Photo by Hamish Grant.
Customer loyalty is a hard thing for a company to get, but once they’ve got it, it takes a hell of a lot of bad work to lose.
With Amato Pizza, I was one of the people who happily ate from the pizza place in spite of the protests against it in 2005, when employees organized outside the St. Clair West location in mid-winter to protest $82,000 in alleged overtime wages, severance pay, and bounced cheques. I filed away any health concerns about eating there to the back of my mind when, in under two years, the College and Borden Amato incurred 98 health infractions from DineSafe. When their Queen and Bathurst store, among other locations, was shut down because of unpaid rent in March, I hoped it was an isolated incident, that the company would survive it all. I experienced, first hand over the past two years, the quality of the food and service slowly declining as the prices stayed the same, or, at some locations, even rose. I was one of the last stragglers, one of the last ones holding tight to the company as it slowly sank.
Now, I’d like to be the first to pronounce Amato Pizza dead.
Photo of Gino Amato (and Humphrey Bogart) by striatic.
Amato Pizza began as an almost-clichéd-sounding success story: immigrant Gino Amato comes from Italy to start a company, and, through hard work and determination, defeats the stacked odds against him and his family and makes his business something that was respected, profitable, and, well, loved in Toronto.
A source with close ties to the family filled me in on the rest. When Gino Amato passed away about five years ago, his son, Giuseppe Colantonio, inherited the business from him. Giuseppe is “actually the nicest man alive…sincerely kind and generous and sweet,” and despite being “saddled with a biz with very little equipment to actually run it,” it not only succeeded, but “ballooned; they opened a bunch of new stores and even franchises at one point [in total, about twelve stores].” Giuseppe “was quite wealthy at one time, and I think he felt bad about the fact that others weren’t. Most restaurants just dump the leftovers at the end of the night, but he would drive around after work and give the extra food to the homeless. At one point, there was talk of him opening a kind of restaurant for homeless people and the poor.” (No, really.)
Amato’s fast and hard fall began when Giuseppe gave over a great deal of the management responsibility to his brothers, Massimo (Giuseppe’s biological brother) and Walter (who was adopted into the family and raised, in part, by Gino). Both Massimo and Walter were given a legal stake in the company after their father’s death, and their involvement was absolutely disastrous from the start; as my source put it, “[Giuseppe’s] brothers are the worst fuckheads alive….Walter is an “actor” who is a total cock,” while Massimo “just wants to make pizza and wear v-necks and Hugo Boss….Despite trying to run things well, and do a good job, [Giuseppe]’s only one person, and the second he turns his back his brothers are doing something stupid.”
Something stupid like when Walter fired Michelle Spencer, an employee of six years, for asking for months of unpaid wages. Spencer became a powerful enemy, and went on to start the anti-Amato campaign in the latter half of 2005, which organized rallies on Labour Day and in December that drew an enormous amount of bad press to the company and may have turned public opinion against the company for good. “The story is simple, I guess…family business gets blown to bits when the founder dies, one son tries to save it and two sons fuck everything up.”
“The biz,” my source summarized nicely, “is fucked.”
Case Study: The Pollo alla Mayonnaise
Amato makes (or made) a mean Pollo alla Mayonnaise; when I first had it about three years ago, it was overflowing with cheese and chicken and vegetables, with the perfect amount of mayonnaise. The bread was thick, toasted, awesome. At $6.95, the price was right, and the convenience of getting food from a place open till 4 a.m. (one that delivered!) didn’t hurt.
About two years ago, however, everything started changing. No-one would pick up the phone until I’d called back four or five times. Deliveries started taking longer, not helped by the delivery-men not speaking English well enough to understand instructions on how to get to where I was. For the Pollo, Amato switched to a much thinner, untoasted, cheaper bread; it tasted like eating meat and vegetables on a piece of paper. I ordered regularly from about four different locations, and each one had the same problems. Customer loyalty being as it is, however, I kept going back; why not? It could always get better.
Of course, it didn’t. And last night will be the final meal that I’ll ever order from Amato’s.
It was my birthday dinner, an excuse to get together with my parents and have a pleasant meal; it was, really, the epitome of one of Pizza Pizza’s newspaper ads, of a smiling family all happily bonding over pizza. In the past six months, Amato’s Weston Road location had moved just ten minutes away, to Dundas West and Bloor, and I thought that the food would be better. Then there would be hope. There is always hope. So we gave it a shot.
The problems were not one big thing so much as an endless accumulation of them: we had to call the main phone number to get the new location’s phone number (as it wasn’t on their website), had to wait five minutes after I called the Dundas West number as the phone rang and rang and rang, had to call the main number back several times (it was busy for ten minutes) to make sure I had the right number for the Dundas West location, called the the new number again, waited two minutes, finally spoke to someone, was disconnected, had to call back. Though the deliveryman had my phone number to call if he got lost (which the company used to do), he didn’t bother, and we saw someone driving up and down our block before we called the location’s number back to find out what was going on. The food was thirty minutes late, our order was completely wrong (we got one dish we didn’t order, and were missing two salads that we did), and the deliverer didn’t give us (or show us) a receipt. When we called to get our missing food, we were told it would take ten minutes to get our food back. It took fifty. And the salads were about half the size of the salads of one year ago.
Photo by David Topping.
The once-amazing Pollo alla Mayonaisse epitomized Amato’s problems: the mayonnaise tasted like it was swapped with some kind of gross ranch dressing, the chicken was spongy and weird, and the bread was as thin as I’d ever seen. The chicken and cheese that, two years ago, covered the size of the bread and spilled over its sides took up about a third of that, and I got one small piece of lettuce per half-sandwich, a few limp onions, and what looked like one slice of tomato that was just cut up a few times to make it fit. The whole thing looked like shit (see above), and tasted terrible.
The thing that’s so disappointing is not that I had mediocre food and got horrible customer service from a company—who cares; it happens—but that Amato was once a revered Toronto institution, known as one of the places for pizza in the city, and I was their faithful and loyal fan. But enough is enough. Last night, it felt like I was actually watching the company drop to its knees and keel over.
On top of the pizza box that they shoved four meager pieces of oily bruschetta into, in crudely-scrawled handwriting, with one word a line, read the company’s slogan: “Hi EAT MORE AMATO.”
Not fucking likely.