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Despite pandemic-related delay, Grotto Pizza opens Millsboro location

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After planning a new Sussex County for years, Grotto Pizza opened a Millsboro location in late April. | PHOTO COURTESY OF GROTTO PIZZA

MILLSBORO — Grotto Pizza has opened its long-awaited Millsboro location off U.S. Route 13 this week, after some uncertainty in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic caused construction delays.

The 23rd location in the tri-state region features the chain’s hallmarks like Grotto gelato and cheese pizza topped with its iconic swirl. But the Millsboro location also brings something fresh to the concept: a backyard dining area filled with games for families and young-at-heart.

“We were looking at our competition, since we’re always trying to learn, adapt and succeed at providing the best customer service. We started to realize that while we have plenty of sports bars, we’re missing a relaxed, outdoor dining concept,” Grotto Pizza Vice President Jeff Gosnear told the Delaware Business Times.

At the Grotto Pizza Millsboro, diners can enjoy a drink by the fire pit and play cornhole or Bimini ring. The “backyard” outdoor dining concept was popularized by many brewpubs across the country, including Lewes-founded Crooked Hammock Brewery, which features a playground style to welcome families with children of all ages.

“The interactive style is definitely not something we’ve done before, but we think it could be a potential blueprint for the look for future Grotto,” Gosnear said.

Grotto Pizza first looked to expand into the growing town of Millsboro in late 2019, attracted by the combination of the Sussex County housing boom and close proximity to the Delaware beaches. Although Delaware was one of the rare states that kept construction work going during the shutdown last spring, the Millsboro Grotto did face some delays due to the uncertainty that swirled around the restaurant industry. 

The restaurant hoped to open by October 2020, but Gosnear said he and other leadership members opted to stretch out the construction to 10 months in a bid to wait out the pandemic.

“We definitely could have hit that deadline, but it was March when we broke ground and there were just so many questions about what was going to happen next,” he said. “Of course we had doubts, but we plan our restaurants out at least two years in advance. If we hadn’t broken ground, we probably would have held off.”

Like many restaurants across the country, Grotto’s revenue was hit hard by the pandemic, and the company laid off north of 500 employees — all of its front staff and most of the kitchen staff — when the order came down from Gov. John Carney to close all restaurants to dine-in service. From March to April, Gosnear said revenue was down 60%.

Fortunately, when the state started to reopen for the summer, Grotto was able to hire back staff and reclaim that revenue. But it was still down roughly 8% compared to summer 2019.

“We were one of the lucky ones, especially with takeout,” Gosnear said. “Then when the spike came in the fall, we were hit again with another drop in revenue. We’re off about 35% of where we normally are, and we still need 300 employees ahead of this summer.”

Between capacity restrictions and unemployment benefits enticing many to not re-enter the workforce, many restaurants were challenged to hire enough staff to keep the doors open. But for Grotto, the greatest triumph from the pandemic was being able to mitigate the revenue loss due to the work ethic of a strong core staff, Gosnear said. The pizza chain kept most of its managerial staff throughout the whole year, and many stepped up to the challenge.

“We had some managers from our northern locations drive down to Rehoboth to fill in for someone, and sometimes they worked six days a week,” Gosnear said. “I can’t tell you enough how grateful that we have such a great team without core management.”

Grotto Pizza Millsboro employs 45 staff members, but aims to ramp up to 75 employees.

The pizzeria chain is one of Rehoboth Beach’s iconic success stories, as it was founded by Dominick Pulieri in 1960 and has grown into a regional empire. Today, Grotto has about 800 year-round employees in its restaurants, offices and facilities, but in the summer can break over 1,800.

“In the early days when Rehoboth wasn’t what it is today, the very first Grotto customers were from Millsboro, Frankford and Selbyville,” Gosnear said. “This is almost like returning to our roots.”

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