Fairfielders and pizza: love at first bite
Justin Tyrell leaned against a refrigerator at the Nauti Dolphin Pizzeria Monday afternoon and scratched his head. He was trying to explain the popularity of pizza in this town. He seemed stuck. Then an Amtrak whooshed past the train station, shaking the room and perhaps a few theories out of his head.
"Well, it's an affluent town, and the people are busy," Tyrell said as a half-dozen high school students entered the place's narrow quarters. "There's a definite city-life feel to this town. People have lots of work and busy families. And there are lots of students. I don't want to say that it's laziness, maybe convenience?"
James Carroll, perched on a nearby counter, nodded in agreement. Like Tyrell, Carroll is a deliveryman for Nauti Dolphin.
"People are tight with their money around here," he said. "And pizza is a way for them to save money without cooking a big meal at their house. People love a deal, no matter how much money they have."
On a recent night between delivery runs, Carroll and Tyrell tried to list every pizza restaurant in town that they compete with. They said they counted some 18 competitors before their minds blanked.
In fact, this town has at least 23 pizza restaurants, according to listings in the 2009--10 Yellow Pages, interviews with several pizzeria owners and knowledge culled from this newspaper's staff.
Given the nearly 57,000 residents of this town, that equates to roughly one pizza joint for every 2,472 people. That makes Fairfield roughly 5 percent more pizza-dense than the rest of the state.
Connecticut, for its part, ranks among the most pizza-crazed portions of the globe. According to Pizza Marketing Quarterly, a trade publication for the industry, this state has the fourth highest pizzeria-per-capita ratio in America, eclipsing every state but Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Pennsylvania. Hawaii and Mississippi proved to be the poorest pizza-producers in the country, with less than one-third as many such restaurants per head as Connecticut.
Confronted with this information, Bobby Giagkos, the owner of Mike's Pizza, 1560 Post Road, was surprised Tuesday afternoon. "That is nuts. That is insane," he said, and then let out a whistle. "That is crazy."
Giagkos broke down the town's overall pizza market into several smaller markets. Geographically, he said, Fairfield stretches quite wide. It also has a lot of people. And the many people look for different things.
"There are lots of meetings, practices and car washes," he said. "There are people looking for big party orders, people eating pizza religiously, kids walking around town wanting to eat a slice here, a slice there. There are lots of different concepts at work."
Mike's Pizza caters to people seeking quality fast-food and take-out, Giagkos said. "People can come in and within a couple minutes they have their food in front of them and they don't have to tip. They can grab a beer or a soda and they can be as loud as they want. We don't yell at them. And it's been like that for a long time."
In recent years, he said, the town has experienced a sort of high-brow/low-brow double punch. On one end, super-cheap specials have proliferated. On the other end, renowned institutions from other cities have landed in Fairfield's turf.
The super-cheap specials -- where places often offer full pies for less than $6 -- have chomped considerably into the large party scene. Giagkos related a recent experience. A loyal customer needed to feed his child's soccer team. Instead of shelling out more than $100 to give the kids Mike's Pizza, the man went with a cheaper alternative and probably spent just half as much.
Giagkos shrugged. "We won't change our pies for anybody," he said. He cited his restaurant's unique brand as a form of staying power. The thin crust, pan pizza developed out of necessity, a way to fit a maximum number of pies into the store's limited oven space. In pans, Giagkos can squeeze six large pies and four small pies into his oven. Without pans, he can only fit four large pizzas and two smaller ones. Along the way, the store's perfected its unique blend. "If we were to use cheaper ingredients, in the long run, it would hurt us," he said. "Because people will associate us with a cheap product."
Nearby, Captain's Pizza -- at 59 Sanford Street -- offered a similar argument. Captain's Pizza specializes in Greek pizza, offering thick crusts that cook in a pan.
"With the ingredients we use, it costs $4, $5, $6 just to make the pizza," said Ilhan Bayram, a part-owner of the restaurant. Bayram was born in Turkey and moved to the area in the mid-'80s. He said he learned everything about making pizzas from Pizza Palace in Newtown. Returning to his point, he said: "Six dollars to make the pizza, then you add workers, gas and delivery. If you charge $6.99, you don't make any money."
Fearay Gokcek, his Turkish co-worker, was blunt. "Even if you steal the cheese, you still no make money," he said.
On the other end of the spectrum of newcomers are restaurants like Pepe's Pizzeria, a New Haven institution, which opened a branch in Fairfield in early 2006. Soon, Stamford's Colony Pizza will start a satellite restaurant just a short walk from the Nauti Dolphin, Captain's Pizza and Mike's Pizza. Already nearby are Pizza Works and the national chain Domino's.
Will this new titan unseat this town's pizza parlors of old? And can there even be too much of a good thing? Maybe, but it might also raise this town's veterans to new levels.
"The competition is already brutal in this town and you have got to stay on top of your game," Giagkos said. "Leno's went out of business, but that gave room for Giove's to open. If Colony does well, someone else is likely going out."
For now, at least, Mike's Pizza has seen a mini-boon. Many of the construction workers building Colony Pizza have frequented Mike's Pizza for lunch.
And Mike's Pizza will soon expand its restaurant into the next door space and open a bar. It will be its first expansion since it opened in 1974. It hopes its long ties to the community will sustain it into the future. In fact, even if it wanted to cut ties with the past, it probably couldn't.
"Mike is my uncle and he's still alive," Giagkos said. "People ask me if I'll ever change the name to Bobby's. I say, `Are you kidding? He'd kill me.'"
One of Nauti Dolphin's two owners, Greg Roberts, boiled the question down to its core. He took a quick break from making pizzas Monday evening. "Essentially, it's just dough, sauce and cheese," he said, "but we all make it different." He paused. "I think it says a lot about how well pizza is liked. I mean, let's be honest, pizza's great."