Duo sets out to revive storied pizza house
Brian Alger still has a Polaroid memento of the time his parents took him to Mother’s Pizza for his birthday.
Unlike the old photo, though, the entrepreneur is intent on ensuring the once popular pizza parlour and spaghetti house is more than just a fading memory.
Along with partner Geeve Sandhu, Alger is reintroducing Mother’s Pizza after its stellar run as the place to go for Italian food came to an end in the 1990s.
They’re starting with their new restaurant at Queenston and Nash roads in the former Tony Romas location on April 1.
“I grew up north of Toronto; our Mother’s Pizza was in Newmarket, so we would always go there for birthday parties,” Alger said. “We didn’t eat out a whole lot, so certainly when we were going to Mother’s, it was a big event. It was one of those brands that were just kind of woven in the fabric of my life growing up.”
Sandhu, who grew up in Kingston after his parents immigrated to Canada from India in the 1950s, also looks back fondly on visits to Mother’s Pizza as a kid.
“Being a fairly typical immigrant family, we didn’t eat out a lot in restaurants, but Mother’s is where we did eat at when we chose to eat out and my dad loved pizza. It was a really neat experience for me to be able to go there, to a sit-down restaurant, colour and do all the stuff that other kids did,” he said. “We’re just excited to be here. We took over this place in November, so it’s been a long haul trying to get to this point, so we just want to get it done and open for people to enjoy again.”
Partners Grey Sisson, Ken Fowler and Pasquale Marra founded Mother’s in 1970. The first pizza parlour and spaghetti house opened in Westdale that year. The chain eventually grew to about 120 locations in Canada, the United States and England.
The iconic restaurant featured swinging parlour-style doors, antique-style chairs, red and white checked gingham tablecloths and Tiffany lamps. Black and white films also played on a screen while patrons waited for their root beer floats, milkshakes and pizzas to be delivered on silver-coloured pedestal stands.
Sisson, Fowler and Marra sold their stake in Mother’s in the mid-1980s, after taking the company public. The buyer began to franchise the operations and revenue started to plummet. Little Caesars bought the Mother’s chain out of receivership in 1989. Locations began to close a few years later, including the landmark first one in Westdale in 1992.
Alger is a veteran of bringing brands back to life, having resurrected the Pop Shoppe in 2004. He bought the trademark for Mother’s in 2008. About two years ago, he found an operational partner in Sandhu.
Sandhu has an abundance of restaurant experience, having worked for the Jack Astor’s chain for many years. He now owns Ye Olde Squire locations in Burlington and Welland and part of the Black Bull British Pub and Restaurant in Burlington.
Alger said there will be plenty of reminders of the original Mother’s Pizza, including antiques, gingham patterns, Tiffany lamps, black and white movies, floats, milkshakes and pizza pedestals.
“Design-wise, we’re taking those things that are really synonymous with the brand, like the antiques, gingham patterns and the warm, just cozy feel about it, so we’re incorporating all those things and then making it a little bit contemporary as well,” he said. “The way that I approach it is, what would Mother’s Pizza look like today? It probably would have gone through a couple of redesigns since then to where it is today.”
In addition, Alger and Sandhu have been working with a former Mother’s Pizza franchisee in trying to perfect the pizza dough based on the original recipe.
Sandhu said the menu also will include a number of pasta dishes, including the traditional spaghetti and meatballs, spaghetti and tomato sauce and lasagna.
“We’ve got some awesome veal items; traditionally, you’ll get a veal parmesan. We also have some provini sautéed veal items, so more entrée-type stuff,” he said, adding the menu also has grown to include a variety of salads. “The biggest thing we want to honestly achieve is to provide value. It’s very important to us to make sure that a family of four can come in here, they can have a terrific meal, a great experience and afford it – I think that’s one of the tenets that Mother’s is built on, affordable family dining and that’s what we’re going to offer.”
Alger said when it came to reopening Mother’s Pizza and selecting a location it only made sense to go back to the place where it all began.
“Because it got its roots in Hamilton, we knew that we wanted to be back in this area,” he said, adding there also was once a Mother’s Pizza on Centennial Parkway, where Coffee Culture is now. “We started doing site selection and when this place became available, we thought, ‘This would be a perfect place for it. We’re very excited about it – a little nervous – we want to live up to everybody’s expectations.”
Sandhu said the restaurant business today is a completely different landscape than what it was in the 1970s, when Mother’s Pizza first opened.
You have to be “respectful and mindful” of the competition, he added.
“My philosophy in this business has always been: control what’s inside your four walls. If you give terrific guest service and if you are completely guest-focused, do what the guest wants and listen to the guest, you’ll make the right decisions,” Sandhu said. “We’re going to work hard to fulfill that promise of great value and live up to the great legacy that Mother’s was. We’re very mindful of it and we’re very respectful to the past.”
Alger said it’s “pretty surreal” to have gone from eating at Mother’s Pizza as a kid to co-owning one as an adult.
“I want everybody to be as proud as we are in the brand – that’s what really drives me is that we have a lot of expectations, people are really excited to see us back and open,” he said. “They have a lot of pre-conceived notions of what it should look like or what it should feel like inside I just want to make sure that we’re meeting all those expectations and really making people feel proud about what I categorize as ‘their brand.’ I really want to do that justice.”