Trying to Make Dough: How Local Oxford Pizzerias are Adapting to the Pandemic.

Fergndan’s Supreme Pizza

OXFORD, Ms. – The demand for pizza delivery has skyrocketed this year. Major franchises like Domino’s Pizza, Inc. have prospered in 2020 – same-store sales increased by 16% during their fiscal second-quarter, according to CNBC.com – because their business model is optimized for delivery and takeout. However, unlike Domino’s, some local pizzerias have adapted their dine-in centric business models to survive during the pandemic.

Since spring break, Square Pizza, located on Van Buren Avenue, has experienced an 85% drop in sales, according to owner Tate Moore. Since it opened in 2007, Square Pizza has traditionally operated from 10:30 p.m. to 1:30 a.m.; however, Moore says he has recently changed his store hours to 4 – 10 p.m. because business has been so slow.

“That business basically stopped from spring break on, to adapt to what’s happened now, I have put some booths in my restaurant hoping that I become more of a dinner place, but that has been a slow go,” Moore said.

Square Pizza has also signed up with Bite Squad, a third-party delivery service. Moore says he hopes this delivery partnership will help. If his numbers continue to fall, Moore says he and many other businesses on the Square won’t be able to sustain their expensive rents. 

“Everybody pays these crazy rents because we make so much money in the fall and spring, and if you’re not going to make money in the fall and spring… well, then what do you do?” Moore said.

Like Square Pizza, Lost Pizza Company, located off of College Hill Road, has also changed its entire business model to weather the COVID-19 storm. The small chain was founded by Brooks Roberts and Preston Lott, who opened their first franchise location in Tupelo, Ms., in 2011. Lost Pizza Co. now has 17 locations across Mississippi, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Florida.

General Manager Elizabeth Stripling says that Lost Pizza Co. used to be a fast-casual counter service restaurant, but all of that changed because of the pandemic.

“Now we are full service, so I have had to hire a bunch of servers; we did it at first because we get so busy that we couldn’t have people standing so close to each other in front of the counter, we thought if we do table service at least, they are separated into six feet apart tables,” Stripling said.

In addition to becoming a full-service restaurant, Stripling says Lost Pizza Co. has also closed its upstairs bar to reduce the virus’s spread. Though there is no bar seating, the restaurant still brings drinks to the customer’s tables.

“I’m pretty sure that some people hate the fact that we had to do that and full service because they are just bar people, but I guess that is just out of the question right now,” Stripling said.

Because most of her staff is comprised of university students, Stripling says if Ole Miss closes again, she could lose more than half of her employees.

While local chains like Lost Pizza Co. have hired more staff to accommodate the increase in customers, mom and pop restaurants like Fergndan’s Wood Fired Pizza Café recognize that hiring additional employees in the age of COVID-19 could be extra risky.

“From an operational standpoint we are having to do what we do, but with less people, because we have to recognize that everybody that stands behind this counter or that counter has a circle of friends, that has a circle of friends, and you don’t know who is going to be bringing in what,” Said John Ferguson, owner of Fergndan’s Wood Fired Pizza Cafe. “So, as a family business with my wife, myself, and our three kids, we can pretty much better control our environment.”

Fergndan started in October 2016 as a food truck-only business; two years later, it expanded to a brick and mortar restaurant located on Highway 30 East. With everything that has transpired in the restaurant industry in 2020, Ferguson says he is happy his food truck background influenced his restaurant’s construction.

“The good news for us is that we started as a food truck, so we were already used to being flexible; when we built the restaurant, we built it with flexibility in mind,” Ferguson said.

Ferguson says this built-in flexibility made it easier to change aspects of his business model that didn’t conform to Phase 2 of the city’s “Serving Oxford Safely” recovery plan, which adopts all regulations and findings outlined in Gov. Tate Reeves’ Executive Orders: 1518151615111508. One of the guidelines listed in the plan prohibits self-service drink stations in restaurants. To comply with this guideline, Ferguson moved his point of sale table – which was built with wheels to be moved for catering purposes – in front of the restaurant’s beverage station so guests couldn’t self-serve anymore.

“We have had to adapt and be cautious with what our next steps are going to be, and just kind of let the market dictate, regardless of what the governor says – people are still going to be people,” Ferguson said.

As the pandemic continues to impact the food and restaurant industry, Ferguson says all he can do is make his daily adjustments and keep moving forward.

“There is no luxury that gives you the ability to just stop and wait to see what is going to happen; this train is moving, and if you don’t adjust accordingly, then you are either going to derail it or you are going to overrun your tracks… either way, it’s not going to be good,” Ferguson said. “So, you just adjust to the conditions that day, and you wake up in a new world the next.” 

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