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STOCK THE FREEZER

Overnight, COVID-19 brought the restaurant industry to its knees. Layoffs, closed doors and economic uncertainty dominate news cycles and social timelines. Facing his biggest challenge yet, Nick Pitillo rallied his family — and community — to fight back. 
Nick Pitillo fills to-go containers at his Osteria 166 location in Buffalo.

 

Every 12 hours, the number jumps.

345. 556. 965.

In times of normalcy, these numbers might represent Instagram followers. YouTube video views. Ticket sales to a summertime Canalside concert. But these times are not normal.

1,134. 1,454. 1,993.

They might represent the rapidly ascending positive cases of COVID-19, the hellish strain of coronavirus that continues to wreak havoc on society’s collective psyche. But they don’t.

2,213. 2,561. 2,876. 

In moments of crisis, our default setting is panic. This entire situation has created an unshakeable sense of anxious dread, compounded by the lack of a global pandemic handbook to reference. As a country — and a planet — we’re flying by the seat of our pants. Things look grim. But only if you let the grim consume you.

3,312. 3,765. 3,998.

While we’re not yet at the point of nationwide lockdown, that day may soon come. Small businesses have taken the brunt of an unprecedented economic nosedive, struggling to keep revenue — and morale — above the red. Many will not recover. But many will.

4,321. 4,577. 4,876.

Nick Pitillo has built his restaurants on the back of an idea. When you eat and drink at Ellicottville’s Villaggio or Buffalo’s Osteria 166, you’re part of the family — joining the employees and community around you in celebration of food and friendship. And in the community’s greatest time of need, Pitillo had a choice. Give in to fear and fallout, or rally around hope and humanity. It would be easy to choose the former. But he chose the latter.

5,112. 5,465. 5,954.

The number nestled in the upper right hand corner of a website in its infancy — stockthefreezer.com — represents meals donated to western New Yorkers in need by Pitillo’s legions. At the time of this writing, it sits at 6,640.

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The kitchen at Osteria buzzes with activity. Giant pots of boiling water cook a seemingly endless supply of pasta, while pans sizzle with the familiar scent of chicken and eggplant. In the hallway, plastic tables stand end-to-end, each one covered in black to-go containers awaiting fulfillment. On tables adjacent to the long window facing W. Mohawk Street, maps of delivery routes replace plates while logistics information replaces bottles of wine. 

This is Pitillo’s war room. From here — and his smartphone — he coordinates Stock The Freezer, his haymaker response to the coronavirus sucker punch. 

Loyal customers quarantined at home can order their favorite comfort foods — from Nani’s Meatballs to Chicken Parmesan to Risotto Sticks —  and have it delivered right to their door. Chefs prepare it fresh and freeze it, slapping on labels with at-home cooking instructions. Drivers, many of whom used to sling drinks behind the bar, deliver within a 20-mile radius of each restaurant. Over 20 formerly furloughed employees are now back on the job. 

While at-home food delivery service is nothing new, it’s the Pitillo spin that packs the punch. While ordering for themselves, customers have the ability to also donate meals to those in need in Erie and Cattaraugus Counties. You want a feel good story in the midst of an unprecedented crisis? Look no further.

Latina Food Groups, one of Pitillo’s vendors, lent a frozen food truck to house the stockpile of meals that continue to soar in numbers. The entire restaurant, with five production lines going at all times, retooled on the fly to accomplish a mission nobody saw coming. More eateries will soon join the Stock The Freezer fray, making and delivering meals across western New York. 

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(Writer’s note: all interviews were conducted over the phone/FaceTime. Practice social distancing!)

“It was Mardi Gras Sunday, and the weekend was shot,” Pitillo said, referencing Ellicottville’s mid-March celebratory weekend. “We were doing the best we could. Occupancy was cut in half at the restaurants, and I was trying to figure out the best way to tell 20+ of my people they soon wouldn’t have a job. It was a rough day.” 

That was March 15th. The next day, New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo announced all restaurants and bars would shut their doors effective at 8:00 p.m. While curbside pickup and delivery remained an option, heavy hearts abounded. A lot of people — chefs, bartenders, servers, dishwashers — found themselves unexpectedly unemployed. 

Alyssa Sumers, Osteria’s general manager, followed Pitillo from the Seneca Casinos when he opened the Buffalo staple in 2013. From the beginning, she’s helped cultivate a working atmosphere predicated on hard work and family. Which made delivering the inevitable news of shutting down the restaurant nauseating. 

