UNA Pizza opened its third restaurant in the trendy neighbourhood of Bridgeland in March 2021, just a few weeks before a third wave hit the city and COVID-19 cases reached an all-time high.
Last year, UNA opened its second location in the northwest suburb of West Springs, also in the middle of the pandemic. How does this franchise do it when so many other restaurants are being forced to close their doors, no longer able to cope with the debt and lack of money coming in?
As of May 2021, some 71,000 to 222,000 Canadian businesses are still at risk of closing due to COVID-19 in addition to the 58,000 businesses that have already closed, says the Small Business Recovery Dashboard. And according to Statistics Canada, at their current level of revenue and expenditures, over half (51.2 per cent) of food services and drinking places do not know how long they can continue to operate before considering closure or bankruptcy.
So how does UNA do it?
“It’s been a decade of hard work to keep the brand relevant and keep it in the forefront of all new great restaurants that have opened in Calgary and it’s also been a lot of luck,” said Kelly Black, owner of UNA Pizza.
Black has been in the restaurant business for more than 30 years. He started at the bottom, washing dishes and waiting tables and worked his way up to where he is now. He opened UNA 17th, UNA’s first location, 11 and a half years ago.
Black admits that opening two new restaurants during the pandemic has not been easy,
“I thought we would be backing out of the Bridgeland location, but we didn’t, every week that went by we had good sales and we were still putting money to bottom line.”
The new restaurants were able to swim rather than sink. Black, as well as UNA Bridgeland Manager Maia Pineault, attribute it to their quality of food, customer service and employee morale.
“I think it has a lot to do with the people that you hire, you know, we make regulars kind of everywhere we go and we make a point of knowing your name and obviously our quality of food stands out,” said Pineault.
Black believes that what makes UNA really stand out is that almost everything is house-made.
“We butcher all of our own meats here so everything on the pizza, like ham or sausage or pepperoni, bacon, that’s all made in-house and the meat comes from a local Alberta pork farm,” said Black.
UNA Pizza’s number one best-selling dish is the Kale Cesar Salad and Black believes that the reason why this dish is a huge hit it because they use good ingredients. The kale is produced locally in Alberta and UNA picks it up weekly which means they are using the freshest ingredients that they can.
Another element that makes UNA Pizza stand out is,” we use stone deck ovens versus wood fire ovens. Stone deck ovens hold the gluten, of the pizza so it bakes lower, and it makes it a bit more of a crispy or kind of pizza,” said Black.
UNA’s approach to making pizza is science meets creativity meets practicality to ensure customers are satisfied.
Where most restaurants stick a few basil leaves on top of a Margarita pizza, UNA created a basil oil that’s sprinkled over the whole pizza so that you aren’t just getting one bite of basil but rather you taste the basil the whole way through the pizza. It’s these fine touches that make the restaurant so popular.
Black stresses that UNA Pizza got really lucky.
“The kitchen here pre-pandemic had already established a strong takeout and delivery option. It was already a big part of what we were doing, pre-pandemic. And that’s because we’re the pizza business, you know, it would be really tough if we were a steakhouse or a breakfast restaurant or something like that where it just doesn’t really translate to delivery and takeout that well.”
Pineault attributes the success of the Bridgeland restaurant, which only opened in March 2021, to the great location and the fact that people can now consume alcohol in the park opposite the building.
“Having the park across the street is huge because everybody gets a little picnic set and then they go across the street. The new consumption of alcohol has also kind of helped us out, because people will get beer and then just take it across the street.”
The Murdoch Park across the street from UNA Bridgeland is one of the pilot projects for alcohol consumption in Calgary parks this summer. The Bridgeland location has become a one-spot-stop-location where hungry and thirsty people can buy food and alcohol and then go and sit in the sun and enjoy the warm weather.
Shawn James has been working at UNA Bridgeland for three months.
He believes what draws people to the restaurant is “probably just the consistency of having really great tasting pizza knowing you can depend on the quality of our ingredients.”
Given UNA’s performance during the pandemic, James must be right.