“ah-BEETS” Thrives In Nation’s Capital

Thomas MacMillan PhotosWASHINGTON, D.C.—In less than three years, Joel Mehr and Tom Marr have built two successful restaurants here and are poised to open a third. Last year, President Obama mentioned their business in a speech. Last month, Vice-President Biden stopped by. The secret to their success? Serving up New Haven’s famous “apizza” with “Staven” and “Cutler’s” specials.

That’s “ah-BEETS,” the special variety of thin-crust Neapolitan pie served in New Haven.

Mehr (at left in photo) discovered apizza several years ago through his wife, Alicia Wilkinson, whose family lives in the New Haven area. He imported it to his hometown of Washington and opened Pete’s New Haven Style Apizza with his partner, Marr (at right).

Like Chicago, the nation’s capital has since embraced New Haven’s famous pies. Business has been so good that Mehr and Marr are quickly expanding their operation. Already the president and vice-president have highlighted the restaurant as a successful small business.

Last Friday afternoon Mehr and Marr took some time out of their 80-hour work week to talk about the success of their apizza business. They met with the Independent at their second location, which they opened three months ago on Wisconsin Avenue in northwest D.C.

Links to New Haven are everywhere in the restaurant. Clocks on the wall tell the current time in New Haven (the same as D.C. time, conveniently) and in Naples. The menu offers pies with familiar names. The “Coliseum” has olives, onions, and eggplant. The “Merritt Parkway” offers prosciutto, olives, and basil. You can also choose from the “State Street,” the “Edge of the Woods,” the “Nighthawk,” the “Cutler’s,” or the “Staven.”

All those references come by way of Mehr’s New Haven in-laws, who introduced him to the area and to the pizza. Although he’d never been a pizza chef, Mehr decided New Haven apizza was a product that he could build a restaurant around.

At the time, Mehr and Marr were working as chefs at the National Gallery in D.C. They got to know each other in the kitchen and began tossing around ideas they had for starting their own businesses. Mehr saw that D.C. was ripe for New Haven pizza. The capital had plenty of “conveyor belt” pizza (Domino’s, Pizza Hut, etc.), but exhibited a lack of family-friendly pizzerias dedicated to making a high-quality pie, he said.

Mehr spent a few days in training with Rick Nuzzo, a pizza chef at Grand Apizza in Cheshire, learning the art of apizza. When Mehr started moving with his pizza plan, Marr jumped on board and they both quit their jobs at the National Gallery. Both men put up their homes as collateral and managed to secure a loan after going to “20 banks.” The original Pete’s opened in April 2008 in the Columbia Heights section of D.C. They named the restaurant after Mehr’s father-in-law and his 11-year-old son.

Mehr and Marr now regularly put in upwards of 80 hours a week building their business. They share a foodie perfectionist streak and a dedication to hard work

From the beginning, the pair has been committed to building a brand around “apizza” and the city of New Haven. That means educating customers on how to pronounce the name of the product. “It’s not just pizza, it’s ‘ah-BEETS’,” reads a sign at the door to the restaurant. The pronunciation guide is also emblazoned on the back of all employee T-shirts.

“We want people to know we’re doing something different,” Mehr said.

Making New Haven-style apizza is about more than just pronunciation. It means making a crust with only four ingredients: flour, water, salt, and yeast, Mehr said. That simplicity distinguishes New Haven’s crust from that of New York pizza, for example, where gluten and olive oil and even honey create a crust that you can toss in the air. New Haven pies have to be pushed out flat by hand. At Pete’s, the pies are cooked in stone-bottomed, gas-fired ovens.

New Haven apizza also means picking only the choicest ingredients, Mehr said. The restaurant serves local vegetable toppings when possible. The cheese is Grande mozzarella from Wisconsin. “We grind our meat ourselves,” Mehr said. “We shop at farmers markets.”

Mehr won’t serve Coke products, he said. The restaurant offers a line of all-natural soda’s from New Jersey. He can’t get Foxon Park to deliver so far from southern Connecticut. But every time someone from the restaurant passes through Connecticut, he or she picks up cases of Foxon Park birch beer, so it can be sold by the bottle at Pete’s.

Pete’s also makes its own gelato.

To illustrate the restaurant’s pickiness when it comes to ingredients, Marr grabbed up a pepper shaker from a table. It’s not advertised anywhere, but the pepper shakers are filled with fresh ground pepper, he said.

