Lockdown Economy USA in a Restaurant with John Durning
The interview was transcribed and adapted into an article by Tapasya Das
Lockdown Economy: Interviews by think tank AlterContacts.org with real entrepreneurs sharing insights, challenges and successes during the COVID19 global pandemic to inspire, motivate and encourage other entrepreneurs around the world.
In this interview hosted by Michael Tierney, we meet John Durning, the owner and operator of Pizzeria Deville, a restaurant in Libertyville, Illinois. He launched his restaurant, Pizzeria Deville, in 2014. After spending much of his recent career in commercial real estate in the Chicago area market, John finally made the leap to fulfil his dream of opening his own restaurant. Since early childhood, growing up in a vibrant family with ten children, John had been drawn to the idea of cooking food, bringing people together, supplying the space for fun and support. Throughout his school years, and in his early career, John had cooked at several restaurants and managed operations in food service businesses throughout the USA. Pizzeria Deville offers wood-fired Neapolitan style pizzas combined with a new and creative approach to their toppings. John’s restaurant is popular in his community and is known for supporting charities throughout the area.
When the lockdown came in March of 2020, many customers were on board to help out by ordering his food and in the first couple of weeks, his business increased from the prior year numbers. Since then, as he had warned his staff, sales have dropped considerably. As the Covid restrictions became more entrenched into everyone’s day to day life, families could not afford to order out their food as frequently. John and his team pared down their menu and quickly pivoted to a curbside and delivery model.
They had introduced a pizza truck for off-site public events like concerts and outdoor parties in 2016, and since it was now dormant due to the lockdown, they repurposed it to the back patio of a tavern in the city to help with that business. With perseverance and creativity, John has been able to keep his business open, keep his core employee team together and continue to serve and support his community.
Today we are here in Libertyville, Illinois with John Durning. John is the owner and operator of “Pizzeria Deville”. So could you give me a quick sketch of what your restaurant, the atmosphere, the food and everything else is like? How did you get it started? How long have you been in business?
John: Okay, we will make it a quick sketch. Here we go! Flashback, 8 years! I am working in commercial banking, primarily focused on commercial real estate. I had cooked for many years as a youth at restaurants and so forth. I had been making pizza in my home for decades at that point. That had started really humbly in sixth grade with an English Muffin, a piece of American cheese and a little tomato paste. Anyway, that morphed into this desire to get out of commercial banking and do something different. So in 2014, I opened “Pizzeria Deville”. It’s a wood-fired pizzeria. We have been able to sort of achieve some of our goals. One, in particular, was that we wanted a community restaurant.
We wanted it to be a really great example of how to do things for our three children, who are all young adults now. We knew we wanted to be a pizza style that didn’t exist in our town of Libertyville. So the style of pizza we do is “neo-Neapolitan”, because it is a Neapolitan recipe, and so is the ingredients list. But we throw some pretty funky toppings on it, which most pizza makers from Naples would hit me over the head for doing. So that’s where we come up. Since that time we have really ensconced ourselves into the community. That is not just because they like our pizza and would come to the restaurant. It is also because we do a lot of things for the community. What really guides us is the feeling that it makes us feel good. And my wife and kids agree with that. We all know each other well. Susie and I will talk about it, we will do it and then the community says, “Well, that was a good idea! Good work.”. So anyway, that’s how we have grown our business.
Well, let’s go to “the now”. How have you and your team navigate the challenges that the restrictions of the lockdown had presented to you? How did you get through it and what ideas did you develop?
John: Well, it really happened at an interesting time here in the States. When we got locked down, it was just before St. Patrick’s day. It is a huge celebration in the United States (you give them a reason to party and they are going to do it). So going into that weekend, we all knew about the coronavirus since we were listening about it on the news. But it was foreign to us, to the point that when it first took hold, I went to Costco to get some supplies for the restaurant. I walked in and I noted that all the paper towels and all the toilet paper were gone. And in the typical American fashion, everyone was freaking out over this. I saw some lady yelling at the Costco person about the toilet paper. So I know that it wasn’t funny, but I found it hilarious. So I finished my shopping, I got back to the restaurant and I noted that we have individually wrapped rolls of toilet paper. So they were nice and sanitary and they also had a wrapping around them. We had two cases of it which meant a hundred plus rolls of that stuff lying around because someone had over-ordered.
