[Photo: Stephen Partington/Eater.com]
As a 13-year veteran of one of the nation's most legendary pizzerias — Phoenix, Arizona's cultishly beloved Pizzeria Bianco — Erin Elmore has seen its lines in every possible iteration. "When I first started working here — in 2001 — an hour-and-a-half wait was really, really busy for us," Elmore says, noting that by the mid-aughts, the infamous lines often ballooned to a four or five hour wait at peak times. These days, Bianco's added hours (and second Phoenix location, with another on the way in Tucson) have made things more manageable for pizza tourists: a wait of 45 minutes or so, on average. "We've grown so much and we've battled for so many years that [perception of], 'Oh, we can never get in to that place,'" Elmore says. "Now you can; it's so much easier." In this Pizza Week edition of the Gatekeepers, Elmore chatted with Eater about managing visitors' high expectations, the precise moment the Pizzeria Bianco lines became "crazy," and having to physically remove tables from the occasional squatting guest.
When you first started working at the pizzeria, how familiar were you with its reputation?
I definitely knew what it was — I had been a customer in previous years — but I don't think that I really understood the full weight of what Chris was doing here. It took me probably a good year to figure out that where I was, was a really special place. It's definitely a destination restaurant and it definitely holds a special place in Arizona.
Tell me about the evolution that you've seen over the years: How have things changed since you started working here?
"Through the years we would open up and be on four to five hour waits. Which is crazy."
We've gone through major evolutions, as most businesses do. Ten years can speak volumes for a lot of places. We've been terribly fortunate that we have the reputation that we do... We kind of got to a place where we were notorious for having long waits, and through the years we would open up and be on four to five hour waits. Which is crazy. It was insane. It set sort of an alternate standard for us because it was like, "Oh, yeah, it really wasn't that busy tonight; we were on a two-and-a-half hour wait." It started at an hour and a half wait, 45 minutes, and it just kind of grew from there.
Since we've started doing an extra day, since we picked up lunch, the wait times are not nearly as long. I have to say, it's really nice to be able to offer people more options. You don't have that sheer anxiety of opening up at five o'clock and there's a line down the street. It was kind of [like] meeting the masses and the mob crowd. But I would never trade in that experience, it was a completely unique experience to be able to open up with a line every single day.
[Photo: Stephen Partington/Eater.com]
Looking back, was there a specific moment you noticed — like the idea of Bianco being a "destination" — that made the lines super crazy?
There was a book that came out from Ed Levine, and he basically named the Pizzeria the top pizzeria in the country. I remember [because] we used to be closed on Mondays, and we, as a staff, had all gone to a basketball game; it was on Valentine's Day. The article had come out and we were just talking about it. We were at the basketball game and we were like, "Holy crap! This is so crazy." And I was like, maybe I'll go into work a little bit early tomorrow, just to make sure everything is set up. And I got to work an hour-and-a-half before we opened — I used to be here an hour before we opened — and there was already a line. I was like, "Oh, my God." That was the turning point. We [used to] have people waiting, but never an hour-and-a-half before we opened. It was always half an hour, 15 minutes, a couple people here and there, nothing like that. That was sort of the pivoting point... I called the owner and was like, "Uhh, there's a whole bunch of people here already."
These days, what is the worst time of the week to try to get a table?
I think the same goes across the board: Weekends are going to be busy for any restaurant anywhere in the world. You know, if people call on Saturday at seven o'clock at night and ask what's the best time to come... well, it's certainly not going to be at seven o'clock. During the week is always going to be the easiest time for us; lunch time tends to be a little on the quieter side. It's a little quicker to get in, but there's exceptions to everything: There are certainly those days that there's no rhyme nor reason — there's a convention in town, there's some article that came out. But I would say as a general statement, lunches during the middle of the week are going to be the best time. But we've had lunches on Mondays that we have had a line and we fill right up and we're busy all the way until we close. We stay open until 10 so I usually say after nine o'clock is the best time to come.
Are most of your guests prepared to wait in line?
"I think people are pleasantly surprised that it's not that chaotic wait that it used to be."
