“Holy Moses it’s cold out there!” said John Miniaci, the owner of Johnny’s Pizzeria, rubbing his hands and hurrying back into his warm shop as the sun set on Sunset Park and 15-mile winds raced down 5th Avenue.
On the sidewalk outside of Johnny’s on this frigid Wednesday was a film crew, four puppies, a man dressed in a pizza slice costume, and two 20-year-old college dropouts who have made hundreds of thousands of dollars off an online pizza delivery app they developed two years ago. It was an unusual sight for the 48-year-old pizzeria, and for the 44-year-old Miniaci, whose father opened the business in 1968.
“This used to be just a job,” said Miniaci, who has worked all his life at Johnny’s; making pizzas, taking phone orders and talking to customers with a deep voice and a grease-stained apron. “But now it’s like the military; every day is an adventure.”
Wednesday’s adventure was a publicity stunt. The two 20-year-olds outside were Max Hellerstein and Cyrus Summerlin, Brooklyn boys who, along with two other childhood friends, started Push For Pizza in 2014. The app delivers pizza to users’ doors with the push of a single button on their smartphones. Summerlin and Hellerstein market the app not only as a tool to make ordering easier, but also as a way to help small pizza shops compete with chains like Pizza Hut and Papa John’s. A big deal for Miniaci, who knows he needs online marketing to survive, since a Papa John’s Pizza moved in next door in 2007.
“Running a business is hard,” said Miniaci, as he sat at a table with his co-owner, Rocco Coluccio and the two young entrepreneurs. He acknowledged that he needs to generate more clientele with technology. But he quickly added, “To do social media is another job in itself, but you have to do it to evolve.”
On this particular Wednesday afternoon that was the main topic of conversation between the four men. The moment felt like a clash of two Brooklyns: old Brooklyn with is classic small pizzerias who are relative newcomers to social media, and the more hipster young crowd of Brooklynites known for their tech savvy and slim jeans.
A pair of cameras flanked the foursome, along with several patrons who have been dining at Johnny’s since before the app guys were born, as Summerlin quickly made a suggestion.
“Why is your Instagram set to private?” he asked Miniaci. “Making it public is a great way to start.”
Hellerstein and Summerlin weren’t at Johnny’s just to shell out marketing advice. They were also filming a sizzle reel—a five-minute preview for a TV pilot for a series about the two of them hosting publicity stunts at mom-and-pop pizzerias across the country. They hope to pitch the idea to channels like the Food Network. Summerlin said the duo was drawn to Johnny’s after reading NYCityLens’ previous article about the restaurant.
Today’s publicity event involved four puppies—a pug, a Bolognese, a Picardy spaniel, and a shih tzu—borrowed from nearby pet store, Pup Slope. Passersby received a free slice of Johnny’s Pizza if they posed for a picture with a puppy.
“What do people love almost as much as pizza?” Summerlin asked Miniaci. “Puppies! Why don’t we get some puppies here? You get the pizza, we get the puppies.”
The stunt would expose newcomers to the taste of Johnny’s, and the footage recorded by the film crew would be used in the Push For Pizza video.
“We’re going to have to up our sales team if this works,” said Summerlin, one of only eight staff members who work for the Manhattan-based app, which has signed with 2,800 mom-and-pop pizzerias so far and attracted $600,000 from investors.
Push For Pizza’s success is remarkable at a time when, according to Fortune, nine out of ten startups fail, largely due to a lack of market need for their products. That success becomes even more remarkable considering the glut of delivery apps available like Seamless and Delivery.com, and even a few pizza-specific ones like MyPizza. But Hellerstein and Summerlin believe their speed is what sets them apart.
“We are the easiest and fastest way to order a pizza ever,” said Summerlin, whose app dispenses with menus and offers only large pizzas with a choice of eight toppings. “That gets rid of the whole ‘oh my god what do I want’ factor, which takes a bulk of the time when you order.”
Once users download the app, they can place an order within 30 seconds, Summerlin said.
“A lot of people come to us and they’re like ‘are you serious?’” Hellerstein. “And then they realize five minutes later, ‘Actually, that’s a pretty smart idea.”
The entrepreneurs’ youth belies their experience. Before they thought of the pizza idea in January 2014, Hellerstein and Summerlin ran a successful fashion label called 367 Productions, where they learned the basics of managing a business.
“This is not our first rodeo,” said Hellerstein. “The apparel business gave us better knowledge about how to build a business.”
When it comes to Push For Pizza, though, the duo’s business plan seems to focus on publicity stunts. Last fall, Hellerstein, Summerlin and their pizza-costume mascot Pushy (a.k.a., Derrick Hossain) drove a Lamborghini Murcielago wrapped in pepperoni pizza wallpaper to 80 college campuses across the East Coast and the Midwest, where they gave out Push For Pizza sunglasses, stickers, t-shirts, and slices from Push For Pizza’s local partners.
They’ve done smaller stunts too, like when Hellerstein dropped a pizza slice on Summerlin’s face from two stories up and put it on Instagram. Last holiday season, the two walked through downtown Manhattan giving away eight boxes of pizza to “people that look like they could use a slice in their life,” they said on Instagram. Not quite high-brow, but neither is pizza, so it seems to work. The cameras were a surprise to some of the regulars at Johnny’s, though.
“It’s a little overwhelming,” said Lenore Raymond, enjoying a plain Sicilian slice with her 10-year-old son Dylan. They sat inside the pizzeria as the film crew set up for an interview behind them. Raymond has eaten at Johnny’s since the 1970s. “We used to run here to get to the corner booth, where we could decide what to play on the jukebox.”
The jukebox at the back of the shop is long gone, a pile of the film crew’s camera bags stood in its place. The Push For Pizza film crew wasn’t the only set of cameras around lately. A PIX 11 news team had stopped to ask Miniaci about the Push For Pizza shoot earlier, and the next day a BBC film crew stopped by to talk about doing a documentary there, as part of a series on New York City restaurants.
“It’s been a long day,” said Miniaci towards the end of the shoot, as he continued to toss dough and make pizza for the puppy-cradling passerby. Making pizzas is something he’s always done, but Wednesday after meeting with the marketers he took a big step that he’d never thought of before: he made his father’s restaurant’s Instagram account public.