Mathieu Palombino used to be a fancy chef at an expensive seafood restaurant. Now he serves some of the city’s best pizzas at a pretty affordable price.
The native Belgian left BLT Fish and opened Motorino Pizza in Williamsburg. That was in 2008. The following year, Palombino opened a second location in the East Village, in the famed, former Una Pizza Napoletana space. Una Pizza had been charging $21 for a Margherita pie. Motorino charged $14.
Palombino kept that price point until earlier this year, when the Margherita rose to $15. The overall price range of his East Village pies, at $9-$17, has not changed by a single dollar since opening. So that’s why we’re honoring Palmombino in our EVEN STEVEN series, where we interview restaurateurs who manage to keep prices stable for a year or long amid global food inflation.
We at The Bad Deal & The Price Hike believe price stability is a better value than any voucher offered by Gilt City, Groupon or Living Social. Motorino does offer its own deal, a $12 lunch special, and it might actually lower the price. We’re definitely cool with that. Palombino is opening up his first “non-pizza” joint later this year. It’s called Bowery Diner. We’ll talk about that later. First, we asked Palombino, via-e.mail, about the nerdy stuff.
How have rising food prices impacted Motorino this year? I’m particularly curious about flour, cheese and tomatoes. All three have gone up: the biggest increase is flour, which has gone up by 20% in the last eight months; tomatoes and mozzarella di bufala by 10-15%. I buy goods from Europe and the exchange makes it even worse. Domestic fior di latte has been pretty stable.
Your East Village Margherita pie had been priced at $14 since the Fall 2009, correct? Yes, we left the prices alone for two years before we even considered changing them. Part of a pizzeria’s charm is its affordability, and we have to respect that.
And then you hiked the Margherita to $15 earlier this year. I think that’s a very fair price, but what, in your own words, propelled this move? This actually had little to do with rising food costs but rather the needs that we had as a growing business. We had to invest in a van, a new computer system, etc. to keep up with the business that we were doing. We had a little room with that item, since we were a little cheaper than comparable Margheritas around town.
Your East Village pizzas haven’t strayed from the $9-$17 range since opening. How have you kept prices steady? The pizza business remains profitable. The price hikes have affected us, sure, but in a pizzeria the impact is softer than a traditional restaurant with a large menu. Of course, I don’t like the idea of the price of food going up but there are factors other than food cost that help to keep good menu prices. Labor cost, in my opinion, is a big factor in menu prices in restaurant. I spend a lot of time taking care of the kitchen system so it doesn’t take five guys to do the work of three. Motorino also delivers because it maximizes labor cost as well.
There are lots of 99 cent slice joints in the East Village. Do you think the perception of pizza as a snack food is keeping the prices unnaturally low? Is pizza underpriced?… .Neapolitan pizzas are overpriced in New York. Instead of raising prices to the customer, pizzaiolos should work faster, make more pies and give everyone a one or two dollar break…It is true that if you decide to not raise your prices then it will influence your profit margin. On the other hand you remain more competitive than the one who decides not to take a bigger cut and raise his or her price.
I think the customer who looks at the prices before they buy appreciate it and may decide to come to your place for their pizza fix more often. When this is the case you make your money back without raising your prices. Good and affordable eateries in NYC are packed and usually have been for a long time. That’s the way it should be.
How have labor prices impacted your business in 2011? The price of labor is not my focus, but rather labor efficiency. It is important for me that my guys are organized, clear minded, and that they have a good working pace, especially in the kitchen. An efficient kitchen filled with efficient cooks is what makes for a good payroll in my opinion.
When will you raise the prices for your other pies? Don’t you think the $12 lunch special might be ready for a price hike? I will not raise the price of the $12 prix fixe anytime soon. The magic number for most New-Yorkers is 10 bucks, 12 is already a stretch. I actually will probably lower it…All in all the rising price of food isn’t a good thing, but we’ll deal with it!
What will be the price points for Bowery Diner? It will be affordable for sure; a diner by definition is an affordable place. (Source: The Bad Deal/The Price Hike).
Editor’s Note: Motorino Williamsburg closed earlier this year due to structural issues with the building.