Don’t ask the owners of Benny’s pizzerias what their five-year — or even three-year — plan might entail.
They don’t have one.
“It drives everybody crazy,” co-owner Zach Toth said during a recent interview in the company’s eclectic Roanoke headquarters, a slice from one of the company’s signature 28-inch pizzas folded, New York-style, in his hand.
There was only ever supposed to be one Benny Marzano’s in Blacksburg. Benny was a friendly-sounding name, and Marzano came from the type of tomatoes used in the original sauce recipe.
But three months after that store opened in 2011, a property owner in Roanoke invited the partners to launch another location there. They kept the name Benny, but changed the last name to Marconi to give it a more local feel.
Then came Radford (Benny Nicola’s), Harrisonburg (Benny Sorrentino’s) and Smith Mountain Lake (Benny Adelina’s).
The naming convention stuck, and Benny’s, as most people simply know it, grew in just eight years to 20 locations across five states.
They’ve sold pizza to former Vice President Joe Biden and President Donald Trump. They see families looking for a quick bite during daylight hours, and tipsy 20-somethings after dark.
This year alone, the company says it’s on pace to sell about 375,000 pizzas, enough food for 3 million people. They will go through about 700,000 pounds of cheese, 815,000 pounds of flour and 150,000 pounds of pepperoni.
Owners Toth and Chris Brown, both 35-year-old Virginia Tech graduates, initially resisted franchising the business, since they like to be hands-on with new stores. But lawyers convinced them to relent, arguing it would simplify the ownership structure as they bring on more partners for new locations.
Benny’s is hoping to get its first franchise store off the ground soon in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Three other franchise deals are in the works now, and possible new locations stretch from New Orleans to Puerto Rico. Virginia Beach will likely be the next destination in their home state.
But Toth and Brown are too nimble to stick to pizza alone.
When Sycamore Deli, one of Blacksburg’s leading music venues, went out of business this summer, the entrepreneurs scooped up the space and launched a new eatery within a couple of months. Live events will be the primary focus there, but it’s also a restaurant and bar.
They’re calling that new business The Milk Parlor, in part because of the menu full of grilled cheese sandwiches.
As with Benny’s, the owners are starting that business with no grand plans for expansion. They say the main reason they’re doing it at all is because it’s good for the town.
“We’re not really concerned with the profitability of it,” Brown said. “The better stuff you have in Blacksburg or any of these towns we’re in, the better for everyone there. If we could open a bookstore in Blacksburg, it would be great for our pizza business.”
In Roanoke, meanwhile, the pair has decided to open a brewery in an empty industrial building they own at the intersection of Fifth Street and Rorer Avenue Southwest, within a block of Big Lick Brewing Co.
That business venture will be called Golden Cactus Brewing, named in part after a wall decoration they picked up at a thrift shop and hung in their headquarters years ago.
Toth and Brown have begun working on that project, picking out fixtures and designing the layout of the space. Construction timelines are unpredictable, but work is expected to begin soon.
The owners acknowledge there’s competition in that part of the city, but they don’t intend to hurt any other downtown businesses. Golden Cactus will be a small-scale brewery, they say. It’s designed to be more of a hangout than a distribution hub.
“In our experience having a few breweries grouped closely together only helps everybody because they become a destination,” the owners wrote in an email.
Evan Graham, who previously brewed beer at Lefty’s Main Street Grille in Blacksburg, has signed on to be their head brewer.
The Benny’s owners are also part of a business partnership with Roger Neel and Neal Keesee, well-known restaurateurs, which recently purchased a 16,000-square-foot building at 211 First St. in Roanoke. It’s an entirely separate business venture with the primary goal of getting the building’s Corinthian Ballroom event space updated while they rent out the bottom two floors.
“I don’t think from the beginning we’ve ever looked out more than a year in the future,” Brown said, adding that they’re often asked about their long-term plan. “We don’t have one. We just continue to enjoy building Benny’s and being part of communities.”
