Pizzerias, with a strong takeout and delivery arm, have had a leg up on other dining establishments that have been forced to rejigger their operations during the pandemic. Yet they, too, have faced significant challenges this year.
Brandon Hunt, who co-owns Via 313 in Austin, Texas, along with his brother Zane, recently shared how their business has been affected and ways they’ve adapted in the past six months.
Brandon and Zane Hunt are brothers and owners of Via 313, which was recently named Pizza Today’s 2020 Pizzeria of the Year. The magazine calls Via 313 “one of the hottest pizzerias in the country” with annual sales of more than $12 million.
Hunt feels fortunate for the early success of Via 313, which is known for Detroit-style pies and a laid-back, family-friendly atmosphere where everyone feels at home. The Hunts, who grew up in the Motor City and later relocated to Austin, have created a loyal following in Austin over the past 10 years as they’ve sought to recreate their hometown pizza as well as the feeling of a classic neighborhood pizza joint. The name, Via 313, is a nod to the brothers’ Detroit roots and their past area code.
“We were missing the pizza from our home state and knew we could bring something different to the Austin area,” said Hunt, adding that it all started with one pizza trailer in downtown Austin, which has grown to include another permanent pizza trailer and three brick-and-mortar locations.
Via 313’s Detroit-style pizza starts with unbromated, unbleached flour from General Mills Foodservice, which Winchester says results in a crust that is cooked to perfection every time, “whether it’s by dine-in, carry out or food trailer.”
Slicing through the past six months
Throughout the past six months, Hunt says business has been relatively stable—thanks to a supportive community as well as his incredible staff. He acknowledges one of the hardest times, early on in the pandemic, was when he and his partners could see the writing on the wall—that the disruption to business was not going to be temporary and they needed to reduce their workforce.
“That was the hardest day of the past nine years,” said Hunt, adding they were able to provide those employees with severance packages and have since been able to hire some of them back. “We try to take care of all of our employees and treat them like family as best we can.”
In terms of operations, Via 313 had an online ordering system before the pandemic, but Hunt said they have made some improvements to make it more mobile-friendly and easier to navigate with the transition to takeout only. Today, about 80 percent of orders are placed online and 20 percent are called in for takeout orders only—no delivery.
“I love their online ordering system, which is really intuitive and allows for customization and notes so I don’t feel the need to call it in,” said Caroline Winchester, an account executive with General Mills Foodservice who lives in the Austin area and is a proud patron of Via 313. “It also predicts when the order will be ready, almost to the minute, so you know you are always getting a pizza that just came out of the oven.”
In the age of COVID-19, Hunt and his team also instituted a contactless pick-up system by setting up tables outside the restaurants where customers can walk up to get their order.
One other change has been to add “to-go” drinks and cocktail kits so people can enjoy their favorite beers, wines and spirits at home without having to play mixologist.
Even though restrictions have been lifted in Austin and Via 313 could open its patio or resume indoor dining, Hunt said that their current process is working and sustainable for now. He credits the takeout-only service, along with staff acting responsibly outside of work, for enabling Via 313 to keep the doors open.
And while the protests over racial injustice have been another pivotal moment of 2020 (Via 313 has a location in downtown Austin near areas affected by protests and riots), Hunt sees the resulting dialogue as a positive. It has given him and his brother an opportunity to listen and to learn how to be better advocates and allies for black lives and LBGTQ communities.
Throughout the month of June, Via 313 donated a portion of sales from each of its five locations to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
“These are challenging times and there are some serious problems that need to be addressed,” said Hunt.
“I am not surprised that the Hunts have risen to the occasion to help support organizations fighting for peace and equal rights,” said Winchester. “They have built a successful business by treating their employees and customers like family and are known for helping out where needed in the community.”
To learn more about Via 313, visit https://www.via313.com.