So I said forget it. We are going to take our “Pizzeria Deville” stickers and we are going to start sticking them on the toilet paper. And every person that comes to the restaurant gets a roll of toilet paper. It took off like crazy. We had not seen anyone do it and it was just because we were responding to this goofiness. I remember the first night we did it. I remember some lady talking about the coronavirus. She is at the bar, having drinks and I say, “Listen, we are going to test out this virus right now.” And then I licked her on the face. So, she and I, who are friends, we look back on that and be like, “Do you know how crazy that was?” Literally, the courts would cut off your tongue today for doing that.
So it didn’t really impact the situation that deeply until it really did. They closed everything on March 17th or 16th. I had friends who were in the process of opening a brand new restaurant. So I got to see it from a lot of different angles, restaurant or store-wise. We were able to just go into a take out and delivery mode. We had already started delivering our own food versus using some of the third party vendors here like Ubereats and Grubhub. Those third party vendors are leeches and they will bring your business down. They charge up to 30 per cent and that has changed because of some legislation. But I’m not in business and so there’s not so much margin to lose money so that they can make money.
So anyway, we started doing takeout and delivery. Initially, it was extraordinarily popular because everyone wanted to make sure that their favourite restaurant survived. So in the first two weeks, we actually did better than what we do normally at that time of the year. However, I looked at my staff and told them that people can’t go out to dinner every single night of the week forever. They also can’t tip so openly and give their money away, when it’s going in the backyard, forever. We saw that occur as well. So since that time, we were solidly down by 50 per cent at this time of the year. There are different times of the year when we were down more or less. But the challenge for us is the fact that we have a private party room and there have been no parties since March. We have a pizza trailer that serves as a pizza truck for all kinds of big public events and private parties. We did three parties last year and they were all under 20 people. We maintained the social distancing norms correctly and I kept my staff away and all of that.
But the point is, there was no money in that either. The takeout and delivery had come way back. In certain areas around us and obviously in other states, they have had people, they had allowed re-openings and they have allowed you to get up to about 25 per cent. We tried the 25 per cent capacity and frankly it didn’t make my staff comfortable and it didn’t make me comfortable. We didn’t have that many guests coming in. So since that time till we were forced to re-close, we just said that now everyone can reopen to 25 and maybe even 50. We had just said that we are going to wait till it’s warmer, till more people are vaccinated so that we really feel like we have got this thing a little bit better and under control. Because if some of my staff get ill with it, they can’t come to work, they become unfit to make a living or even if something potentially much worse than that happens, it will be the worst thing that can happen to me.
And so we have all consulted throughout and the fact that they weren’t comfortable is worth considering for me. They are much more important to me than anything and without them, I can’t run the restaurant. You got to pay attention to your customers. But I feel like I must pay more attention to my staff. They take care of the customers. So we have been very careful, we remain closed and our business obviously is way down.
We have done some different creative stuff like let‘s say the toy drives at Christmas. We still support all the charities that we used to, albeit in a much smaller way because it’s a function of our sales. We also continue to do charity pizzas every month and right now we are dedicating those funds to different food pantries. For the past three years, we are continuing. We have had a homeless lady who lives in our restaurant. It is not because we make ads about that, it’s because she needed a place to stay and we got to know her a little bit. And it has worked out really well for both of us. To me, it’s a small contribution every day. It’s something for which the staff has to rally around and act like a family. To me, that has been a terrific experience. Anyway, that is sort of what we have been doing. It is still hard to get in front of anybody right now.
So I was doing a little bit of research before we got together today. I was trying to read through some of the social media posts from over the months. Did I read that correctly that you were able to re-purpose your pizza truck to a local tavern in the city of Chicago? Therefore you helped out that business. Your pizza truck was just sitting there in the parking lot anyway, so why not put it to use and get a little bit of revenue?
John: Yeah, well, we did do that. Some close mutual friends had a bar and they were just not doing any business. We were able to bring our pizza truck there and we parked on their back patio. We drive up to us every week and buy a bunch of dough. We sold them dough balls for 1 dollar which was 50 per cent off in comparison to what the closest competitor was willing to do. We really wanted to see this work. And actually, it did.
They ended up making lots of pies and pitched it well. They have put up a little pizza oven but they still buy dough from us. One of the two partners is a chef and he said, “Listen, the fact that you are selling it to us for half price, is a great gesture. But if it were the same price, I would still buy your dough. It is a lot better.”. That was a real honour for me, for him to say that. I mean, anything like that, that you can do to help somebody else out, is a real privilege. We have been delivering to the fire departments, police departments and sometimes to the hospitals. Sometimes those are even sponsored by customers of ours and sometimes I just feel like giving away some pizzas. You know, it is still a fun thing to do.
