CLEVELAND — Michael LaMarca has been in the pizza business almost his whole life.
“My mom would take me to work every day. and I would sweep the dining room, set the tables (and) I would ball dough. I would stand on milk crates and grate cheese," LaMarca said.
Twenty years ago, he took over his family business Master Pizza, which has 12 locations in northeast Ohio. He said each year, working in the food industry can be unpredictable, but nothing hit the industry like the coronavirus pandemic.
“If we have a situation where a customer was upset, we know how to handle those situations or we have a situation where store struggling, we could fix those things because those are kind of in our wheelhouse. None of us are experts in pandemic," LaMarca said.
Because of the pandemic grocery stores were the go-to over sit-down restaurants, but to LaMarca’s pleasant surprise, people didn’t stop ordering pizza.
He said Master Pizza, which has dine-in options at some locations, was able to not only survive but thrive because of pickup and delivery.
“The pickup and delivery aspect of our business was up about 5% to 20%, depending on the store,” LaMarca said.
LaMarca is on the board of the Ohio Restaurant Association, so it didn’t take him long to realize that other restaurant owners weren’t as lucky.
“You didn’t feel good that your friends are struggling and you're still able to answer your phones as a struggle. You know, good friends, their restaurants are closed,” LaMarca said.
And it didn’t take him long to come up with a plan to help them out either. He and other pizza shop owners launched “Pizza with a Purpose,” an initiative that 125 pizza places throughout the state of Ohio participated in. They were able to raise more than $30,000 for the Ohio Restaurant Association's Restaurant Relief Fund money from pizza sales was able to go directly in the hands that needed it.
“Helping them buy food, rent and if they however they needed to spend the money, they can spend it so this is a great feeling knowing that we can help them in the way they needed help," LaMarca said.
LaMarca said helping fellow restaurant owners and workers doesn’t stop at pizza sales; he’s also been working with restaurants to help them perfect their pickup and delivery systems.
“Anytime anyone asked me for advice, I always said make sure it's delivered well into packaging. You want to have a vented — you want to have it corrugated boxes, so there's a lot of things that the science of food delivery is really progressed,” LaMarca said.
He said the coronavirus pandemic hurt restaurant industry indefinitely, but it also helped restaurant owners realize just how much they depend on each other.
“Not waiting for help, you know, being part of the solution and and doing what we can to help people out," he said.