Express Pizza creates a niche in the north end

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Express Pizza creates a niche in the north end Express Pizza creates a niche in the north end

OCEAN CITY – The sibling entrepreneurs arrive early, spending most of the morning in prep mode before the busy lunch crowd arrives.

Mark Staszak makes the pizza while his sister, Traci Staszak Videtto chops the requisite meats and veggies needed for a day’s worth of toppings. The two work side by side, as lunch turns into dinner, in the kitchen of Express Pizza and Subs.

Along with an ever-changing array of daily specials, the two slices and a fountain soda for $6 special is a crowd pleaser. Express offers a wide variety of pizzas, including white, express supreme, chicken parmigiana, bacon cheeseburger, Hawaiian and buffalo chicken tender. The menu also includes steaks, burgers, stromboli, calzone, hoagies, salads and freshly-made wraps.

“Life is good,” Staszak said. “I love what I do. I wouldn’t change anything and I wouldn’t want to do anything else. I’m in business with my family, happily married and doing what I want to be doing.”

When he graduated from Ocean City High School in 1995, Staszak had no clue what he would be interested in, so he started ruling things out. A few semesters of community college made him realize he didn’t want to sit in a classroom.

“So, I went to work for my dad in his plumbing business,” he said, but pipes and wrenches weren’t his thing either. “I was not happy, I felt so pressured. So I moved to Key West and worked for a friend who owned a bar.”

After two years, the wanderlust subsided and he returned to his roots, back to Express where he had worked through high school. At that time, the restaurant was at 847 Asbury Ave. next to City Hall.

Owners Mark and Rex Powell were looking to open a new business and encouraged Staszak to become a manager; he talked them into taking him on as a partner.

By 2001, the restaurant had moved to 719 Battersea Road and Staszak was the sole owner.

“I bought my partners out,” he said.

Meanwhile he married Jennifer and, in starting a new life, realized he needed help with his business.

“It was a lot of work, I was young and needed help. I felt overwhelmed,” he said.

Staszak said he talked to his father about putting the business up for sale and moving on.

“He talked me out of that thankfully,” Staszak said.

His problems were resolved by bringing on his sister and father as partners in the growing venture. Videtto had worked at the counter through high school and in the evenings as she began a career in the real estate world, working for title and appraisal companies.

Express thrived while the economy roared. A redevelopment boom brought small armies of contractors and Realtors in the door each day. The restaurant’s northend location turned out to be a gem. When the economy went bust and the housing market began to dry up, Staszak thought he might be finished.

“A lot of our year-round residents had moved out of town when developers were buying properties, and then the housing bubble burst and the contractors weren’t coming in like they were,” he said. “I thought we might have to close for the winter. I didn’t know that we’d be able to stay open.”

Staszak and Videtto have since adapted to the new reality.

“We are lucky, we have a loyal following, the contractors who were working stayed with us, we just had to cut back on things,” he said.

With the popular Waverly Beach nearby, they also have the market cornered with the northend surfing crowd. Second homeowners and loyal locals keep them afloat. When summer rolls around, Express is the closest meal for anyone renting near the beach in the Gardens.

“We’re like a mecca for the beach crowd,” Staszak said. “A lot of our customers are in their bathing suits at lunch.”

Still, they weather a crisis from time to time. Product costs have gone up and higher fuel costs bring delivery surcharges, meanwhile, Videtto said customers have cut back.

“Where they would buy two pizzas, now maybe it’s just one,” she said.

Pizza, she said, is the most economical way to feed a family of four, but “people are very careful about what they are spending, so we keep looking for ways to keep our prices down.”

Consistent customer service is a key to keeping customers. The staff answers the phone: “Express, pick-up or delivery” and is likely to recognize an order or a customer when they call.

“We encourage our employees to interact, to get to know our customers,” Videtto said. “We created a friendly, family atmosphere. We like it when they know what someone will order when they walk in. We’re all friends in here and we make it as fun as possible.”

Happy employees, Staszak, attract a happy following. The Ocean City High School crowd can pack the restaurant on Friday nights and weekends.

“They love to hang out and they’re well behaved, we have the kids and families. It’s neat to see everyone having a good time,” he said. “We worried when we moved from Asbury Avenue to the Gardens, but we really created a niche. We have a nice customer base. Asbury was high traffic volume, but I think it’s worked out a lot better on Battersea Road.”

Express utilizes a conveyor/convection oven. The pizza goes in one end and comes out the other, cooked and piping hot in less than five minutes. There are two ovens, one stacked atop the other.

“That’s why we call it ‘Express,’” Videtto said. “That’s the way it’s been done at Express from the very beginning, years ago.”

The oven creates a different product.

“It’s different, the crust is different,” Staszak said.

“We do a heck of a sub business, too,” he said.

“My brother and I really like food,” Videtto said. “So, we are always experimenting. If we like it, we make it as a special; if customers like it, maybe it goes on the menu.”

Staszak said he enjoys working with his sister.

“Family is pretty darn important,” he said. “We both put a priority on family. It gets hard at times, but I’d rather work with Traci than anyone else. You trust your family through and through.”

Videtto’s husband, also named Mark, is a financial planner commuting to Philadelphia. The mother of two small children, Anthony, 5, and Blaire, 2, said owning a business is a constant juggling act but she “loves every minute.”

Staszak has two daughter, Sophia, 4, and Parker, 1. His wife is expecting another baby in June.

The siblings plan to expand Express with a new store in Lower Township sometime next year.

“We’re thinking about offering a full dinner menu here, too. We have a lot of plans, but we both have young children, so we’ll see what happens,” Staszak said.

Had Hurricane Irene not blown through town in late August, Express would have had its best summer ever.

“People shut down their houses and never came back,” Staszak said. “It was a bummer; it really just shut summer down for us.”

The siblings look forward to a better 2012.

“People leave here feeling full and happy; when they say they had a good meal we’re happy, too,”  Staszak said.
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