On that note, on February 9th in the States or maybe everywhere, it’s National Pizza Pie Day. So there is a great organisation and I would encourage anyone who watches us support “Slice Out Hunger”. A guy named Scot Wiener in New York founded it. They basically do Pizza charity and he also has a “New York Pizza Tour” as well as his business. But what we are doing is, next week during the week of National Pizza Pie Day, we would be bringing individually wrapped pizza slices to different homeless shelters. They even coordinate this all over the country, so that people who are homeless or otherwise marginalized get to have some pies on National Pizza Pie Day. So we always love things like that and we always have room in our budget for that.
So in the coming months, we are all looking for a finish line in the next little while. What are your plans and strategies as you look ahead and prepare to the point where we can get back to a little bit more of a new normal?
John: I don’t think you go through the storm we just had or having rather and then it just smooths out. I think it’s going to be choppy. I talk to a lot of doctors and friends who know a lot more about this than I do and I think it’s going to be a while especially in the United States. Here people are so stubborn about just doing what they need to do to make it better. That to me is the most frustrating thing. People just put on masks and behave the way they are supposed to. We could make life so much better but that’s a whole another day. But I will tell you, that we are going to wait.
The PPP money that the government has handed out to businesses, has had a second round as well. Let me tell you in terms of whatever your opinion might be. It has saved America. I know dozens and dozens of businesses who have taken that money and have done the right thing with it. They have sustained themselves with it. Without it, I would have been out of business. I know a lot of people who would have been out of business right now. So the fact is that it has been there. But now it’s uptown us to responsibly get back to business and try to make this all work.
As for us, we are going to wait until vaccines are more prevalent and people are feeling a bit more confident. We will continue to wear masks in the restaurants and we have said that maybe in April we will reopen at a reduced capacity and we will test that out. But that all depends on how we feel in April. We got people signing us up for giant weddings and different things like that. We tell them that we would definitely do it but we tell them, “We are going to be over there and nobody is coming over there!”. We take responsibility for bringing and dropping off the food. We also have the bartenders but we make sure that people come and get their drinks from the table. I don’t want them to get my people sick. We are getting ready with all our pads on because we know it won’t be easy.
So could you please tell me two or three things you need help with?
John: Supporting local as much as possible is really important. The big-box guys would still be around and they are going to be in business. If you buy a great product from a little guy who makes something similar, please continue to do that. Wear your masks, go wash your hands, just do what you are supposed to do and it isn’t that hard. We have figured that out for generations and for some reason we are so entitled now that we can’t get out of our own way to make it better. That would be my second thing. My third thing is, I really urge people to be nice to each other. Just be kind! That’s it and I hope these would fix it all.
Yes, three simple things. We hear about them too all the time and it’s still like hitting a wall at times. I have one last question for you. What have you done, implemented or initiated with the business that you never would have done, had this not happened? Are there things to which you say, “Hey I think I’m really glad that I did this and I wouldn’t have done it had it not been for this!”?
John: I don’t know if I am glad. I guess it’s more the thing that no matter when we decide to open this restaurant, it will still translate to a pandemic quite easily. I have joked with my partners. I told them, “You know the one thing no one asked me about when we went over this business plan? The didn’t ask me what happens if there is a worldwide pandemic!” I wouldn’t have opened the restaurant. But with that being said, you know, we have learned how to be a takeout and delivery restaurant. My space is beautiful and it’s meant for people to be together. I am the 9th out of 10 kids and that’s how I want it. I want it full of people, with noise, laughter and fun everywhere. I want to be dealing with my customers and we are not doing that at all. It has been a year since it has been like that.
So for us, I would say we have learnt how to shrink our menu, how to be more efficient with hours, how to keep the core people together and how to keep them employed, while you are trying to get through something. And you just don’t really know when you will be able to come out of the fog. So I am not really happy about that. We were doing what other people were doing for a while. We were doing some different foods and then at one point we just realised that we need to shrink this down to everybody’s favourite stuff. That is all that we are going to serve and there is no harm in that at all. It’s less fun for us to not have specials and different stuff. It doesn’t communicate well. What we find with our customers is that they mostly know what they want.
Alright John, what did I miss asking? Is there something you want to highlight?
John: You are talking about wearing masks right? Please keep doing that and continue to support these amazing businesses that are fighting to stay in business.
About the Guest
After a multi-decade career in commercial banking and commercial real estate finance, John Durning quit it all to follow his dreams and open a community-focused, wood-fired pizzeria restaurant in 2014. Since that time, they have added a food truck, opened and closed a second, unrelated restaurant, and just recently, John has started a second job selling insurance/disability benefits to unions around the USA. He took this step to alleviate pressure on the restaurant, add financial support for his family, and provide the business with a stronger position to get through the pandemic.