Brown said he first developed the concept behind Benny’s as part of class project while working toward a master’s degree at Fordham University at Lincoln Center in New York.
He wrote a business plan for a pizza shop in Blacksburg. It was a college town that — by his calculations — had 16 bars at the time but almost no late-night food options.
The restaurant would have one menu item: pizza. No garlic sticks or side items.
It would sell by the slice, like many restaurants do in New York City. But since Blacksburg doesn’t have the population of more urban markets, it would only make oversized 28-inch pies. That’s about as wide as a typical doorway.
“We had to somehow force people to get more pizza than just a small single slice,” Brown said. “Instead of $2 per slice, you’re now doing $4 or $5.”
Brown entered the proposal into a competition for a $10,000 prize but didn’t make it out of the first round. He recalls his professor noting that it was a “ho-hum” idea.
Instead, Brown pitched the business to Toth, an old friend from his undergraduate days at Virginia Tech.
The pair pulled together $63,000 from their own savings to get the first location up and running on Blacksburg’s Draper Road.
Brown finished his graduate degree, then moved to Blacksburg. Toth kept his accounting day job at first, but quit a month in when he saw his business partner having all the fun.
Laureen Blakemore, director of Downtown Blacksburg Inc., remembers the business popping up one day, selling pizza slices larger than her head.
She didn’t know what to make of it at first, but it didn’t take long for Benny’s to become a crowd favorite, she said. Virginia Tech even added eating a Benny’s late-night slice to its official Hokie Bucket List, which encourages students to partake in some of the town’s oldest traditions.
“For Benny’s to get on in such a relatively short time is very impressive and really shows how far they reach throughout the area,” Blakemore said.
The idea: Pizza equals happy
The chain has grown organically from its roots in Southwest Virginia, with almost all of the profits going back into the business to fuel new locations.
Over the years, not a single Benny’s store has gone out of business.
The owners aren’t picky about where they open stores, but they say they try to invest in historic downtowns and in building communities.
Blakemore said that’s their reputation in Blacksburg, where she applauded the entrepreneurs for saving the stage for live music at The Milk Parlor.
“It’s very cool that downtown Blacksburg was the start of something that’s become so big,” she added. “They should never leave. Stay with your roots.”
Most of Benny’s locations are in college towns, but that’s not a requirement. Wherever they go, they do make sure they’re the last eatery open into the early morning hours, whether that’s midnight or 2 a.m.
There’s a certain amount of edginess that comes with running a business that largely caters to late-night munchies. But Toth and Brown say they have learned a few tricks along the way to maintain order, from playing the right music to hiring security for some stores.
“We’re not a bar, so people are usually happier,” Brown said. “Once they have pizza, they’re just happy.”
The owners started off as roommates making $9 per hour plus tips, just like the rest of Benny’s employees. That’s changed as Toth and Brown have grown up, gotten married and had children.
They still throw dough in the kitchen at new stores occasionally, but they spend most of their time these days in the downtown Roanoke headquarters.
They’ve hired corporate staff. They meet with vendors and take tours of pepperoni factories. They’ve developed Benny’s own custom five-cheese blend.
Most of the profits still go back into the business, often to purchase property or launch new ventures, like The Milk Parlor and Golden Cactus.
Brown did recently splurge on an Airstream trailer and Toth bought a boat.
“Even when we do stuff like that, we always feel a little bad because that means we didn’t open a Benny’s,” Toth said.
The chain that started in an 800-square-foot space in downtown Blacksburg is now securing trademarks and creating a step-by-step playbook for franchisees.
The owners are anticipating continued growth, but they aren’t sure how much.
Two hundred franchise locations? Probably not, they say. But they’ll keep taking it day by day. Right now, they’re doing about three new stores each year.
“We only sell one thing, so if we don’t get it right you’re not coming back,” Toth said. “You have to figure out that fine line of how can you make it still be a mom-and pop-spot, but make it so your staff is going to make a consistent product.”