company is also rebranding, with an enhanced logo, on a phased basis on items like pizza boxes, cups and bags.
As to the future, he said, "Our goal is to one day be a regional brand with franchises across the Caribbean islands.
"We have a franchise in Guyana – three stores – which is successful. We had a store in Grenada and in St Vincent, but the economics didn't work out. But our intention is to grow and become a regional brand and perhaps a brand in North America. The latter is not a priority but a possibility. We want to expand in the English-speaking Caribbean first."
As for the non-English speaking Caribbean, plus Central America and South America, he said, "The possibilities are endless."
Asked what Mario's meant to TT, he said, "We are one of the largest locally-grown restaurant chains in TT. We have stood the test of time."