STORES – When the pandemic hit a year ago, many restaurants had to cut their menus to save money on spending as customer numbers dwindled, but at Pizza Mike’s Pizzeria, inside the Sunoco station at 1659 Storrs Road, expansion was what they looked like moving business forward.
With pizza the only item on their menu before COVID-19 decimated the restaurant industry across the country, owner Michael LaMothe said there was only one way to go, he said. so added meatball choppers and salads to the menu.
He said they had also expanded their delivery services to include Ashford and Tolland – and although the bar stools that lined the counter at Pizza Mike’s Pizzeria had to be removed due to COVID regulations, the picnic tables- nics are always available outside.
LaMothe said he started his culinary career with the University of Connecticut’s food services, working in a dining room for 15 years.
“One year, I made a homemade pizza dough,” he says. “We didn’t know what we were doing.”
Although he had no experience making his own pizza dough, it became a big hit, he said, becoming a late-night specialty on the twice-weekly menu.
Then in 2012, he said, friends encouraged him to start his own business.
“I wanted to open a pizzeria,” he says. “At first, I wanted to make a food truck, but it was shot by all the cities.”
Then a unique opportunity presented itself. The owner of the Sunoco gas station was planning a renovation and asked LaMothe if he wanted to add a pizzeria to the building, LaMothe said.
After LaMothe did the necessary research and planning, Pizza Mike’s Pizzeria opened in 2015.
LaMothe says he has since modified the original pizza recipe he created while working at UConn.
“We wanted to get away from what UConn was doing,” he said. “We have improved the taste and the quality.”
When opening his pizzeria he had to look into an already saturated pizza market in many places around the university and in surrounding towns such as Coventry and Tolland.
“There’s a lot of it,” he says, “but it’s all that thick, Greek style. No one made a thin crust.
He said he settled on a thin Italian crust, crossed with New Haven style pizza.
Another addition to Pizza Mike’s Pizzeria menu that most other pizzerias didn’t have is his distinct pizzas, leveraging his dining room service experience to create a menagerie of unique flavor profiles for pizza.
“We have a lot of specialty pizzas,” he says. “We have lamb, salmon, Mediterranean, General Tso. UConn brings a lot of different cultures and we tried to tap into different ethnic food like a Chinese restaurant and you can get it on pizza now. If you want lox with cream cheese, you can get it on pizza.
Some of the most popular pizzas, he said, are buffalo chicken, twice-baked potato, and classic cheese pizzas.
Surprisingly, it was less the college class that came on board with the menu, but the surrounding communities, LaMothe said.
“With what we had on campus, we thought it was a no-brainer,” LaMothe said, “and that it would be more difficult to convince the city. The opposite has happened. It was the townspeople who took over. Each year, it is the city that keeps us afloat and supports us.
“I love it,” he says. “We were told when you go in the summer, charge all your bills. We started planning this, and when summer hit it slows down, but it’s not really a huge change. We have the campgrounds that keep us busy, we have the adventure park that hosts many parties.
LaMothe said he liked the gas station model for a pizza place and could expand to other gas stations in the future.
“We love how it works,” he said. “We can grow. We were approached several times, but nothing worked.