ROCHESTER, Minn. — Prior to the pandemic, Chef Pasquale Presa was looking for ways to grow Pasquale's Neighborhood Pizzeria in Rochester.
“My dream was always to expand, but I really didn’t know how to. I’m just a chef ...” Presa said.
Ironically, the biggest threat to his business opened the door to a way to take his New York-style pizzeria to the next level and reach customers well beyond Rochester’s city limits.
Like most restaurants, Pasquale’s Pizzeria took a big hit when COVID-19 closed down indoor dining in early 2020. The take-out and delivery business remained, but a big draw for Presa's fans was the bustling, friendly atmosphere of eating in the New York-style pizzeria.
Then, Hy-Vee Crossroads’ Manager of Perishables Bret Peterson asked if the pizzeria could provide some frozen pizzas to sell in his grocery store. While it felt a little strange to Presa, he was open to try anything at the time. His pizzas went on the shelves with other Rochester staples, like bags of Carroll's Corn and Bravo Espresso coffee.
The first pizzas hit Hy-Vee Crossroads' shelves on May 4. Two weeks later, Hy-Vee Barlows wanted some. Two weeks after that, the 37th Street store asked for pizzas, soon followed by orders from the 37th Street store.
“Soon we were keeping all of our employees busy making frozen pizzas,” he said. Large commercial freezers were installed in the restaurant's now quiet party room.
Despite some minor bumps in the road due to the learning curve, Presa’s frozen pizza business quickly grew to serve seven Hy-Vee stores. They are on shelves in Austin, Kasson and Lakeville as well as the four Rochester locations.
“From May to May, we sold 75,000 crusts,” exclaimed the ebullient Presa, who still seems surprised by the number.
The demand for frozen pizzas grew to the point when it was too much for his kitchen to manage in addition to the daily restaurant business. Presa soon learned about “co-packers,” contract food businesses that can produce branded products, like his frozen pizzas.
A Wisconsin facility was lined up to make his signature pizza dough, and a Faribault center learned how to make pizzas the Pasquale way.
“Suddenly, I was creating a retail division, while still staying true to our authentic experience of New York-style pizza right here in Rochester,” he said.
The pizzeria has returned to offering indoor and outdoor dining plus its usual take-out and delivery business. Local customers will find the same friendly service and food that they experienced before COVID-19.
However, Presa is now preparing to reach beyond the restaurant to bring his food to a much larger audience. And it’s not just frozen pizzas.
His retail division is developing fresh and shelf-stable sauces. The cheese, tomatoes and spices that he uses in his recipes are now packaged for sale. There are pizza pans and pizza slice servers. All of it is sporting the Pasquale brand.
The next step is to get more products onto more grocery shelves and then possibly on the shelves of bigger retailers. Presa is confident that will happen soon.
“I’ve learned all about brand recognition,” he said. “I’ve learned a lot. But, like it has always been, it’s still about building relationships with customers and vendors.”
He is also working with a brother and cousin back in Italy who are creating Pasquale’s Olive Oil from the family’s ancient olive groves. The olive oil, along with some of the other Italian ingredients, means the chef is now also an importer.
“It has been a phenomenal road ... COVID taught me to diversify,” said Presa. “We came out (of the pandemic) much more secure, much more sound, much more bullet-proof than we started it.”