The Pizzeria was failing. Every year, there were fewer and fewer people coming in through the doors, but the Chef couldn't figure out why. New restaurants had appeared over the years which many people seemed to enjoy, but he maintained his stance that his pizza was not only the best pizza in town but the best food for miles around. The recipes he used had been passed down through his family for generations and had influenced many other restaurants who, were now in a similar situation to The Pizzeria. The Chef was proud of the history of The Pizzeria, especially as they hadn't deviated from the original recipes in the slightest. But the facts remained; not only was The Pizzeria was failing, but people for miles around were eating less and less pizza in general.
Walking into The Pizzeria for the first time, Leah was greeted by a waiter who had a slight scowl on his face. Even though he knew that the Pizzeria desperately needed new customers, the sight of Leah took him aback. He didn't know exactly why she elicited that response from him, all he knew was that she didn't exactly fit in there.
Leah sensed some hostility but brushed it off. Before moving to this town, she had eaten some pizza before and loved it, but hadn't felt 100% comfortable when eating it. Nevertheless, she had worked hard to be able to eat at a place like this, and she was going to make the most of it. She sat at a table in the corner and examined the menu, which had been balanced between mismatched silver and porcelain salt and pepper shakers. She had waited a long time to eat at The Pizzeria but the menu confused her. There was only one item on the menu. A pizza Margherita.
As the waiter sauntered towards Leah, he could sense some frustration coming from the corner she had sequestered herself in. He took a deep breath as he asked her what was wrong.
'Do you have anything else apart from just cheese? Mushrooms? Sweetcorn? Pineapple?' asked Leah.
The waiter recoiled slightly at the mention of pineapple, but he composed himself and answered curtly, 'No we don't. We only serve pizza Margherita here'.
'Why not?' asked Leah.
'We make the finest pizza Margherita around. Everyone knows this. They come here for our famous pizza Margherita. If fact, it's very very rare that people ask for anything else.'
Leah looked around at the decedent restaurant, decorated in plush reds, brilliant whites and gleaming golds, harkening back to a bygone era, when places like The Pizzeria were the only places one could eat pizza. The other customers were busy socialising and stuffing their faces with pizza Margherita, seemingly blissfully unaware of Leah's confusion. She really liked cheese pizza, but she was also aware that there were other variations of pizza. She had hoped that coming to The Pizzeria, she'd encounter a wide range of pizzas - after all, this was touted as the best pizza place for miles around. With nowhere else to go, she looked up at the waiter and made up her mind.
'Fine. I'll take a large cheese pizza please', said Leah.
'Pizza Margherita', corrected the waiter. 'No problem'.
Taking the menu from her, the waiter hurried back into the kitchen. He was surprised at Leah's request, but to be honest, he had occasionally thought about the menu at The Pizzeria himself. Why was there only one option? He knew that there were lots of varieties out there, but his boss, the Chef would have none of it. The recipes and methods of making pizza Margherita had been in the Chef's family for over 100 years, and any other way of making pizza was almost considered blasphemous.
As he told the Chef about the exchange, the Chef laughed at him.
'We're proud to offer the best pizza for miles around,' said the Chef. 'People who ask about anything else on a pizza simply do not know anything about pizza!'
Secretly though, the Chef was worried. He had to maintain this bravado, but he knew the numbers behind his business. The Pizzeria would eventually have to close if he didn't make any changes. People simply didn't want pizza Margherita as much anymore. He decided that later that evening, he would call a couple of his friends in the pizza industry, and ask them for advice.
Leah tucked into her pizza, not quite satisfied even though she could taste how excellent the pizza was. She had picked up a piece with her hands, but after noticing some disparaging looks from the waiters, picked up a knife and fork, and gingerly continued to eat. She reminded herself again that she had worked extremely hard to be able to afford to eat at a place like this, so she shouldn't really complain. She looked at the other customers around her. Even though they were a mixture of different ages, Leah could sense that there was something intangible which connected them. Something which she didn't quite understand - maybe she never would. She wondered whether or not they ever questioned the lack of choice on the menu. Maybe they did, but didn't want to speak up, for fear of their food being tampered with perhaps, or upsetting the Chef's feelings. She got a sense that deep down, they believed that pizza Margherita was the best and only way to eat pizza. Perhaps they weren't even aware that pizzas could have different toppings.
Even though the overall experience wasn't the best, Leah knew that she would come back to The Pizzeria. After all, the pizza was truly excellent. Pictures of traditional pizza making and the Chef's ancestors adorned the walls of The Pizzaria, as a constant reminder of it's, and pizza's, place in history. She recognised many of the people in the pictures and felt honoured to be eating pizza Margherita coming from such a strong tradition. She knew some of her friends would be jealous of her when she uploaded a picture of her pizza to Instagram. Maybe some of them would also want to come to The Pizzeria. The thought of that made her slightly nervous. As much as she wanted to share her experiences with them, she was worried that some of her friends may not respond to the lack of choice in the same way she did. She also knew that many of her friends would never set foot in The Pizzeria. Even though they loved pizza Margherita, it didn't seem like it was a place that would make them feel welcome.
