New Castle family affair Augustine's moves pizza to bigger venues

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Just days after Augustine's Italian Village Inc. signed a deal to be a supplier for Heinz Field in the summer of 2011, employees worked long hours to get 6,000 personal pizzas made in time for a Taylor Swift concert.

Frank J. Augustine, the New Castle company's CEO, remembers arriving in Pittsburgh and being greeted by an experienced stadium employee who looked at the truck packed with hundreds of cases of pizza and barked out, "Get some pallets. You ain't no mom-and-pop store anymore."

That's the plan anyway.

Back on East Lutton Street in New Castle, the longtime headquarters of Augustine's can be found in a low-slung brown building on a mostly residential street.

Weekdays, customers still walk up to an inside counter for takeout orders, perhaps unaware of the 2,400 to 3,000 frozen pizzas being made in back daily.

The family business that opened in the late 1950s as a small pizza shop has been through growth and tragedy and change, all the while building a reputation for creating one of New Castle's homegrown flavors.

Now, with the 25-year-old Mr. Augustine eagerly taking the lead, the family is taking the brand beyond its home turf.

Augustine's pizza has been served at both PNC Park and Heinz Field for the last two seasons, as part of team sponsorship deals. Starting mid-February, the line should show up in freezer sections in more than 80 Giant Eagle stores, extending beyond stores in and near Lawrence County.

"We're starting to see a lot of results," said Mr. Augustine, who reported getting a call last week from an interested store manager all the way down in Washington, Pa.

Just a few weeks ago, he asked his dad -- President Frank R. Augustine -- to add the duties of full-time head salesman since the new Giant Eagle delivery routes will open up a bigger territory.

The senior Mr. Augustine, 55, was a key player in opening up all this opportunity.

A die-hard Pirates fan, he met team president Frank Coonelly at a fan event a few years ago. A year or so later, Mr. Coonelly reached out to Augustine's, looking for a regional company that might serve as both a pizza supplier and a sponsor.

The move required a significant investment for a small business. The company even did a T-shirt night with the Pirates, getting the thrill of seeing the Augustine's name on thousands of baseball fans.

That initial exposure helped get the line into a few more grocery stores, but not a lot. Augustine's took a deep breath and continued the sponsorship for a second season, which may have helped open the new Giant Eagle doors.

Going from delivering to about 30 grocery stores a few years ago to around 120 this year has required replacing the company's two trucks, but the owners are being careful not to overextend with too much new equipment or excess hiring. The company employs about 40 people, a mix of part time and full time, and probably half of the staff is related to the five co-owners.

Since the beginning, Augustine's has been an unapologetically family place. Founded in 1957 by a young married couple, Sara and Frank, as well as his parents, Helen and Joe, the business has long recruited relatives. When Frank died of a heart attack at 35 in the 1960s, family from both sides helped as Sara raised their two boys and went into the business every day.

In the 1980s, one of those boys, Joseph, also died in his 30s of a heart attack. He'd been the one who handled the cooking side of the business, which he had learned from his grandmother Helen, the originator of the Augustine's pizza sauce and dough recipes.

The family regrouped again and soldiered on.

Sara Augustine, at 82, is the last surviving co-founder and still a co-owner who handled the bookkeeping until 2010. She didn't foresee the kind of growth that her grandson imagines. "I never gave it a thought. I was always too busy to think about the future," she said with a smile.

In addition to Sara and the two Franks, the ownership group includes Kimberly Augustine, 56, the wife of the president and mother of the CEO, and Ashley Augustine Rhodes, 27, the CEO's sister who does some bookkeeping.

Newcomers to Augustine's pizza may be surprised at its simplicity.

There are two flavors -- plain with grated parmesan cheese and a mozzarella cheese version, the one more widely distributed. The sweet sauce is generously ladled on thick crusts baked in a time-worn oven.

In New Castle, customers familiar with the line often buy their own pepperoni or mushrooms or other toppings to customize their dinners at home, said the senior Mr. Augustine, who noted grocers like the add-on sales. It's not as if the frozen pizza section in the grocery business is a low-key, low-competition aisle.

Nestle USA's DiGiorno brand led the $4 billion-plus category last year with $1.1 billion in sales, according to SymphonyIRI Group, a Chicago-based market research firm that tracks sales through supermarkets, drugstores and mass market retailers.

Other familiar names making frozen pizza include Red Baron, Tombstone, California Pizza Kitchen, Freschetta, Tony's and Stouffers, all of which have millions of dollars worth of sales, compared to the $600,000 range that SymphonyIRI's data calculates for Augustine's.

Still, the Pirates report pizza sales at PNC Park increased significantly after Augustine's took over as supplier.

The deal with the two Pittsburgh sports facilities requires shipping about 75,000 7-inch pizzas annually.

When the contract with the Pirates was being negotiated, Augustine's mostly made 12-inch pizzas on an older machine that wasn't set up to handle different sizes. Even as the younger Mr. Augustine was assuring the team that his business could handle the new order, he admits now that he wasn't entirely sure. But the employees adapted the existing system to make it work.

At this point, the company has extra capacity to handle whatever growth comes through the new initiatives, he said. Eventually, he could even dream of going national but the assignment at the moment is slightly less ambitious -- making the leap from local player to a regional business.

"I believe in our pizzas. I believe in our family," Mr. Augustine said.

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