It’s tough on everybody when “Mom” undergoes an identity crisis.
In the early ’80s, MaryAnn Zaidan opened the first location of the Mom’s Bake at Home Pizza franchise on Main Street in Manayunk. Soon, a cult following developed around the tasty ingredients and fantastic crust of the pizzas that Mom’s customers took home to bake and savor fresh from the oven.
Today, the cult is confused. And Zaidan has spent months flirting with heartbreak.
Late last year, Mom’s corporate ownership called to let her know they’d sold the business, which has grown to nine local franchises. Worse, the bakery right across the street from her store – the place where that legendary crust got made – was closing.
It was a sudden end to a three-decade success story that began when Mom’s Inc. founder Nick Castalucci, who used to own traditional pizza shops, decided to franchise the “take-and-bake” concept. Zaidan’s store was the pioneering prototype for the chain.
“Thirty years I’ve been here!” exclaims Zaidan. “My customers…I have watched their children grow up! And those children are now married and coming in to buy pizza for their family.”
Listen to her talk glowingly of the friendships she’s made while selling pizza, and you can see why she’s known as “Mom” around Manayunk and beyond.
That’s why one corporate demand was particularly painful. Zaidan was ordered to strip all traces of the Mom’s name from the franchise stores. All of Zaidan’s materials, including her stockpile of instructional pizza boxes, notepads, and even the sign that hangs outside the shop have covered up the word “Mom’s.” Her new name is just “Bake at Home Pizza.”
Eileen Doyle, former general manager of Mom’s Inc. did not respond to phone calls for comment.
That elusive dough
But the biggest problem is, quite simply, the missing crust.
On this point, Zaidan is brutally candid. With the Mom’s Inc. bakery gone, she had to turn to another distributor, and the crust she got from there was, in her words, “highly inferior.”
“Our customers came in the first week, the second week, and they didn’t say anything…but by the third week they came in and said, ‘Mom, what’s wrong? The pizza’s not right. We thought we baked it wrong,’ or ‘We thought it was a fluke.'”
She continues to use all the same other ingredients and processes to build the pies, But the crust was key to the quality of the pizza, Zaidan said. She estimates that, since the crust crisis began this year, she’s lost half of the loyal customer base she built up over 30 years.
“The sad part about it is, my customers feel just as awful as I do! They miss me, and I miss them,” she said, but she doesn’t have it in her to pretend to the public that there’s no problem.
New crust, new chance
Zaidan hasn’t stopped trying to rectify the situation, though.
Month after perilous month, Zaidan has sampled dough from different bakeries. She rejected several as sub-par, but she has finally settled on one that she finds satisfactory, bringing a renewed sense of hope to her shop.
She speaks of a former Saturday regular who calls frequently to get crust updates, asking, “Well? Can I come back, do you have a good crust?”
Two weeks ago, Zaidan finally felt she could tell her, “Yes!”
Although she knows some old fans have fallen away, Zaidan says that she’s actually gained some new customers who never tried the original crust, but have just discovered her pizzas and love them.
On the Yelp page for her shop, all of the reviews are positive – with three from the original crust days and two from this year.
A newer fan, K.J. from Philadelphia, reviews “The pizza was so fresh and the cheese melted perfectly…The owner was incredibly nice and I highly recommend this place!”
Zaidan still holds out hope that the new crust, which she vows not to change again, will bring back some of her old customers and friends. To introduce the new crust and generate more business, she is considering trying a Groupon deal.
Despite the closure of Mom’s Inc., and the ensuing year of difficulties, Zaidan is hopeful for the future of her shop, “That’s how business works, you know? We’re just trying as independents to regain what we had before.”
Right before dusk on a recent evening, someone passed by the open doors of the shop and yelled in to Zaidan, “I love you!”
Without hesitation, Zaidan replied, “I love you, too!”
The word Mom’s might be gone from Manayunk’s iconic pizza shop, but the old-time feeling is starting to return.
Bake at Home Pizza is located at 4452 Main St. in Manayunk. Find them on Facebook.