“It’s not a big deal,” Mehr said. It just means the pepper “doesn’t taste like sawdust.”

The salt shakers contain sea salt. The parmesan shakers? Freshly ground parmesan.

That extra attention to details cost a little more for the restaurant, and Pete’s therefore aims for a customer who’s willing to pay a little more for quality ingredients. The business was started with the assumption that D.C. has a “market for people who are conscious about what they eat,” Mehr said.

That assumption has been validated by success of the restaurants, which have drawn in DC VIPs. Not long ago, someone left a wallet behind at the original Pete’s location. It turned out it belonged to an adviser to the president. A speechwriter for the vice-president eats at Pete’s regularly with his family, Mehr said.

City First Bank of D.C., the community-development lender that put up the money to start Pete’s (and a prototype for the new community development bank about to launch in New Haven), led members of the Treasury Department on a tour last year of some of its small businesses, including Pete’s. “That put us on the radar,” Mehr said. Three months later, when President Obama announced a new program of credit initiatives for small businesses, he mentioned that it would help businesses like “Pete’s Apizza.”

Mehr said he was pleased his restaurant was mentioned, even if the president did mispronounce it and use the wrong name. The restaurant is officially called “Pete’s New Haven Style Apizza,” not “Pete’s Apizza.” That was going to be the name until Little Caesar’s objected that it was too close to its trademarked “Pizza Pizza” slogan.

Then in August Vice-President Biden chose Pete’s to hold a “Middle Class Task Force ” roundtable discussion of cutting taxes for small businesses.

Biden left with two pies—a pepperoni and a mozzarella—to take back to the White House.

On Friday, after Mehr and Marr left to attend to their busy schedules, the Independent dug in to a “New Haven Green”: artichoke hearts, sauteed spinach, oven-dried tomatoes, and kalamata olives (pictured at the top of the story). It tasted just like New Haven’s own. The crust was foldable without being floppy. The big chunks of artichoke heart were copious and delicious. And the deep purple olives added a sharp and salty bite.

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posted by: streever on September 23, 2010  1:14pm

That pizza looks superb!

posted by: Gretchen Pritchard on September 23, 2010  1:56pm

Brilliant!  After all, think of all the Yale College and Yale Law School grads in DC, craving the New Haven taste!

: )

posted by: ASL on September 23, 2010  2:22pm

I love that they’ve embraced the pizza and some of the local NH flavor in the pie names.  New Haven Green—brilliant, but not as brilliant as the Staven.  Love it.

posted by: Eva on September 23, 2010  3:40pm

Gretchen—my (townie) brother brought shame to the family when he moved to DC and married a Yale grad (said tongue in cheek—though he did move to DC and marry a Yale grad)—just a few weeks ago, though, he was telling me about this very pizza place and told me it was really very, very good.
I don’t think he misses the pizza he got when he was in school in Ann Arbor or Boston ;)

posted by: Pissed Off on September 23, 2010  4:04pm

Not saying anything about this particular business, but how many entrepreneurs and business owners have successful businesses because of the immigrant labor they hire.

Hard working, loyal, and dependable people. And yes, some of our citizens have lost the work the ethic. So why not allow immigrants to do the jobs that Americans wont do.

But when the time comes to tell the politicians that they need to reform the immigration system, these entrepreneurs and business people remain silent. Afraid, rightfully so, of reprisals. But if they do not figure out a way to apply the pressure of the purse to the politicians, idiots like the Tea Party ranters will dominate the discussion.

Step up to plate small business owners, do your part, and tell our elected officials to pass a comprehensive immigration bill NOW.

SPEAK UP AS SMALL BUSINESS OWNERS AND DO YOUR PART.

Yeah, the pizza looks great, but next time you have a pizza, think about the immigrant labor who cultivated and harvested the tomatoes for your A-Beetz, as well as the immigrant labor who probably made the dough, prepared the apizza, and then cleaned up after your enjoyed your pie.

The American Business person is the one who can change the balance of power here. They must see it in their interest to demand a comprehensive reform of the immigration system.

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on September 23, 2010  4:37pm

posted by: Pissed Off on September 23, 2010 5:04pm

Not saying anything about this particular business, but how many entrepreneurs and business owners have successful businesses because of the immigrant labor they hire.