“It made me sick,” she said. “It made me unbelievably scared and sad. We had an idea that it would happen, and then it came down to whether or not we were going to stay open for delivery/takeout or just close. It wasn’t easy.” 

“I went to Buffalo on Monday and had to look people in the eye — some of whom have been with me since I opened the restaurant — and tell them this was it,” Pitillo said. “You have to understand, these are more than employees to me. This is my family. It was absolutely devastating.” 

The family vibe Pitillo’s restaurants bestow on its customers isn’t lip service. It starts and ends with how tight the crews are; from monthly brunches at different restaurants to employee outings, the staff spends a lot of time together. 

“These are our people,” Sumers said. “They rely on us to feed their families. When we had our staff meeting on Monday, we cried. But Nick promised everyone he’d find a way to bring them back. We were going to get through it together.” 

Sitting in his living room recliner deep in the doldrums, Pitillo desperately racked his brain for a solution. Then, a phone call. 

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Pitillo is no stranger to thinking out of the box. For instance, the Meatball Street Brawl. Coming up on its 5th anniversary, MBSB shuts down Mohawk Street in downtown Buffalo and invites 20+ restaurants to showcase their best meatballs. There’s beer, wine, meatballs and a coveted championship belt given to the winner. It’s all done to raise money for local causes, collectively raising over $50,000 since its inception onto the Buffalo scene. 

Or maybe you’ve been lucky enough to witness the Thriller dancers each Halloween. Pitillo invites a youth group from the city’s Fusion Dance Studio to perform Michael Jackson’s iconic monster moves outside each of his restaurants, drawing a crowd while racking up the social media video views. 

Every idea — however crazy or obscure — gets due process. It’s why when the phone rang, the idea of delivering frozen meals didn’t instantly get kicked to the curb. 

“My boy Joe Mancuso calls me out of the blue,” Pitillo said, “and says ‘Nick, I have an idea.’” 

Mancuso proceeded to speak on meal prep services and how beneficial it could be to not only Pitillo’s operation, but the restaurant industry as a whole in a time of crisis like this one. After some self-prescribed alone time — “I processed it in a way that works for me” — he realized that this crazy idea just might work. 

“Mike Telesco (of Buffalo’s Telesco Creative Group) is my creative guy, and he’s always thinking,” Pitillo said. “When I talked to the team about this idea, I didn’t know what their reaction would be. But I knew I had to get my people back to work. Telesco instantly bought StockTheFreezer.com, which was absolutely genius. That was the start of it.” 

Just 48 hours after Governor Cuomo told restaurants to shut it down, an idea born of desperation had a website, a direction and a team behind it with nothing to lose. 

“We’re going to take a shot,” Pitillo said. “If it works, we’re putting people back to work and feeding the community. I had no idea what to expect initially. Right before we launched (Friday, March 20th) I didn’t know if I’d be making 5 chicken parmesans or 50.” 

“Nick called me on Tuesday and said ‘You’re on standby,’” Sumers said. “On Wednesday, they bought the website URL. On Thursday, we got the menu together while the marketing people started the creative. On Friday, we launched. Then the whirlwind started.”

They had no idea what this crazy idea was about to become. 

…………………………..

Emily Kraus lives in Dallas. A western New York expatriate, she cut her teeth in the service industry with Pitillo as a mentor. As she walked her dog on a warm, gray Texas afternoon, she explained over the phone how she’s not surprised by his rapid response to the crisis. 

“Nick has always thought on his feet. And to see a small business doing this — making the effort to keep their people employed in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds — is just incredible,” she said. “And to give back to the community in such numbers … it’s amazing.” 

Their friendship began while drinking Grand Marnier at Balloons in Ellicottville and blossomed into something where they kept pushing each other to be better. 

“I had been talking about moving to Los Angeles for (what seemed like) forever,” she said. “And he had been talking about leaving the casino and opening a restaurant. We both ended up pursuing what we wanted and succeeding in it.” 

Kraus, a national beverage manager, recently learned of her furlough. She joins the 3.3 million (and rising) Americans who now find themselves out of work due to circumstances no one can control. And while a move back to Buffalo isn’t in the cards, it’s not stopping her from remotely helping Pitillo expand Stock The Freezer’s social media imprint. 

“When you see the top of the ladder doing the heavy lifting — deliveries, cooking, etc. — that hits with people,” Kraus said, referencing Pitillo’s Facebook posts where he’s seen delivering the food, often with a corresponding commentary thanking those involved. “And every restaurant around the world has had to lay off staff, so to see the people working in a kitchen is great too.”