I think so. The funny thing is, the line is really not in the equation any more; we don't have the physical line that we used to because we're open all day... Even though we run a wait, it's not a physical line. I think a lot of people understand that we have a reputation for having a notoriously long wait and so people, in the past year or two, people will come in at five o'clock expecting to wait for three hours. I think people are pleasantly surprised that it's not that chaotic wait that it used to be.
How often do you deal with angry guests, or people who aren't prepared to wait?
Really not that often. Luckily for us, we have a really beautiful space... We don't have that lobby where you're kind of shoved in while you wait for a table; we have a really nice space. If you end up going to a restaurant and are met with a wait, in a bigger city, you walk down the street to a bar and have a drink. Well, we're very fortunate to have a space that literally is next door that still lends itself to a really great experience. It's common that people go next door and they have a couple snacks and a couple drinks and they're like, "You know what, we're having a great time; we'll release the table to somebody else who really wants pizza, and we'll come back another time."
Have you ever been bribed or had someone try to name-drop to get past the door?
Yes. But we're just not that place. We try to be as fair to all of our customers as we can. For me, it's almost insulting. [If] somebody has a fifty-dollar bill that they can spare to a person at the door, I don't see how that makes them better or more important than the person who came in from North Dakota on their vacation who doesn't have that extra money to spare. Everyone's here for an experience and everybody's here for the same thing. I'm very big on being fair. I really don't appreciate when people think that because they have money they can bust through the doors and get what they want.
How has Bianco's second Phoenix location changed the wait?
Since we opened the new restaurant, which is about twice the size as where we are, it just makes it a lot easier. We'll send people over there where they do take reservations for all sizes. For so many years we were just a tiny little 40-seat restaurant with dinner only and that was it. Now that we're open all day and we have another restaurant, we have other things we can [offer].
Tell me about some of the crazy requests you've gotten over the years.
Oh, gosh. I don't know if there are so many crazy requests. I did just get a call yesterday, I had a guy who was in over the weekend who lives in Michigan and he said, "I was there over the weekend; I had the best time. Do you guys freeze and ship your pizzas?" No, we don't, but I love the idea. It was just one of those things where you're always surprised by someone coming up with an idea and you're like, "Maybe that's something that we can get into." That was probably the most recent thing.
What about, if not a request, a crazy story from the past?
"When Chris was on the oven, he was very protective of all of us."
When Chris was on the oven, he was very protective of all of us. There was one time when we were so, so busy: It was insane and we were running a really long wait. We had some ladies who came in and... [sat at their table] for a very long time. We, obviously, had to get the table [back], so we asked them if we could buy them a drink in the little bar next door and they were absolutely... they were going to stay. They were going to have the table for the rest of the night. They thought they did their time and they were going to have the table the rest of the night. It didn't turn out so well for them. The owner ended up pulling the table from them physically. Physically took the table from them. Probably not our finest moment, but, it was definitely memorable.
[Photos: Stephen Partington/Eater.com]
Do you ever find, based on your reputation, that guests come in with almost too high of expectations for the restaurant?
Absolutely. With any place, if you read all the hype and you're always looking at all these reviews, you're walking into a place having high expectations: On a certain level, you are going to be setting yourself up. You can go into a place and have really high expectations, and if you have a poor experience with just one individual, it can change that for you. As great as the food is, if the person that you're dealing with at the door or your table has spoiled that for you, then the food itself is going to be bittersweet. That's one of the things that's supremely important to Chris, to make sure that every aspect of what it is we do is kind and warm... people have come in and they have a certain level of expectation and if they happen to catch somebody when they're trying to ask a question and the person walked away, it can just change their entire experience.
Do those expectations make your job harder?
"Because people do have an expectation, we know where the bar is set."
No, I don't think so. I think if anything, it makes it easier: Because people do have an expectation, we know where the bar is set. So for us to be able to move above and beyond that, it just gives us more motivation. It helps us to grow. I think that you can always improve, we can always be better, we can always do things differently. But knowing where the bar is set, at least at this particular point, we know what direction we need to head in.
And finally, what's your must-have Gatekeeper tool?
Patience! Lots of patience. I always look at things from the perspective of being on the door and being a host… because you're able to capture that person as soon as they walk through the door. You're setting the tone for their experience. It's fielding tons of questions, being able to direct people in a fashion that is disarming. I was trying to pass that off to everybody. That's kind of how I look at things.