It’s a humid afternoon that’s typical of New York City in the late summer when rain is about to fall. Walking down familiar territory ― 42 Street right past the hulking mass that is the Port Authority building ― tourists are jumbled up with office workers and young hipsters, who all avoid the homeless lying here and there on the sidewalk.
The city is all about the hustle, and there aren’t many places where that is more evident than in Times Square. If you walk just a little bit farther, you’ll reach a place that is a brick-and-mortar representation of that ambitious spirit, one of a multitude of other stores selling the same thing: pizza slices for a dollar.
Wedged in between a tiny café selling Vietnamese baos and the remnants of a seedy flophouse hotel, this pizza parlor is part of the rise of the dollar pizza slice in New York City, a rise that illustrates a wave of resilience in the face of gentrification and high rents.
Those who hail from New York City have maintained for years that a slice should cost you roughly about the same as a ride on the subway. It’s known as the Pizza Principle, which was laid out in a report by an independent blogger in 2014.
But when the housing market bubble burst in 2008, spurring a major recession, people’s pockets got tighter. Out of that period of chaos, the dollar slice as we know it today was born. Midtown Manhattan became dotted with these bargain pizza parlors. There are 61 within the five boroughs today with a mobile app serving as a directory.
For many who partake in these dollar slices, the main appeal is the price combined with the taste. As streetwear entrepreneur Jovan Stroop sees it, “I feel like it has become a New York staple in some ways,” he told HuffPost. “New York is already known for excellent pizza, and $1 pizza gives people another option.” The fact that these places are open 24 hours also helps night owls who need to satiate their hunger after a work shift or after a hard night of partying.
This is best summed up by Katherine Cahill of Boston, who said, “When you’re out late without much money and you see a place selling dollar slices, who wouldn’t go ‘Hell yeah’ for that?”
The most surprising thing is that 11 years after the first parlor opened, there are still so many in operation. This despite commercial rent prices dropping 4.5% since last year, to $776 on average per square foot, the costs are still high enough to see flagship retailers like Barneys New York close their doors. Dollar pizza slice parlors have been able to weather the storm of closures by keeping customers lined up for more (with 2 Bros. Pizza and 99 Cent Fresh being the two leading franchises among the crowd).
A visit to the 2 Bros. Pizza over on 38th Street at 8th Avenue showed a huge line out of the back for dollar slices (slices with toppings were $2 and up and were served at the front). Location matters, too. Many are found near major subway junctions, like Times Square, and in areas with a lot of foot traffic, like the Lower East Side.
Many dollar slice joints are also doing combo deals, where two slices and a bottle of water will run you $2.75, competing with many fast-food chains. The use of electric ovens in these pizzerias instead of traditional ones can turn out upwards of 400 pies a day.
As executive chef Russ Barrett said, “The technology today, when it comes to ovens, allows them to churn and burn but be more efficient.”
Ingredients matter, too. Many opt for cheaper ones from places like Restaurant Depot, which are called “after-market.”
“One example is, these places use all-purpose flour, which is [cheaper than] the double-0 flour that’s milled in Italy and is the standard” for pizza dough, Barrett told HuffPost. “You can tell the difference when it comes to the crust. It’s impossible to not make money off of pizza if your margins are lower.”
The biggest takeaway when it comes to dollar slices comes from seeing guys from places like Bangladesh and El Salvador behind the counter. Some were reluctant to talk about their experience. As one who declined to give his name at a 99 Cent Fresh Pizza said, “I don’t know much about the business. I’m just happy to work here.”
Toiling away on eight- to 10-hour shifts, they are the backbone of these businesses and a bridge to customers who range from tourists to business executives. The dollar slice parlors are fuel for a city that, despite its changes, welcomes all unconditionally.