Growing the pie: As pizza sales pile up during pandemic, local results vary

Order after order on a recent Thursday afternoon, Miriam Saidi was busy placing toppings on pizzas.

“It’s so easy to pick it up, get it delivered,” she said.

The 18-year-old has been working at Pizza Tree in downtown Columbia for about six months.

“Pizza restaurants are used to having a high number of to-go orders and deliveries,” Saidi said. “So, during the pandemic, it hasn’t really altered that side of it.”

While the pandemic has hurt many local restaurants, Pizza Tree’s revenues have “stayed roughly the same,” said the restaurant’s owner, John Gilbreth.

Pizza Tree has a dining area that seats roughly a dozen customers, and it has a window for walk-up orders. The restaurant’s traditional focus on to-go orders made it fairly easy to close the dining room when the pandemic hit, Gibreth said. But he also thinks pizza itself is part of the reason his restaurant has not experienced any significant decrease in revenues.

“It’s just classic comfort,” Gilbreth said. “I think that’s really a big part of it.”

Miriam Saidi takes a pizza from the oven at Pizza Tree. The restaurant’s owners say revenue has remained about the same during the pandemic. | Feiyu Su/Missouri Business Alert

Nationally, there has been a boom for pizza restaurants since the start of the pandemic. Pizza sales increased by 4% in 2020, The New York Times reports.

That came as many restaurants experienced sales declines. In December, The National Restaurant Association published a restaurant survey showing that 79% of respondents experienced lower sales volume in October 2020 than they had in October the year before.

Big pizza chains like Domino’s and Papa John’s reported notable sales growth for 2020. Domino’s U.S. store sales climbed 11.5% for the year, and Papa John’s North American sales increased by 17.6%.

The pie is projected to keep growing. The market size of U.S. pizza restaurants is predicted to increase 2.8% in 2021, according to IBISWorld’s industry statistics.

However, on an individual level, the situation varies.

“You can’t just paint with that broad of a brush,” Gilbreth said. “Because we’re all different.”

Pizza Tree owner John Gilbreth said sales have remained strong despite COVID-19 because “it’s just classic comfort.” | Feiyu Su/Missouri Business alert

Pi Pizzeria in the Delmar Loop district of St. Louis saw a decrease in revenues last year because fewer people were allowed to sit in its dining room due to city restrictions, according to George Batson, Pi Pizzeria’s general manager.

For predominantly sit-down pizza restaurants like Pi Pizzeria, the pandemic’s impact on sales and operations has been more severe.

“We went to just carryout and curbside for about three months until the city lifted the mandate,” Batson said.

The city of St. Louis shut down all in-person dining from mid-March through mid-May. The city eventually lifted those restrictions and raised restaurant capacity limits.

“We’re currently at 50% of our dining room open,” Batson said, “plus the curbside and carryout and our delivery options as well.”

But compared to other types of dine-in restaurants, Batson said, pizza restaurants had a much easier time adjusting to the pandemic because of the portable nature of their signature dish.

“For 50 years, people have always ordered pizza to go,” Batson said. “Everybody has ordered at least one pizza to go in their lifetime.”

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