Restaurant owners started a 'pizza speakeasy' in their backyard to help raise money for their out-of-work staff

Many restaurants have adapted their business models from dine-in to takeout during the coronavirus pandemic. Other restaurants have been forced to shut down entirely. 

That was the case for Philadelphia restaurant owners Joe and Angela Cicala, who came up with a creative plan to support their out-of-work staff and do something fun for their community during a difficult time — they opened a “pizza speakeasy.”

“It’s the least we could do,” Joe tells Yahoo Life. “We have a great staff that’s very loyal.”

In November 2019, the Cicalas opened their namesake restaurant at the historic Divine Lorraine Hotel in Philadelphia, Pa. When the coronavirus pandemic hit just four months later, they had to close.

“We weren’t really set up to do that type of to-go service,” Joe explains. As a fine dining establishment, the restaurant’s food didn’t travel well. 

The Cicalas applied for a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan to support their out-of-work employees, but without knowing when they’d be able to reopen, Joe and Angela were worried the PPP loan would run out and their staff would have no income.

After staying at home for several weeks, the Cicalas felt they had to do more to help their staff. So Joe went to work in their backyard.

“He’s like, ‘Listen, I’m going to build a wood oven today,’” Angela recalls. “He was building that oven seven days straight, and then one day, he lit the fire … and I'm like, ‘No way.’ It's working. He built that oven.”

The Cicalas posted photos and videos of their pizza creations on social media and were soon flooded with requests for pies. 

Pizza from Joe and Angela Cicala's backyard oven. (Credit: Joe and Angela Cicala)
Pizza from Joe and Angela Cicala's backyard oven. (Credit: Joe and Angela Cicala)

“That got us thinking,” Joe says. “What if we just did like a couple of pizzas, and we just kind of made it like a short little benefit for some of our out-of-work employees?”

Their idea for a fundraiser turned into a “pizza speakeasy,” where people would navigate through narrow alleys to the Cicalas backyard to get their orders. 

“It's such an authentic experience to go through a back alley to someone's backyard to get an underground pizza that no one that's no one knows about,” Joe says. “So we did this pop-up and in a half-hour, we sold 200 pizzas.”

Word quickly spread about the Cicalas’ backyard creations. In May, they did two successful pizza pop-ups, but on their third event, they were shut down.

“We didn’t apply for the permit,” Joe admits. What they needed was a temporary food service permit, but the Cicalas explained that because they were doing a fundraiser, they didn’t think they needed one.

“I thought that maybe there would be more understanding or pliable rules during this time period,” Joe says.

Despite the shutdown, the Cicalas are still determined to raise money for their staff — and to keep making pizzas — as soon as they get their permit.

“We are going to continue to do this because our staff deserves to have this income,” Joe says. 

Beyond fundraising, for Angela, it’s about doing something to lift people’s spirits.

“People in our neighborhood have said, ‘You know what? I had something to look forward to this week,’” says Angela. “You need a little happiness in the middle of this … I’m happy that we could do that.”

For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides. 

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