Social media’s profound impact on society has been magnified in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. The doom and gloom runs rampant; timelines and news cycles are held hostage by talking heads speaking of an unknown future. 

The video introducing Stock The Freezer didn’t have high-end production, and that’s because it didn’t need any. Sitting at a table, Pitillo’s familiar face — and that one-of-a-kind voice — simply spoke into the phone, describing in detail what his team aimed to do. It caught fire. With 28,000 views and almost 500 shares, the conceptual idea from 72 hours prior instantly resonated. 

“We knew that with a little social media push, we’d get some action,” Pitillo said. “I’ve got my phone set up where it pings every time I get an email for an online order. The pings haven’t stopped. I woke up Saturday morning to over 1,000 meals donated.” 

Once word got out, Stock The Freezer erupted. Those initial 1,000 meals were simply a harbinger of things to come as western New York rallied around it. 

“Thurm (Buffalo Bills legend Thurman Thomas) bought 1,000 meals through his foundation. Ross Cellino donated another 1,000. We’ll get 25 here, 100 there. The ticker on the website refreshes every 12 hours, and the number just keeps going up. It’s insane.”

In the midst of a crisis, a new business model formed. 

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When it comes to comfort food, it’s tough to beat Italian. Combining meat, cheese, pasta, sauce and lots of bread — while maybe not good for the midsection — is great for the soul. Add in a nice glass of Nero D’Avalo and *kisses fingers* that’s a meal to get you out of any funk.

Meal prep delivery services, like HelloFresh and Blue Apron, have capitalized on society’s trend towards digital. No longer does the busy parent need to make a point to stop at the grocery store, because the pre-planned meal comes right out of the box. In theory, it works. 

Pitillo thinks it can work for your favorite local restaurants, too. 

“So far, so good” he said, referencing the initial success of the online ordering system. “And very shortly down the road, we’ll be developing the platform with several pages. The first stage — we’re inviting a series of restaurateurs to participate. The end goal is having stockthefreezer.com/buffalostrong with many Buffalo restaurants on it.”

A small onboarding fee to get set up — including logos, menu items, etc. — will encourage restaurants to jump into the mix. Pitillo believes that by inviting his food and drink compatriots, he’s furthering that sense of community. Not to mention, it gives patrons a chance to eat their favorite local restaurant’s meals from the comfort of their (quarantined) home. 

This could be the future of a restaurant’s complementary revenue. Much like brick-and-mortar retail stores find themselves needing an online presence, foodies could very well take the same route — pushing a pick-and-click style of home meal ordering. 

“I can buy 10 items and throw them in the freezer and have dinner planned out for a week,” he said. “There’s some peace of mind. Imagine if your grandmother is somewhere and you’re worried about her going to the grocery store — you can see what she wants, order, and it’s delivered right to her door.” 

…………………………..

Gerald Pierre-Spica hails from Buffalo’s East Side. A host at Osteria 166, he faced the same fate as his peers in the restaurant industry when the pandemic shut everything down. Gerald, more affectionately known as Gerry to the “O” family, isn’t a logistics and delivery person. 

Until necessity made him one. 

“He’s our air traffic controller,” Pitillo said, laughing. “He’s completely stepped out of his comfort zone and taken on this new job, using GPS and spreadsheets to get the right meals delivered to the right places at the right time. He’s crushing it. Everyone is. It’s been all hands on deck.” 

In true Pitillo fashion, he’s quick to deflect any of the credit, instead pointing to his family. 

“Mike (Telesco) came up with the hook. Phil Pantano helping us with distribution. Latina Food providing a frozen truck. My wife, Kendra, keeping me sane. Alyssa, our general manager, helping day-to-day run smoothly. Hell, even my kid is out running deliveries in Cattaraugus County. Every one of our employees has stepped up to the plate in a time where nobody really knows what’s next.” 

Donated meals have made their way across western New York, from St. Luke’s Mission of Mercy to Cattaraugus County Community Action to the Response to Love Center. Many mouths will be fed from the generosity of others. In time, Pitillo and his family plan on donating an additional 2,000 meals to the healthcare workers battling on the front lines of our fight to beat COVID-19.

During Governor Cuomo’s March 29th coronavirus press conference, he referenced his Italian upbringing and how the food would bring his family together. Italian food continues to have that same effect. In the throes of one of the worst crises in the last century, the community Pitillo has helped curate continues to blow him away. 

“People want to help people. It’s that simple.”

For more information on Stock The Freezer, head to www.stockthefreezer.com or follow them on Facebook/Instagram @stockthefreezer.