Hard working, loyal, and dependable people. And yes, some of our citizens have lost the work the ethic. So why not allow immigrants to do the jobs that Americans wont do.


They are a lot of reason why American will not do the job that immigrants do.A lot of the reason that ameicans will not do these jobs are due to unfair labour practices.Would you work Here.

The Deliverymen’s Uprising
For $1.75 an hour, they put up with abusive employers, muggers, rain, snow, potholes, car accidents, six-day weeks, and lousy tips.

http://nymag.com/news/features/35540/

posted by: notch on September 23, 2010  5:06pm

Man, if only Modern would start using fresh veggies too!

posted by: Leslie on September 23, 2010  5:18pm

Amazing that New Haven apizza is the talk of the town in DC! Yes, the pie in the picture looks delicious, too.

I can’t help but notice though, that there’s something off about the geometry. The pizza looks more or less round and is cut into relatively similar wedges. I always think of New Haven apizza as a kind of irregular rectangle, cut once the long way and then repeatedly and haphazardly the short way, yielding long, four-sided slices that vary wildly in size!

By the way, the spell check on the Comment feature doesn’t know the word “apizza.” Along with “pizza,” it suggests piazza, Apia, Apia’s and Aliza!

posted by: Pissed Off on September 23, 2010  6:16pm

3/5’s Yeah, so what is your point? We should not support comprehensive immigration reform?

Obama has deported more illegals than Bush, and yet we still have people bitching.

This country needs the immigrant labor force. Give them a pathway to residency, bring them out of the shadows, and everyone, everyone will benefit.

The local small business owner knows he cant run a profitable business with out good labor. They are not as likely to beat the hell out of their workers if they are interested in keeping a profitable business.  Then why the hell are these entrepreneurs and small business owner not speaking up for comprehensive immigration reform?

posted by: TheVin on September 23, 2010  7:32pm

That’s “ah-BEETS,” the special variety of thin-crust Neapolitan pie served in New Haven.

Apizza has nothing to do with the crust.,,just a couple guys in if for the money,,,,not knowing anything of the product.

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on September 23, 2010  9:09pm

posted by: Pissed Off on September 23, 2010 7:16pm

3/5’s Yeah, so what is your point? We should
not support comprehensive immigration reform?

I was answering you statement about how you said that immigrants do the jobs that Americans won’t do. Tell me what jobs they do that americans will not do. Also The system we have in place for imigration works if you come to this country leagally.Case and point I know people who have got there green cards and then applied for there citizenship.

This country needs the immigrant labor force. Give them a pathway to residency, bring them out of the shadows, and everyone, everyone will benefit.

This country already has a immigrant labor force thanks to the corporatist who took the jobs out of this country.Try calling aol,T-mobile Linksystem and see who is working customer service.These were jobs that anericans once had and would be glad to work them if they come back. In fact if you do bring
in a immigrant labor force this is what will happen.


http://hubpages.com/hub/HowH1BVisaFRAUDiskillingAmerica

The local small business owner knows he cant run a profitable business with out good labor. They are not as likely to beat the hell out of their workers if they are interested in keeping a profitable business.  Then why the hell are these entrepreneurs and small business owner not speaking up for comprehensive immigration reform?

The local small business owner who hires immigrant labor force is looking for cheap labor and knows that these immigrants cab be controled and the american works can not.

P.S. Did you know that Cesar Chaves was opposed to illegal immigration.

posted by: Pissed Off on September 23, 2010  11:38pm

3/5’s, yeah mire up the issue. Nice comment about Cesar Chavez. Of course he would be against illegal immigrants because of his Chicano sisters and brothers in the Farm Workers Union. But we are not talking about illegal immigration.

We are talking about reforming a broken system that does not work.

We are not talking about the lousy business climate, taxes, and politicians who refuse to penalize these multinationals who move American jobs off shore. And please, enough with the call center jobs.

What the hell happen to manufacturing? Who knows what a lathe or a Bridgeport Milling Machine is anymore? Under Ronald Reagan, that great patriot cowboy, the dismantling our American manufacturing began, in a “pro-business” trickle down atmosphere, that ushered in the decade of greed, known as the 1980’s. But I digress…..

Small business, agriculture, and other low skill job sectors need immigrant workers.

