By Barbara Taormina
When Joe Crowley opened Pisa Pizza back in 1993, he knew exactly where he was heading. With a business degree in his pocket and $5,000 in the bank, Crowley, who was then 23, wanted to run a restaurant that served the kind of food that people remembered and came back for. But he also wanted a place that would be part and parcel of Malden, a restaurant that would be part of the community. And the plan worked.
According to conventional wisdom, most small restaurants fail within a year. But recent market research shows that notion is flawed, and small restauranteurs usually go out of business after three years. This year Pisa Pizza is celebrating 25 years in business, and Crowley seems ready for 25 more.
“There have been so many relationships I’ve formed over the years,” said Crowley, who sat down for an interview in his office at Breakaway, a Danvers restaurant and nightclub that he opened in 2016.
“We now have three generations of families coming into Pisa Pizza. To see that develop has been amazing,” he said.
Crowley launched Pisa Pizza on Highland Avenue before moving to the restaurant’s current Pearl Street location in 2003. And the early days were not easy. “We leased everything, including the mop bucket,” he said with a laugh. “But I enjoyed it, I felt I could do it on my own.”
He remembers 15-hour days and months that went by without a day off. “It’s the type of business that you either love it or you don’t go near it,” he said. “You have to be all in.”
Crowley had the commitment. He also had a stack of recipes he developed with the help of a regional supplier for the restaurant industry. But he had something else that was a little ahead of the times. “The first thing we did was jump into being part of the community with things like sponsorships and fundraisers,” he said. “If there was a need in the community, we really tried to help.”
Over the years Pisa Pizza has helped local sports teams, schools, civic organizations and community groups raise much-needed cash with fundraisers, sponsorships and donations. Crowley disappeared for a few minutes during his interview with The Advocate so he could talk to a couple who recently lost a young child about a memorial fundraiser.
“Every time, and I mean every time, we have contacted Joe Crowley about food for a meeting or event, Pisa Pizza has been there,” said Patty Kelly, Outreach Coordinator for Housing Families.
“We have an annual holiday party with all of our families and children, and Pisa Pizza supplies 90 pizzas for that event,” said Kelly, adding that Crowley always carries in the food and stops to chat with families.
But for Kelly, it’s not just about the food, which she said is delicious. “With Pisa Pizza, it’s about the spirit of community,” she said. “I wish them a lot more success, way more than 25 years.”
For Crowley, developing those types of community ties came naturally in part because of the support he received as a small business owner in the city. “Malden embraced us from day one,” he said. “The city couldn’t have been better to us. We were pro-community and pro-giving and that really was the key to our growth.”
Crowley said that since Pisa Pizza opened, Malden has had three strong mayors who have all been fantastic for the business community. And while some of the change and growth that has taken place has been challenging, Crowley said, Malden’s restaurant scene has never been better.
Crowley acknowledged that it would be difficult – nearly impossible – for a young person fresh out of college to do what he did 25 years ago. The permitting process and the regulations are much more rigorous, and there are not a lot of banks willing to extend a line of credit to a 23-year-old. Still, he stands by the notion that developing relationships and supporting one’s local community are essential to growing a successful business. “It’s like growing a tree,” he said. “That’s exactly what Pisa Pizza was, and now we have that huge spruce in the front yard.”