After nearly a century in business, Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana has honed its signature recipes—like its famous white clam pizza—as well as its recipe for success. Following the successful opening of its newest store in Waterbury, the Meriden-based pizza maker is rolling out still more locations around the area.
Frank Pepe recently signed a lease for a future store in Warwick, Rhode Island, which is scheduled to open next year, co-owner Gary Bimonte said. Pepe’s is also looking to add two Boston-area stores to go along with the one it operates in Chestnut Hill, he said, while New London and Stamford are possible sites for future Connecticut stores.
The Waterbury store, located at 130 Reidville Drive, brought the number of Pepe’s locations to nine, seven of which are in Connecticut, including Wooster Street in New Haven where the business started in 1925. Bimonte, a grandson of founder Frank Pepe, described the April 17 opening in Waterbury as “overwhelming.”
He sees a positive future for the planned Boston stores since, he reported, the Chestnut Hill location is doing “very, very well.”
“We’re blessed,” said Bimonte, who owns the business along with his three sisters and three cousins. His duties are chiefly that of quality assurance director, which includes visits to the stores to consult on matters such as operation of coal-fired ovens.
This year has been tinged with sadness with the March 31 death of Elizabeth Pepe Rosselli, 94, who was Bimonte’s aunt. Rosselli and Bimonte’s mother, Serfina DeMusis, now 90, took over the pizzeria after the death of their father in 1969 and ran it until the mid-1990s before turning it over to Bimonte, his sisters and cousins. Bimonte recalls the big part his aunt as well as his uncle, the late Ralph Rosselli, played in keeping the pizzeria going. Ralph Rosselli left a job in the jewelry business to help Frank Pepe’s survive, Bimonte said.
“We wouldn’t be having the success we’re having today without them,” he said.
Amid a lukewarm economy, the Connecticut pizza sector is doing well, according to CHD Expert, a company that tracks the restaurant sector. At 1,661 stores as of March, the pizza/pasta division was the largest slice (20 percent) of the 8,251-store Connecticut restaurant sector, statistics show.
The pizza/pasta division added three locations in April, boosting its number to 1,664.
Leisure and hospitality, which includes food service, posted the largest gain among Connecticut’s employment sectors in March from a year earlier, rising by 3,400 jobs, or 2.2 percent, to 156,700 total jobs, state Department of Labor statistics show.
Nationally, independently owned restaurants are taking back market share from chains, said Brandon Gerson, an analyst at CHD Expert. Pizza Hut, a unit of Kentucky-based Yum! Brands, posted a 2 percent decline in same-store sales for the last three months of 2016 while overall sales, including international operations, rose 2 percent for the year. Pizza Hut’s share of the U.S. limited-service pizza market has fallen from 25 percent in 1995 to 14.5 percent in 2015, Nomura-Instinet analyst Mark Kalinowski wrote in a February research note.
Michigan-based Domino’s Pizza Inc., another large pizza chain that has stores in Connecticut, showed a U.S. same-store sales increase of 12.2 percent in the last quarter of 2016 while overall sales rose 10.4 percent for the year. Both chains do not report their Connecticut sales publicly.
Brands like Frank Pepe’s, which are maintaining their local roots with unique products even while expanding, are riding a popular wave of localization that’s at work in various parts of the food world, Gerson said.
“In my opinion, this is similar to the craft beer movement that many young adults are driving,” he said. “As a culture, our appetites are craving more TLC (tender loving care) to the food we eat, and thus we are more inclined to dine at an independent as opposed to a place that is set up for mass production.”
Frank Pepe’s growth is attributable to “a lot of reasons” including the use of “high-end” ingredients, some of them imported from Italy, Bimonte said.
Although the business started in New Haven, its thin-crust style of pizza has its roots in Naples, Italy, and not what’s known in Connecticut as New Haven-style pizza, Bimonte noted.
“We proudly put Napoletana out there (in the name of the business) to let people know the difference,” he said, referring to the chain's name of Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana.
Bimonte started working in the business while in high school, six years after his grandfather died in 1969. He worked with some of the “old timers” who were taught by Frank Pepe himself with Bimonte saying he got “an old-school schooling.”
“My grandfather said ‘do one thing and do it the best you can,’” Bimonte said. “We don’t have other menu items. We focus on pizza and we don’t cut any corners. So we’ve managed to create this cult.”
The Connecticut Office of Tourism established a 68-restaurant Pizza Trail in 2015 to better promote the industry. Bimonte hadn’t heard of the trail but said he hoped Frank Pepe's had made the list.
As it turns out, the tourism office pizza trail includes Frank Pepe's among the state's greatest pizza hits, describing it as “The Wooster St. legend,” and citing its white clam pizza.
The 68 stores were selected by polling industry professionals and surveys of the tourism office’s social media community, including Facebook and Twitter, as well as reviews posted to Google, TripAdvisor, and Yelp, Tourism Director Randy Fiveash said.
“Pizza is a major part of our state’s history and tradition of culinary greatness, and the Pizza Trail helps promote our many small, award-winning pizzerias – driving tourism to every corner of the state,” he said. “We know food motivates people to travel, and the trail helps ensure that hungry travelers don’t miss out on our state’s many tasty treasures.”
Last month Fiveash was named to a two-year term as chairman of Discover New England, giving him even greater ability to market Frank Pepe’s and other businesses that are growing regionally by introducing them to international audiences. Discover New England includes the tourism directors of the six New England states and focuses on marketing the region to Europeans and others. The top five countries sending visitors to New England in 2015 were the United Kingdom, China, Germany, France, and India.