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The Women Behind the Pizza

In the photo: Christina Vogel of Donatos Pizza.

Described as a leap of faith, an accidental stumble, and a journey, starting your own business is not a decision for the faint of heart. But four women entrepreneurs have done just that, creating their own opportunities and claiming their stakes in the world of pizza making. As pizza pioneers, these women not only add value to a male-dominated industry, but also inspire more women to take on leadership roles and promises a more equal workforce.

Nicole Russell, Last Dragon Pizza – Rockaway, NY

For Nicole Russell, it’s an obsession, a discipline, an eternal pursuit. Inspired by 1985 movie The Last Dragon where the protagonist embarks on a quest to become a master of martial arts, Russell is proving that women can be more than cooks; they can be masters of the craft.

As a one-woman show, Russell is the head pizza maker, marketer, and manager at The Last Dragon. You have to catch her on the right day as the business, which operates from her home, is only open four days a week. Russell also frequents pop-ups and processes frozen pizza orders which ship nationwide. Long hours, but she commands them.

“I was always an avid pizza lover,” explains Russell, when asked why she decided to turn her hobby into a lifetime pursuit. She admits that it was also used as a distraction after two pivotal events: Hurricane Sandy and her sister’s stage 4 cancer diagnosis (which she is now free of). Experimenting with different recipes, her pizzas quickly gained approval from neighborhood construction workers, and inadvertently sown the seeds to her new venture. Word of mouth spread throughout Rockaway and after a tireless campaign and additional funding from local business competitions, Russell was in business for herself.

“My friends thought I was having a midlife crisis,” she laughs. But really it makes perfect sense for Russell, who grew up in a Jamaican household which she explains isn’t all that different from an Italian household. For both, family dynamics tend to play out in the kitchen, a place where Russell intends to stay in. As a woman of color, Russell’s very presence challenges traditional understanding of who can be a pizza maker. But she stays humble. “I really have a real respect for craft,” Russell says of her approach and menu, which honors the long-standing and true flavors from Italy. She’s visited but hopes for a future return in order to further hone her craft of pizzamaking.

Gloria Rodriguez, Pizza Scene – Miami Lakes, FL; Hialeah, FL

Bringing the hard-knocks New York taste to sunny Miami, Gloria Rodriguez has been learning how to make pizzas for thirteen years. Well it was more like a week or two but “thirteen years to perfect it,” Rodriguez muses. With her husband and co-owner, Hector, who has been in the pizza business since he was eighteen, Rodriguez is a formidable force. Together, they share in the day to day trials and triumphs at Pizza Scene.

Rodriguez believes she married into the pizza business, as if invitation was exclusive. Born and raised in Brooklyn, she and her family decided to refurbish a previous pizza shop. Adopting a bit of what they already had, Rodriguez began her journey as a local business owner.

“Pizza is a craft,” Rodriguez explains, “It’s not something that’s mass produced well.” Even a new pizza maker at the store is a weighted consideration. “We tell them, you gotta unlearn what you know and you gotta learn the way we do it,” explains Rodriguez, of an approach that’s reflected in their careful menu that depends on quality ingredients, timely execution, and consumer consideration. Though New York pizza was welcomed, Sicilian pie was nixed off the menu because no one knew what it was. And Rodriguez has found some difficulty breaking into Hialeah, where their second shop is located. Even with the cost of rising food, labor, and operations, Rodriguez describes herself as an optimist at heart, “I think that every day we’re able to wake up and turn the key is a triumph.”

Stretched between two shops, Pizza Scene relies on their ability to wear multiple hats and the sheer tenacity of family. Every family member has been involved in the business, says Rodriguez, who also admits that with family, expectation levels can be quite high. But as she is demanding, she is fiercely proud of her business and daughter, praising her as a “great awesome pizza maker.”

Cognizant of her role in an industry that’s dominated by men, Rodriguez is confident in what she brings to the table. “Sometimes people will look right through me or choose not to see me,” but “I am good at what I do,” she puts it simply.

Christina Vogel, Donatos Pizza – Erie, PA

“People ask me all the time, ‘why didn’t you open a Christina’s Pizza?’”

Originally from Illinois, Christina Vogel worked at Monical’s Pizza for ten years, starting as a junior in high school before becoming a computer programmer at an insurance company. After moving to Erie with her family, Vogel wanted to replicate the comfort she found from Monical’s in her new community. Opening up her own operation seemed misplaced for someone who admits she has never deviated from a recipe. But after finding out that they were too far for Monical’s to franchise, Vogel researched other options before landing on Donatos.

For Vogel, pizza represents something greater, “I love pizza because I feel like pizza is the food you get when you’re sharing experiences.” Whether it’s a movie, game, or date night, pizza has the innate ability to bring people together. This belief is integrated into her approach to Donatos, “It was really about creating something where we would be embedded in the community.” And Vogel’s commitment to the community has been reciprocated, as faces become more familiar and ties to local organizations strengthen. There’s even a little Donatos exhibit in the Erie, Pennsylvania’s Children Museum, a trivia fact, Vogel excitedly shares.

Another fact is that Vogel is the only woman franchisee of Donatos and the only one in Pennsylvania. But she’s accustomed to being the only woman in the group which is a common trend in the pizza business. When asked why that might be, Vogel suspects it’s because “to have the luxury and the time, that kind of singular focus is still something that women don’t have.” But this hasn’t stopped her accomplishments and from thinking ahead, which includes the intention to open up more stores.

Kim DeMarzio, Paesano’s Pizzeria – Staten Island, NY

Kim DeMarzio wasn’t looking for pizza. It found her.

Initially approached with a business proposal by a family member, Demarzio and her husband, who both had suffered from Wall Street downsizing, agreed to invest. Even with a background in finance, she recognized that running a business was a beast in itself. “It’s tough. I work two other jobs. I still have a house to keep up with, laundry to do,” explains DeMarizo. “Even if I say I’m only going [to the pizzeria] for an hour or two…I’m up there. You just get involved.”

Paesano’s Pizzeria is entirely a family operation, including Carlos, the head pizza maker, who DeMarzio regards as a saving grace. As DeMarzio takes care of the books and mostly the backend of the restaurant, her husband, George, oversees the operation. Along with their son and Carlos, Paesano’s is essentially run by three people at a time. A past incident with family has made trust the most important attribute for DeMarzio.

“People can go anywhere for pizza,” she stresses about the competition, at least five pizzerias within close range. Therefore, customer service is paramount at Paesano’s, which has begun to see a share of new and old faces. DeMarzio believes in facetime and her wholehearted bet that if she could spend even more time at the store, the sales would skyrocket. “People want to see you. Nobody’s going to treat your place the way you’re going to treat it.” DeMarzio has received positive feedback especially for her catering services which requires added preparation, usually the day of. But the commitment to freshness is also made Paesano’s a favorite.

As for if she agrees that the pizza business seems dominated by men, DeMarzio does so emphatically, “1000%. In my immediate area, there are no husband and wife [teams]. They’re all two men owners.” This victory is a hard-earned one for someone who knew nothing about pizza and now spends almost every waking hour to it. “It’s certainly not an easy business,” emphasizes DeMarzio, “but I’m in it for the long haul.”

Amanda Yam