Beverly Hills-based Mulberry Street Pizza has been wowing guests with its New York pizza since 1991. The brand recently expanded to Las Vegas and may be licensing soon.
Richie Palmer has been in the restaurant industry for a long time. His pizza brand, Mulberry Street Pizzeria, has five total units — four in L.A. and one in Las Vegas — and has become the toast of the town. But he didn’t get his start in pizza.
Instead, he cut his teeth at a steakhouse in the Bronx in New York at the tender age of 14. It didn’t take long for him to start working as a cook, dreaming about opening a pizzeria in the vacant shop across from a coffee shop he used to frequent.
That unit, which housed a defunct coal burning oven, became his and he opened Modern Pizzeria in 1987 using his mother’s marinara recipe. He also owned a club, and business was good.
But Palmer sought sunshine, and visited a friend on the West Coast, who owned a business in the heart of Beverly Hills. Palmer loved the area, sold his businesses in New York and sought a new beginning in California. He looked for a new place to open a restaurant, and spent his last dime to open Mulberry Street Pizza in Beverly Hills in 1991.
“L.A. is a big see-and-be-seen city and I wanted to have the counter which I copied from Woolworth’s in New York and a few other places,” Palmer said, “and we have about 10, 12 tables in each location.”
Regular customers will walk up and order at the register, which tourists tend to sit down at a table to order. “It’s very casual and very spur-of-the-moment,” Palmer adds.
When it comes to pizza, the plain cheese Margherita-style is queen, followed by pepperoni and an eggplant parmesan pizza. That holds true in the California locations, where as a chicken parmesan pizza comes in third in Las Vegas. “We invented eggplant Parmesan pizza out here,” Palmer explains. “We have sliced eggplant that we fry up every day, and it’s an eggplant, tomato and basil pizza. Big, huge popular item here.”
The pizza is made on a thin, New York crust, just like Palmer made in the Bronx, and just like he ate growing up. It’s a thin and crispy crust. Dough is made off-site in a friend’s factory and brought in. “He makes my recipe for me,” Palmer said, which helps with consistency across the brand.
Everything else is made in-house every day, like the marinara, which takes six hours to cook. The menu has eggplant and chicken Parmesan, of course, but also spaghetti, rigatoni and ravioli.
“It’s simple and quick, and we do everything the best that we can do,” Palmer explained. “So far, so good. … Everything is exactly the same. There’s no varying, which is part of the secret of the success.”
The interior of a Mulberry Street Pizza location. Provided.
That includes using the same Blodgett deck ovens with stones at every location.
He formerly used a brick oven that had been converted to gas in New York City, so Palmer said it was easy to move to California and source multiples of the same oven. “After using a coal oven that was converted to gas and having ‘sweet spots’ it was very simple” to find pizzaiolos for Mulberry Street Pizza, Palmer said. “I said, ‘forget everything you know about making pizza. I’m going to show you how to do it.’ And again, it’s just continuity. It’s sticking with it. It’s paying attention, and dedicating your daily work to the dough, to the product.
“And it took a minute to do it. I’m not going to say right out of the gate, we did it.”
When a new pizzaiolo comes in, he or she goes through rigorous training for several months before they’re put on the ovens solo.
About 80% of sales is pizza based.
Alcohol is served in Las Vegas, but in L.A. there’s soft drinks and ice tea. It’s family friendly, and Palmer wanted Mulberry Street Pizza to be a kid-friendly place.
Dedication to the product sets Mulberry Street Pizza apart from its competition. A lifetime of eating pizza on both coasts has trained Palmer how to spot good pizza, and how to make his own pizzerias stand out.
While many restaurants are still feeling the labor pinch, Palmer calls himself a “lucky” guy in that he has a crew of 50 to 60, some of whom have been with him since day one. “If you don’t take care of your people, you’re done,” Palmer explained. “I don’t have an issue with hiring. … I take care of them, I pay them well, they get benefits and everybody’s happy. People actually come to me for jobs and in this climate that we live in, that’s quite a statement.”
Palmer’s biggest challenge is the cost of goods. At some places in Beverly Hills, the cost of a plate of spaghetti and meatballs is $75 and $100 for fish in others. He’s raised his prices to compensate a little over two years.
“The rent in Beverly Hills is more than the rent in Des Moines or Pittsburgh,” Palmer said. “It’s a little more expensive, but we use the best products.”
Palmer wants to open a couple more stores on his own, and is considering licensing his name and product. He doesn’t want to franchise, however, as it’s “too detailed and hard,” he said. “I can make deals licensing the name, which is a lot easier.
“People nowadays just want to make a living. They don’t care about the product. That’s why places don’t last. … I would say 95% is mismanagement.”
At this point in his life, he’d rather send employees who know the brand inside and out to open locations. He doesn’t worry about losing control of the brand if he licenses because he’s already tested it in Las Vegas — he had two of his guys stay and run the business there and it runs like a machine now. “Again, if you just focus and concentrate and have someone give you the guidelines you have to stick to, you really can’t mess it up as long as you have a good location. And if I didn’t like the location, I wouldn’t make the deal to do it,” Palmer added.
Mandy Wolf Detwiler is the managing editor at Networld Media Group and the site editor for PizzaMarketplace.com and QSRweb.com. She has more than 20 years’ experience covering food, people and places.
An award-winning print journalist, Mandy brings more than 20 years’ experience to Networld Media Group. She has spent nearly two decades covering the pizza industry, from independent pizzerias to multi-unit chains and every size business in between. Mandy has been featured on the Food Network and has won numerous awards for her coverage of the restaurant industry. She has an insatiable appetite for learning, and can tell you where to find the best slices in the country after spending 15 years traveling and eating pizza for a living.