Best Pizza. Best Chef. Best Local Restaurant. Best Casual Restaurant. The people of Laredo showed their love and support for 550 Pizzeria when they voted for it in the 2023 Laredo Morning Times Readers Choice Awards. That’s not surprising considering owner Janet Zapata’s commitment to the pizza industry and to her community.
For Zapata, pizza has always been her passion. In addition to working at a local pizza restaurant early on, she made and sold pizzas from her home to friends and family for three years before opening 550 Pizzeria in June 2020.
So, what made a new restaurant like hers thrive at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic?
According to Zapata, her employees and her customers have made the restaurant a success. Add fresh local ingredients and from scratch sauces and it’s no surprise that 550 Pizzeria continues to thrive.
“Since we opened, the pizzeria has gotten busier and busier,” says Zapata. “What’s so wild to me is that takeout hasn’t stopped. We sometimes have lines of people just picking up and picking up and the phone doesn’t stop ringing. Sometimes there’s a two-hour wait, but people don’t seem to mind.”
Inspiring menu options
550 Pizzeria’s popularity stems from the variety of pizza recipes Zapata and her staff create, along with the special attention given to the sauce and toppings. A base of Stanislaus Tomatoes 7/11 sauce combined with Zapata’s select spices provide a unique flavor that customers love. Fresh toppings complete the deal.
“We handpick our produce at our local grocery store every day,” explains Zapata. “Tomatoes, mushrooms, bell peppers and onions — I’m very picky about these and want the best quality.”
Zapata creates many of the specialty pizzas, like the best-selling Ghost pizza featuring ham, Italian sausage, pepperoni, fresh mozzarella, Romano cheese and Gorgonzola. But she also relies on her 14 employees’ input for new recipes.
One of the pizzeria’s cooks (also a former coworker from a previous pizzeria) developed a more recent addition to the menu, the Primadona — white sauce, prosciutto, lemon, vinaigrette and baby arugula with a balsamic reduction.
The restaurant’s cashier approached Zapata asking if she could produce her own specialty pizza. The result was the Buddabelli, featuring salami, pepperoni, basil, goat cheese and pineapple.
“We started advertising the Buddabelli one day and it really started selling,” says Zapata. “I said ‘You know what? Let’s keep it on the menu.’.”
That collaboration and encouragement lends itself to a tight-knit staff who are invested in the restaurant and the customers.
In addition to the pizza options, 550 Pizzeria also offers pasta with homemade spaghetti and Alfredo sauce and a customer favorite, Chipotle Chicken Alfredo. Calzones, salads, fried pickles and mozzarella sticks round out the menu. Wings are a popular menu item, especially those tossed in the restaurant’s tangy raspberry sauce made fresh daily.
Scaling up production
Until recently, Zapata and her team relied on a Hobart® Legacy+® HL200 20-quart mixer to keep pizzas going out the door. While the machine did an excellent job of mixing pizza dough, its smaller capacity made it difficult to keep up with customer demand or to grow the business.
“We sell our pizzas until we run out,” explains Zapata. “With the 20-quart mixer, it was harder to keep up with the volume. Plus, we used to let the dough rise for 24 hours in bags, which took longer.”
Today, Zapata still uses the Hobart HL200, but also has a Hobart Legacy+ ® HL662 pizza dough mixer. This maximum heavy-duty 60-quart mixer, along with a different dough production method, has helped increase production at 550 Pizzeria by several hundred pizzas a week. According to Zapata, the restaurant averages sales of about 400 pizzas a day.
The Hobart HL662 pizza dough mixer is specifically designed for demanding operations and features the Hobart-exclusive PLUS System. This system includes VFDadvantage, which drives more power to the bowl to increase production, and maximum capacity overheat protection — extreme duty wiring and connections that ensure the mixer can handle heavy mixing jobs. The system also includes a reinforced planetary shaft system that supports high-capacity output.
“In addition to adding the 60-quart mixer, I now let the dough rise for 5 hours in bins, like a Neapolitan pizza,” explains Zapata. “The increased capacity of the mixer and this process is making everything faster. We still sell out of pizzas, but customers understand and will often come back tomorrow.”
Along with the higher production, Zapata and her staff like how easy the Legacy mixer is to use. The electric bowl lift is a favorite feature since it makes moving the bowl into mixing position easier for everyone. The Soft Start feature, which gradually delivers electricity to the mixer and minimizes ingredients from splashing out, is another favorite since it keeps the mixer cleaner. Zapata adds that, overall, the machine is easier to clean so it saves her and her staff time.
“When we first got the mixer, the staff were in shock,” says Zapata. “It was like getting a new toy. They not only use it for pizza dough, but they make bread for sandwiches for the staff.”
While amping up production to meet customer demand and growing 550 Pizzeria is important to Zapata, her commitment to the Laredo community is unwavering. She regularly takes part in community events and finds ways to give back, whether it’s donating pizzas to a local homeless shelter or hosting career days for local schools.
“I think back to career days I had as a child and there was never anybody who made pizzas,” explains Zapata. “It was always firefighters or police officers. So, I thought, why not show them about the business?”
Zapata often hosts the career days at the restaurant, showing students the Hobart HL662 mixer, making up batches of dough and teaching them how to stretch it to create their own pizzas.
She has also supported the local schools with a Back-to-School Supply Drive recently. Customers who picked up a large empty pizza box, filled it with school supplies from a provided list and returned it to the restaurant received a voucher for a free pizza.
In recognition of Zapata’s involvement in the Laredo community, she was recognized with the Orgullo Latin Legacy award from the League of United Latin American Citizens in early 2023. This award honors individuals whose work has a positive impact on children and their families.
“Community is everything. At the end of the day, they’re the ones that support me and have been supporting me since I opened 550 Pizzeria,” says Zapata.
Looking to the future
Even with so much happening, Zapata doesn’t have any plans to slow down any time soon. 550 Pizzeria already draws customers from various parts of the country and throughout Texas who have heard from friends and family members about the restaurant. Zapata would love to expand her business with a food truck so she can sell her pizzas in larger cities like San Antonio and Austin.
“You never know what doors it could open up,” says Zapata.
With her commitment to the pizza industry and 550 Pizzeria, it seems that sharing her pizza with a wider customer base can open plenty. But that won’t keep Zapata from her true love of the Laredo community.
“I’m grateful for them and will continue to do as much as I can for my city,” Zapata confirms.
About the Author
Carolyn Bilger is the marketing director for Hobart – Food Preparation Products. She has been with Hobart since 2015 and sets the strategy for marketing and new product development for the full line of Hobart food preparation equipment. See all her blogs here.