An Interview with Adam Elzer
If we had to describe Adam Elzer in three words, we would say, “Pizza for Change”. Our team had interviewed Elzer mid-May, when COVID-19 was still on everyone’s minds and the world stood still, wondering what would come after lockdown.
Our world has drastically changed in thirty days, but Adam Elzer’s heart for the New York community has not. Adam Elzer is a veteran of the hospitality industry and founder of Sauce pizzeria located in New York City. After the Coronavirus pandemic struck the famous state, Elzer saw beyond his halted plans of business expansion and found an opportunity to give.
For months, he has been supplying medical staff, front line workers, and people in line at food banks with boxes of freshly made pizza. Now, Elzer can be found among the rallies of the Black Lives Matter movement and handing slices of pizza to New York’s peaceful protestors. If anyone doubts the impact a slice of pizza can make on an individual, a crowd, or even a nation, we believe Adam Elzer would beg to differ.
When and how did you get into the pizza making business?
I got into the restaurant business when I was twelve. I spent time working as a busboy and I became a line cook and server, and when I was seventeen, I started delivering pizzas in Jersey. When I wasn’t out delivering, that was when I started learning how to make pizza.
About five or six years ago in one of my restaurants, called “Sauce” restaurant, we had a window onto the street- and the restaurant only did in-dining business from 11 to 12 o’clock. I bought a pizza oven to mess around making pizza so we could sell it to people who were out later when they were getting out of bars. That kind of led us toward getting into the pizza business and we did that for about a year.
When we decided that we wanted to open up a pizzeria, I worked with a guy named Anthony Falco (he’s the man!). He spent a lot of time with me and gave me a ton of information. We took my dough recipe and made some tweaks, then added his sourdough starter. After all of the work, we opened Sauce pizzeria in December, 2018.
Since then, we’ve opened up two more pizzerias. Going into this year, we were supposed to open up two more pizzerias in Yankee stadium and also in the new Penn station. Obviously, COVID has either delayed those plans or changed that path.
On March 15th, COVID hit New York pretty hard. I don’t know when all of the stuff will reopen, but we’ll keep moving in that direction.
In a recent post on social media, you stated, “Instead of worrying about what we may lose, I think it’s time to continue what we do best. Feeding our community and making people smile.”
Can you please share with us and our readers what you are doing to support the NYC community, and why you started this movement?
Well, when everything got shut down and all of the restaurants were told that we couldn’t have people inside the restaurant. Just takeout and delivery business. I was seeing restaurateurs that I had admired for my entire career freaking out on social media… and for good reason.
It was incredibly difficult. It all happened within three to four days where we went from whatever trajectory we were on, into a state where we had no idea how we were going to be able to move forward.
When that was happening, my business partner contacted us. She was a nurse from Cornell. She explained that the hospital staff were having a really difficult time eating on their shifts now that they’re working crazy hours. Typically, she would have had time to make herself something during her 3-4 hours at home before rushing back to the hospital but there was just no time, and no food at work. She asked me if Sauce could send some pizza.
When we sent 20 pizzas to her unit, I saw the frenzy of the hospitals and how crazy it was at the front door. People couldn’t get through security. I saw how the doctors and nurses were… everyone looked very anxious, frustrated, overworked, and tired.
It didn’t look like a good situation, so we decided that we would donate 20 pizzas a day to a different hospital in NYC and we put out that if anyone wanted to donate, we would match it. We committed to delivering these pizzas, going wherever we got a message from a nurse or a doctor saying their hospital was in the same state as what we saw.
This movement escalated very quickly.
That decision was around March 17th when this all kind “started”. We went from sharing that post, to delivering 100 pizzas a day…
Then 200 pizzas a day.
300 pizzas a day.
500 pizzas a day.
We were basically running 20-30 pizza deliveries a day to hospitals in New York and working crazy hours for people whose lives were struggling with COVID-19. Today, we’re at over 10,000 pizzas that we’ve donated.
Source: @newyork.nurse via Instagram
A couple weeks ago, we decided to shift. Instead of just doing hospitals which were starting to slow down, we noticed that the lines on a lot of food banks and shelters were really out of control. There’s one route that I run every morning and one morning, I saw their line. It filled a street block, another street block, two avenues, and some more street blocks.