The Chef lay on his bed, staring pensively at the cracked paint on his bedroom ceiling. He had spoken to a friend of his who had told him about was happening at his restaurant. Like the Chef, his family also owned a historic pizzeria, who also only served pizza Margherita. He too, had had different kinds of people coming into his restaurant, asking for toppings such as mushrooms, sweetcorn or salami. After correcting them on the real names of these pizzas such as Ai Quattro Formagi or Capricciosa, he had spoken to a supplier and ordered some basic toppings, but kept them in the back, only giving people what they asked for if they asked for it, if he was in the mood, and if he happened to have it. That way, he said, his regular customers would feel comfortable knowing that they were preserving the traditions and values of his Pizzeria, and could turn a blind eye to the occasional customer who requested salami, peppers, or other such monstrosities. The Chef decided that this approach might be of some use in his restaurant too.
Leah looked over, with a confused look on her face. There was a group of new customers not too far from her regular table, who were eating pizza topped with mushrooms, olives and salami. Did they bring those toppings with them? Where had they come from? She had gotten so used to her pizza Margherita, that the frustration she felt long ago at not having any other options had passed. She had even started to believe that pizza Margherita was the best, and the only way to eat pizza. Seeing these different colours, and smelling those smells, reminded her of what she wanted when she first set foot in The Pizzeria. She asked the waiter where those toppings had come from, especially because the menu still hadn't expanded from that solitary option. He explained that they did now, have a diverse range of toppings, but would only make different kinds of pizza if people asked for them, and only at certain times of the year.
'We don't want people to think that we no longer value the classic pizza Margherita, and that we've rejected our core values', explained the waiter. 'Many of our regular customers might leave, and that's a chance we don't want to take. Some of them and their families have been coming here for many many years'.
Leah scanned the restaurant. It was slightly busier than usual, with most of the new customers looking very different from the faces Leah saw on a regular basis. They were a mix of older and younger people, but they carried themselves, spoke and acted differently to the others. There was an energy about these new customers, many of whom ate with their hands, in stark contrast to the others, napkins tucked under their chins, knives and forks working overtime. She did notice, that many of the newer customers had left a lot of their toppings on the sides of their plates.
When her salami and green pepper pizza finally arrived, she understood why. The salami tasted like cardboard, and the peppers looked and tasted old. Emboldened, she walked over to a table full of new customers and asked them how they like their pizzas. Someone from the group explained;
'The pizza is amazing here. It's the only pizza place for miles, and we love pizza! The problem is, the toppings are really bad. They clearly don't care about their toppings, but we still eat them, because that's all we can get!' they said. 'Plus we only get them once or twice a year, so we have to take advantage.'
Leah asked the waiter to speak to the Chef. She was angry at the state of the toppings, and that these new customers felt as though they had to make do with low quality. After all, if The Pizzeria could make incredible pizza Margherita, why put little to no effort into these new pizzas? The Chef told her in no uncertain terms, that he was running The Pizzeria how his family had always run it.
'These new customers should be grateful that I even bothered to listen to them!' he exclaimed. 'If they don't like it, why don't they just go back to wherever they used to go to?!'.
As time went by, fewer and fewer customers came into The Pizzeria, and The Chef started to worry again. Even though he had adjusted, it clearly wasn't enough. He had bought the cheapest ingredients he could find, and many of the new customers had voted with their feet and left. Even some of his regular customers had left, after realising what the Chef had introduced to The Pizzeria. The Chef saw no value in any variation on the tried and trusted pizza Margherita, but once again, knew that he had to change, or run the risk of The Pizzeria closing for good. He had heard rumours of restaurants making pizzas, and combining them with other foods like salads and kebabs, and it upset him that these places sounded like they were attracting lots of new customers. What were they doing that he wasn't?
He decided to call his friend again for some advice. His friend's pizzeria was going under, and now that there were more and more of these new customers asking for different things, he didn't know what to do either. His friend told him that he had started telling these new customers that even though he would provide different options, pizza Margherita will always be the best. He told the Chef that he even had to ban someone from the restaurant for daring to question how he made the pizza dough and tomato sauce. 'How else can you make pizza? There is no other way!' he had exclaimed. As they spoke, the Chef realised that his friend was ultimately going to destroy the family business. Things had changed. Even though these new customers wanted different toppings, there was an energy that they brought which the Chef realised had been absent from The Pizzeria for years. the combinations they asked for were different to anything he had ever thought of before. The other pizzeria owners in his network all thought the same way, and the Chef knew that in order to save The Pizzeria, he would have to reach out beyond the circles that he knew so well. But who could he ask? He didn't have good relationships with any of his new customers, and his regular customers all thought exactly as he did.
Leah was shocked when the Chef asked her how he could make The Pizzeria better. Why was he coming to her? She still slipped up occasionally, saying cheese pizza instead of pizza Margherita, and didn't like to use a knife and fork. She had learnt to understand and respect the traditional values of The Pizzeria but had always felt as though things could be different. She didn't know if she could speak her mind, for fear of her true feelings being laughed at and rejected. She thought that some of the waiters needed to be replaced and that even the decoration of the restaurant could change. There had always been different types of food around, and even though she ate different food at home, she and her friends knew that other types of food were always being compared to pizza. Nothing could ever top it, nothing would ever be as good. A diet of pizza Margherita, was all anyone really needed to survive. So why should she help the Chef? It's not as though the waiters would stop ignoring her, or the Chef had offered to give her a few free pizzas as a thank you. But, with the Chef towering above her, she told him what she thought, being as respectful and tactful as possible, and braced herself for his reaction.
To be continued...