Going big by being small, restaurant celebrates 10 years of pizza

The oven door opens, hitting the kitchen with a wave of heat. It's March 9th, the ten-year anniversary for D'Angelo's Pizza on Columbus Avenue in Bay City, and owner and executive chef David Baranowski is removing four large pizzas from the oven with a tool called a pizza peel; a large, thin and flat piece of steel connected to a long handle. 

"It's mind-boggling how busy we get back here," he says. "We've seen certified chefs come and literally walk off the line because they couldn't handle the stress. It's crazy." 

D'Angelo's owner David Barankowski removing pizzas from the oven.

Baranowski talks without stopping, and as soon as the oven is cleared, more pizzas are put inside. Moving at a pace this fast is familiar territory: before D'Angelo's began in 2009, he had an expediting company that delivered parts to General Motors. 

"Everything was timed," he says. "I had to rush to every position to keep the assembly lines moving." 

But that was also in the midst of the economic recession that began in 2008 and the world was slowing down.  On May 2, 2009, GM's stock fell below $1 per share for the first time since the Great Depression, and on June 9th, the company filed for bankruptcy with a debt of $172.8 billion. 
"GM was collapsing," he says. "I thought, 'OK, we need to make a move because I'm going to be out of a job.' We probably researched for three years getting everything together, and here we are." 

The frenetic pace in the kitchen shows Baranowski hasn't completely left the expediting business behind, with timers hanging from the shelves and cooks making food with the same sense of urgency. Five of D'Angelo's twelve employees are working alongside Baranowski in the kitchen, darting from counter to stove and back to counter, weaving their way around each other, between shelves of ingredients, and shuttling completed orders to the front counter. 

"Oh, it's organized chaos," says cook Billy Lopez. "That's the best way I could describe it. Everybody knows what needs to be done, and if we work together and everybody pulls their own weight, we're like a band of brothers and sisters back here." 

Lopez is blasting a freshly cooked pizza with two hand-held propane torches, a step he says gives the ingredients an extra layer of flavor. 

Cook Billy Lopez works on a cooked pizza, using two handheld propane torches to add another layer of flavor.

"You have to be fast...but you have to cook like you'd cook for your grandma." 

I take the bait and ask him what he means. 

"You wouldn't serve your grandma no slop!" he laughs. 

"The pizza dough has to be to spec," Baranowski says. "The pizza squares have to be cut so everything lines up. There has to be 100 pepperonis on an 18" pizza. I want people to want to take pictures of their food." 

Baranowski's interest in cooking started early. Growing up in Essexville, he began by cooking what he calls "outlandish" recipes for his family. Part of that adventurous spirit still exists in the menu, for example, in their “Ultimate Burger” and its breakfast foods stacked on top of a hamburger patty: an egg, bacon, hash browns, and maple aioli sauce. 

D'Angelo's Ultimate Burger.
The beginning of D'angelo's as a restaurant was less adventurous, serving only pizza.

"I was open from 10 am to 3 pm, and I would sleep on the couch in the back," he says. "We had a doorbell that people would ring, and I would wake up, cook, and then serve pizzas out the window." 

Savannah Martin, D'Angelo's sous-chef, is tending to hamburgers cooking on the grill. Beginning on the pizza side of the kitchen - making pizzas, doing dishes, taking delivery - she's worked her way up to become the kitchen's second-in-command. 

"Around here seconds can turn into minutes," she says. "Teamwork, teamwork, teamwork. We couldn't do any of this without working as a team." 

Martin has been with D'Angelo's for five and half years, and while she enjoys the adrenaline-junkie pace of the kitchen during rush, she says that the restaurant's regular customers are what she enjoys the most. 

"Back here, seconds turn in minutes," says sous-chef Savannah Martin.
"People come in here, they know you by name, and when they ask you how your day is going, they mean it," she says. "I've had regulars give me gift cards for Christmas or ask how I was doing after I had my baby." 

"People see David and me here all the time, and that helps create a relationship with customers," says Kellie Berry, D'Angelo's manager and Baranowski's girlfriend. She and Baranowski live in an apartment above the restaurant. "It's easy to come to work early and stay late because we don't have a commute. It's great getting to know customers to the point where we feel like family." 

Berry looks at regular customers as being the lifeblood of every small, local business. 

"I don't think you can survive without them," she says, and Baranowski agrees. 

"Can a restaurant get by on totally random orders all the time? Sure, it can survive, but it's not going to last," he says. 

D'angelo's owner David Barankowski.

That family of regular customers is expanding, as the restaurant has grown by 30% each year for the last four years, and Berry says part of the credit goes to what she sees as a shift in how people shop. 

"More and more people are wanting to support local businesses, and already the community here in Bay City really supports local businesses in a passionate way," she says. "The city is in time of growth, and there's a real, forward momentum happening that is just amazing. Even when I first moved here, I thought 'Wow, this place is great. People are so lucky to live here and a lot of them don't even know it.'"

D'angelo's growth is coming out of an unexpectedly small space. The pick-up counter and dining area is around 15 feet long by 10 feet wide, with three tables and only enough seating for twelve people. 

While some might say that a restaurant that size isn't sustainable, let alone conducive for growth, Baranowksi says that their success comes from looking for great take-out food. 

"It really just comes down to people wanting great food, so we rely on our food," he says. "and our customers rely on our food, so it comes back to having regular customers. We have families who order food from us every single day." 

One of those regular customers is Mary Bukowiec, and she's seated in one of the twelve chairs, eating dinner. She first became a customer after hearing the restaurant had started making a vegan menu. 

"My husband, he's so patient - he's not vegan," she says. "We have to be careful where we go out to eat because there are some places where I can't eat anything." 

Regular customer Mary Bukowiec was drawn to D'Angelo's because of its began menu.

The vegan menu at D'Angelos began because Baranowski ran into a similar struggle: he had become a vegan and saw that the area lacked places that offered a variety of vegan food. 

 "The first time I had one of their vegan burgers, I thought they had made a mistake it was so good," Bukowiec says. To her, people regularly supporting local businesses is vital to their success. "I patronize them because I want them to grow and expand. I want them to succeed because they bring value to the community."

Eventually, Barankowski and Berry would also like to see the restaurant expand. 

"More and more people are wanting to support local businesses, and already the community here in Bay City really supports local businesses in a passionate way," says manager Kellie Berry.

"We'd love to build onto the building," Berry says. "Expanding the kitchen, having an outdoor dining area, and a full, sit-down restaurant."

Baranowski moves to a counter to begin adding sauce to freshly tossed pizza dough. 

While reaching the 10-mark in an economy where the average small business closes after five years is an achievement that isn't lost on Baranowski, he says it’s part of the life-cycle every business goes through. 

"When we first started out, we were like a baby. We didn't know anything, and I wasted a lot of money trying to figure everything out," he says. "Then we got to be a toddler where we knew some things but we were still stumbling. Now, I look at D'Angelos as a twenty-something. We've got a handle on things, but we also want to continue trying to evolve, experiment, change, and improve." 

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