In the eighteen years I had been in New York, I had never seen a line like that for a food bank. So, we decided that we would also start to drop off pizzas at food banks and shelters, partnering with food banks like City Harvest. We just started pulling up a truck and passing out pizza slices to people standing in line. This usually happened towards the end of the day of the food bank being open. There are always still plenty of people waiting in line who may have not been able to get a meal because our food bank was so busy.
Source: @adamelzer via Instagram
How do you think the food industry will change after COVID-19?
I’m not really sure yet. I haven’t been trying to predict it too much. I think that the safety standards in the kitchen will be dramatically upgraded and I think a lot of the people handling food will have to wear gloves and masks at all times. I do think there will be a lot of UV light solutions that can kill any bacteria in a space, so I’ve been looking into installing those kinds of lights into our kitchen.
I imagine plexi-glass orders between the attendants and the customers. While we already have sneeze guards, we plan on making it more segregated. Lastly, I imagine restaurants will need to have less tables at a time and will take a lot more space throughout the dining room.
We’ve heard about the tables, but not the UV lights yet. That’s interesting.
Yeah, I believe it’s a pretty cool solution. These bulbs are like 500 Watt bulbs with a UV solution. Installed properly, you won’t need to turn them on all of the time. They say that within 6 minutes it kills all bacteria that the light hits on any surface. It comes with a timer for say, 15 minutes every hour.
How do you think this pandemic has changed the business model of Sauce?
So with the charity effort, we’re not really doing business. We haven’t made any money whatsoever off of what we have been doing. The effort was really in trying to pay some of my key guys and hopefully cover the cost of goods, but what we did with the pizzas wasn’t even like a “break-even” situation.
It was an effort that we put together quickly to help the community, and I think this has been more on my mind than making money. For a while now, there have been people struggling and put in a really tough spot. Since we had the ability to help and use our infrastructure to provide a ton of meals, we put that at the front of our thought process.
Source: @adamelzer via Instagram
I think moving forward, I’ll see more delivery and pickups than in the past. But right now in New York, there is not a lot of delivery or pickup business. We are just doing our best to survive this and hopefully when we get through it, that business will come back and we will go back to functioning like a business.
At the moment, all of this stuff is really designed to give as much as we can in an effort to help.
We understand that in this pandemic many pizzeria owners have had to make painful sacrifices. For you, you share with the public about social distancing from your son who has congenital heart disease.
All things in perspective, how do you believe you will look at this time 10 years from now?
I think that I will be proud of what I did, and what we [the Sauce team] did. I am very proud of my team and all of the people who have been working with me.
My son understands what is going on. In the beginning it was difficult because I wasn’t able to go get a test to make sure that I was clear. Now, there are a lot more options for the viral test. I’ll typically work a week and go get a viral test to make sure that I’m negative so I can go spend a couple days with him... but he’s proud of me, and he is nervous.
My son wrote me a really cute letter last week that told me he thinks that I am the “smartest hero”, and he can’t wait for me to be home. He was also very scared that I might get sick and he doesn’t want me to.
Source: @adamelzer via Instagram
I find it a little heartbreaking, the distance from him. But I decided that I think what we have been doing has been extremely helpful and I will feel good about that for many years to come.
Hopefully our effort is one of the things that can get New York back on its feet.
Please share one important lesson that you have learned during this experience.
Small acts of kindness. I’ve noticed this with the people who have called me to tell me something nice, or reached out to make a donation that I didn’t expect. It’s not always money.
Sometimes I had people who were CEO’s of other companies that pulled up to our pizzeria with their truck would say, “Hey! Load me up and I am going to help you today.” I think seeing people get involved and doing something nice for somebody else has really kept me going.
I noticed while we have been passing out pizzas, there have been a lot of different people that when I walk up to them it looks like they have been having the worst day ever. Debatably, it looks scary, but then with the pizza they start smiling and chatting… it turns around their whole mood.
I have learned that if you can take a moment to do something kind for somebody else, you won’t know how big of an impact that small act of kindness can make. It’s pretty cool.
Source: @adamelzer via Instagram