We have let these people and in some cases, whole families, languish for decades in never - never land, not knowing if they will arrested and handed over in immigration one day. These immigrant people have given their all, for which they have been partially rewarded by their salary, and now merit the noble title of citizen of the United States.

They deserve this noble title of citizen not because of the profit they made for the business owners, but because they have contributed enormously to the well being of our country.

SMALL BUSINESS OWNERS AND ENTREPRENEURS, TIME TO STEP UP TO THE PLATE AND DEMAND COMPREHENSIVE IMMIGRATION REFORM NOW. IT IS GOOD BUSINESS AND IT JUST RIGHT.

posted by: Clark Hurlburt on September 24, 2010  6:28am

Ok, they got the pronunciation of the product correct but do they say New Haven the right way with the emphysis on the HAV and not the NEW?

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on September 24, 2010  7:34am

posted by: Pissed Off on September 24, 2010 12:38am

We are talking about reforming a broken system that does not work.

You need to read what the law on Citizenship.

Be 18 or older
Be a permanent resident (green card holder) for at least 5 years immediately preceding the date of filing the Form N-400, Application for Naturalization
Have lived within the state, or USCIS district with jurisdiction over the applicant’s place of residence, for at least 3 months prior to the date of filing the application
Have continuous residence in the United States as a permanent resident for at least 5 years immediately preceding the date of the filing the application
Be physically present in the United States for at least 30 months out of the 5 years immediately preceding the date of filing the application
Reside continuously within the United States from the date of application for naturalization up to the time of naturalization
Be able to read, write, and speak English and have knowledge and an understanding of U.S. history and government (civics).
Be a person of good moral character, attached to the principles of the Constitution of the United States, and well disposed to the good order and happiness of the United States during all relevant periods under the law

So how is the system broken,When you have people who come to this country and follow the law.

We are not talking about the lousy business climate, taxes, and politicians who refuse to penalize these multinationals who move American jobs off shore. And please, enough with the call center jobs

If you bring back the call centers most americans would flock to those jobs. Also you seem to duck the issuse of the HB1 visa that up holds the immigrant labor force.

H1B AND L-1 VISAS OR HOW TO PUT THE MIDDLE CLASS BACK TO WORK

http://opengov.ideascale.com/a/dtd/3449-4049

Small business, agriculture, and other low skill job sectors need immigrant workers.

Why do you need immigrant workers to do these jobs,When you have american citizen right here who would do these kobs. Sounds to me you must be a business man who hires immigrant workers.


We have let these people and in some cases, whole families, languish for decades in never - never land, not knowing if they will arrested and handed over in immigration one day. These immigrant people have given their all, for which they have been partially rewarded by their salary, and now merit the noble title of citizen of the United States.

And there are people and families who languish for decades to become citizen of the United States.So what is your point!!!

They deserve this noble title of citizen not because of the profit they made for the business owners, but because they have contributed enormously to the well being of our country.

Others have contributed enormously to the well being of this country. So what is you point. Again all they have to do is follow the guide lines to citizenship.


SMALL BUSINESS OWNERS AND ENTREPRENEURS, TIME TO STEP UP TO THE PLATE AND DEMAND COMPREHENSIVE IMMIGRATION REFORM NOW. IT IS GOOD BUSINESS AND IT JUST RIGHT

Again you do’nt need IMMIGRATION REFORM use the law that you have in place already as others who come to this country have.

P.S. You talk about agriculture and how there is a need for immigrant workers.How about the Black Farmers who hire American Workers to work on there farms who you claim will not do these jobs as the immigrant workers.


http://www.blackfarmersconf.org/

posted by: RKan on September 24, 2010  10:15am

A. That pizza does not look anything like authentic, New Haven-style apizza.
B. Simply calling it apizza, using names like “Staven” and “New Haven Green” don’t make the pie authentic.
C. “At Pete’s, the pies are cooked in stone-bottomed, gas-fired ovens.” Herein lies the most blatant departure from true coal-fired, stone oven New Haven apizza.
D. I’m not judging the quality of the product. Never having tasted it I can’t comment on that. I’m commenting on what seems to me to be a less than valid claim to New Haven authenticity.

posted by: TheVin on September 24, 2010  1:13pm

C. “At Pete’s, the pies are cooked in stone-bottomed, gas-fired ovens.”

in other words,,,Bakers Pride Y6 or Blodgett. or Marsal….none of which are authentic means of baking.