By Chris Mohney
All Zagat Stories are written by our editorial team. This story is presented by our partner Chase Sapphire®.
Through the difficulties of the past year, restaurants have been there for their communities. They’ve pivoted to takeout, provided meals to essential workers, and so much more. The Sapphire Supports Restaurants Contest is awarding $50,000 business grants from Chase Sapphire to 20 small-business restaurants across America to provide COVID-19 pandemic recovery assistance. Zagat Stories is featuring interviews with all of our Sapphire Supports Restaurants Contests grant recipients.
Kristi Dimogerodakis is the second-generation owner (after her dad Antonios “Tony” Dimogerodakis) of the second family to own Verrilli’s Bakery in Morristown, New Jersey, which has been operating since 1898.
How were things going at the bakery before the pandemic? It was horrible. In 2017, I went back there full-time and tried to make a go of it again. My dad was running it then, when he was 69. It caught on a little bit, but there was nothing to accelerate it to the next level. I stuck it out, but I stopped taking a paycheck just so that I could help him maintain and have things in the store. A young girl and I would come down Monday through Friday, and we’d bake different cookies and breads so that it would look like it was full. Then people came in and bought pizza shells.
We weren’t even using the kitchen at the time. My dad had the place up for lease with a realtor. He was paying for things out of his own social security. I could go down there at 9 o’clock in the morning and not see another person until 3 o’clock in the afternoon.
Verrilli’s was in Morristown from 1898. Once upon a time, this was an old Italian neighborhood. People move out. Things change. The generation that truly made it fantastic started dying off. And you had a big influx of new residents in town that had never heard of Verrilli’s.
The deck was stacked against us. No matter what we did, we couldn’t get our heads above water there. The years from 1988 to 2010, they were great. And then from 2010, it was awful. It was just getting worse and worse. I didn’t want to sell the place. I didn’t want to get rid of it. Something about it always said to me, “Just hold on to it. Don’t lease it.” Every time somebody would come down to look at the property, I would give them an attitude, and then I would tell them why whatever they were thinking wasn’t going to work down there. I was sabotaging it.
I had a nighttime job. I worked 9 in the morning to 3 in the afternoon at the bakery, then I would go home, do a costume change, and go to a restaurant job. The restaurant was what I lived on. That was from 5 at night to 11 or 11:30 p.m. And I would do that six days a week. That which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right?
The pandemic comes around, the world closes, and I’m down at the bakery. There was a young guy working there too. He was also a bartender in a different restaurant. So with the lockdown, now both of us are out of our jobs—the ones that actually paid.
I was like, “Look, people will need to eat. We’ll come down here. We’ll throw a couple of things together.” I didn’t have time to make a menu. The menu was in my head. Our menu lady went into hiding. People were calling and asking, “What do you offer?” And I’m like, “It’s all in my head.” I would take 20 minutes with every phone order to walk them through it.
It was maybe three weeks into the pandemic, and I was posting things on social media. One of our police officers in town tagged me into this Facebook group called Keep Morristown Businesses Alive. It was trying to encourage the residents to help the restaurant industry sustain by ordering out two times a week.
I read the group instructions, and it was like, “If you’re a restaurant, post what you’re doing, let us know, keep us in the loop.” I was like, are these people crazy? They’re going to give me a forum where I can talk to people about what I love? They haven’t seen anything yet. I went on multiple times a day. I took pictures of food, from the donuts to cheesesteaks to prepared meals, and started putting it out there. Then people started talking about it, and that’s how it grew.
We got so busy. I would go to work at 8 o’clock in the morning and work to 7 o’clock at night in the front of the store, and then prep till about 1 o’clock in the morning for the next day.
But sometime in April or May, I went out for the first time on a delivery. I saw a line at the church nearby. I didn’t know what the line was for. I made my delivery, came back, and noticed the line was for food. I couldn’t believe in our little town that we had to give people food, that it was that bad. This is a wealthy community. When I came back to the bakery, I got in touch with the guy who was heading the organization, and I said, “Tell me what I need to do. We can’t let these people be hungry.” And that’s how I got involved with them.
Verrilli’s is 5,200 square feet—a monster factory. But in the front, we had put in this little kitchen. The grill is probably four feet long. There’s a gyro spit, a little grill, and a little two-deck pizza oven sits on the countertop. There was a little char-broiler, where we did the burgers, and a little two-basket basket fryer. It’s tiny. In the back are all of our mixers, tables, proofers, ovens, refrigerators, freezers—everything that you need to run an actual bakery.
We started making homemade potato donuts. People would call days in advance to order them, because we make them to order. They’d call on a Monday and say, “Hi, for Friday. I’d like donuts.” I’m like, this is insanity. All of a sudden, people had nothing to do but focus on food. Their entire source of comfort was coming from food. People were coming in and going, “I’ve lived here 25 years and I didn’t know you existed.” I’m like, “Were you driving around with your eyes closed?”
I started out donating pizzas to the food relief organization. And when I came back, I told a woman where I had been. I said, “I just dropped off these pizzas. Can you believe that this is going on in Morristown?” Well, someone overhears me and went back to her parents, who are financially well-off. Within about an hour of seeing her at the bakery, she comes back with $500 cash. She goes, “My parents said to put this toward whatever you’re going to do.”
Before I knew it, people were just dropping money off to me, and I’m thinking to myself, “They don’t know me from Adam. They have no idea that my intentions are good.” It was all on faith. I raised thousands of dollars, and I would go to Restaurant Depot at about 7 o’clock in the morning, and I would load up my car with 100 pounds of rice, 200 pounds of chicken, 100-pound bags of vegetables—things that I could bring back to the relief organization, and they could divide up. Then everyone could go home with a starch, a protein, and a vegetable.
Because I could see these long lines, and I knew the women in the back of the line weren’t getting food. It’s one thing as an adult to be hungry. It’s another thing if you have a child. As a mother, I can’t allow that.
June came around, and restaurants were allowed to open outdoors. That food relief group closed down. The guy who was doing that food pantry stopped too. But I had $1,000 left that had been donated, and I didn’t know what to do with it. So I got in touch with this program called the Neighborhood House, which helps kids. It’s basically an after-school center and a summer camp. Most of the time it’s for children with financial needs. I posted online, “Look, I have money to feed 25 of the hungriest kids for the five-week summer program.” Within 24 hours of putting that out onto Facebook, my Venmo blew up. and I had enough money to feed 50 kids for five weeks.
That five-week program has now gone for five weeks, then a school year, then another summer program. Now we’re into the second school year. We do 55 pizzas a week every Tuesday.
Children have come in and donated their birthday money. We’ve done turkey drives, coat drives, soup drives. We’ve done senior Christmas bags where we make these beautiful bags of supplies for every senior in the community. It was all the items that food stamps can’t buy—cleaning products, laundry detergent, scarves, hats, socks, mittens.
My goal was to always keep the bakery going. If hard work is what it takes to keep it in existence, then I’m in. But it’s not work if you love what you do. I love what I do. I love the people I get to interact with, the message I get to share, the bonds I get to create. You walk in a stranger, and you walk out family.