Editor’s note: This is the fourth of four stories on small businesses running in our Sunday Business section.
HARVEYS LAKE — Joe Paglianite, founder of Grotto Pizza, faced and overcame many challenges in many years in business, including a destructive fire. He attributes his success and longevity to family, committed employees and friends.
“We have pizza in our veins,” he said.
Paglianite, 88, said he was 25 years old when he started Joe’s Pizza in Plymouth in 1952. At the time, the national average price for gas was 20 cents a gallon and Paglianite was making pizza in a brick oven.
Paglianite said he knew he wanted to be self-employed and incorporated his family into his business along the way. He and his family strove to distinguish their product from the rest. His uncle Dominick created the recipe for the savory pizza that still is made today.
Wanting to increase his bottom line by reaching more people, Paglianite made a risky business move that became a milestone for the pizza empire. In 1953, he moved his business to Harveys Lake.
“The lake was like Atlantic City at that time,” Paglianite said.
The lake was open for public use and became a summer hangout spot for families and young adults drawn by the beaches and dances. There were 15 to 20 bars and restaurants around the lake, said Armand Mascioli, Paglianite’s nephew. There was no shortage of foot traffic.
Paglianite recalled girls sunbathing in the triangular median in the middle of the road in front of Grotto Pizza. Today, the area is artistically landscaped.
“You never had to worry about drivers not stopping at the stop sign,” he laughed.
To the beach
One summer day, a customer put an idea in Paglianite’s mind about opening a location in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, noting there was nothing like his business there. With the curiosity of a young man, Paglianite ventured to Rehoboth Beach to see for himself. There, he discovered an opportunity did exist. Paglianite developed a plan which would help a family member and bring his product into a different state.
At the time, Paglianite’s brother-in-law, Dominick Pulieri, had just enrolled in King’s College in Wilkes-Barre. Paglianite felt having a small location in Rehoboth Beach with Pulieri running it would help pay for his tuition.
Taking a leap of faith, Paglianite and Pulieri agreed and expanded. Moving into a new state created a challenge to build a brand name and tie the in-state and out-of-state restaurants together, Mascioli said. Paglianite assumed the name Grotto since the building on Harveys Lake was always referred to as “the Grotto”.
“For a while, I called it Joe’s Grotto, but before I came it was called the Grotto Bar,” Paglianite said.
Over the years, Pulieri built up the out-of-state locations to include 18 Delaware locations and two Maryland locations, with a third opening in Annapolis this spring.
Locally, Paglianite kept the original location at Harveys Lake growing until 1988, when an electrical fire destroyed the years of hard work and dedication.
Paglianite, with a voice thick with emotion, said the business was reduced to ashes. In a moment of uncertainty, Paglianite heeded the advice from a treasured friend and local contractor, John Peragino.
‘Planting a tree’
“He told me, ‘Starting a business is like planting a tree with the hope of seeing it grow, and if you do not see it grow, someone else will. If you never plant it, nobody will see it,’” Paglianite said. “I felt I wanted to put up a new Grotto and see it grow.”
Determined to rise from the black soot, Paglianite sought out a $150,000 loan to build the Grand Slam Sports Bar. The family pizzeria reopened in 1990 and once again the landmark restaurant continued to prosper. Slowly, he expanded from the bar, building a dining area and luncheon/take-out section with arcade games.
He handed down the apron to his nephew, Mascioli, who had aspirations to expand the business locally. Noticing several of their Wyoming Valley customers had difficulty getting to the lake, especially during the winter months, Mascioli sought out other sites and settled on a location near the Wyoming Valley Mall in Wilkes-Barre Township.
“The Wilkes-Barre Township site was chosen based on its proximity to the highway,” Mascioli said.
In 1994, Grotto Pizza in Wilkes-Barre Township officially opened.
Making the transition from one to two locations was a challenge, Mascioli said.
“Both locations had to be managed the same in the areas of accounting, recipe, product control and operating procedures,” Mascioli said. “Good staff training is a key component.”
Strong business organization and employees with a commitment to the business as strong as his family’s aided in the success of the new location, Paglianite said.
Two years later, establishing a location in the West Side seemed like a natural progression. With a well-developed training and management program based on the Wilkes-Barre Township location, Mascioli opened a third Grotto Pizza in the Gateway Shopping Center, Edwardsville, in 1996.
Today, Grotto Pizza in Pennsylvania employees 250 people with 160 full-time employees in the three locations.
Offering good benefits and a scholarship program for those who qualify, Grotto Pizza helps to foster that same level of excellence from employees to serve up a local culinary trademark with the same quality as when it was first started in 1952.
“Things are done differently with a family business,” Mascioli said. “There is more concern and commitment.”
Sixty-two years later, Paglianite reflects back on the words of wisdom from his friend, Peragino.
“Seeing the growth and success is a good feeling,” Paglianite said.