In Toms River, the joke is there's a pizzeria or Italian restaurant in every strip mall.
And, there's a lot of strip malls — some right next to each other or on each corner of a four-corner intersection.
But it turns out Toms River has the highest population of residents with Italian ancestry in the state, according to the Census.
According to the US Census Bureau, New Jersey ranks in the top four for states with households that consider themselves of Italian descent. And as for top in New Jersey—it is Toms River that has the most residents of Italian ancestry at 33 percent (29,313).
If it's the large number of Italian-Americans in Toms River, plus the general popularity of cuisine, that is helping to create a large customer base in town, the question is how to stay in business amid so many pizzerias and Italian restaurants and other specialty stores?
For example, a conservative estimate of the number of pizzerias counts more than 50 in town, whether local, chain or national franchise. If you widen that category to Italian restaurants — many of which are also pizzerias — there are more than 60 in Toms River, easily.
How do they stay in business and bring in customers? What do the restaurants do to differentiate themselves from a competitor, especially when the competing restaurant(s) is often in the neighboring plaza or just a few hundred feet across the street?
For example, there are five Italian restaurants within just a one mile stretch in Toms River along Hooper Avenue: A Taste of Italy, Cuzzin’s Pizzeria and Restaurant, Johnny G’s and just across the border into Brick is Genaro’s Brick Oven Pizza and Italian Restaurant and the new Azzurro Pizza and Italian Grill.
One owner said the competition is good, and drives each location to develop specials and more.
“Competition is healthy,” said Larry Biase, the owner of A Taste of Italy in Toms River. Biase is carrying on his family business by opening and running A Taste of Italy last year on South Shore Drive just off of Hooper. For 90 years prior, his family owned and operated Biase’s, a popular Italian restaurant in Newark.
How does an Italian restaurant or pizzeria manage to not become "just another" Italian restaurant or pizzeria? Offering a large dining area, an adjoining casual pizzeria, an extensive menu with Early Bird Specials and live music nightly, A Taste of Italy feels they stand out from their competition. “Here,” said Biase, “our food is purchased fresh daily and our staff and chef, Ricardo Martinez, are the nucleus of this place.”
Biase said the reputation of a name also can help. The tradition of a particular surname or region or city the restaurant is named after can help differentiate, he said.
“Our name, ‘Biase,' has a reputation for being synonymous for great Italian food and service,” said Biase. “We deliver, we honor competitors coupons and we welcome reservations, especially on a weekend.”
Nearby, Cuzzin's Pizzeria has added whole wheat and gluten-free pizza crust to expand from the norm. The staff said the offerings aren't yet commonplace options at many pizzerias. Adding more is better than cutting back, said Caesar Ruiz, Manager at Cuzzin's.
"In this economy, with this recession, many businesses cut corners, but we have't changed any of the major things we have done since we first opened in 2009. We buy our produce, our cheese, our ingredients all from the same places as we always have--we use only the best quality and that keeps our customers coming back."
Of course, some changes have to be made such as altering the menu based on customer demand and requests, but for the most part said Ruiz, "We are different from many competitors. Cuzzin's set a standard from the day we opened and our quality and product has always been consistent."
That may be what the eateries themselves do, but how does a customer ultimately decide?
It's a matter of taste. Donna Miller of Toms River loves Genaro’s, and part of the reason is their New York style. Voted “best pizza” by the Star Ledger in 2010, Genaro’s is run by two brothers from Brooklyn that differentiate themselves from the competition by bringing a New York Italian flavor to the Jersey Shore. “I love New York pizza and here I can get a taste of that,” said Miller.
Whether a local business offers various ongoing specials such as lunch menus, catering options and Wi-Fi access, anything can be part of the mix. However, with all of the competition, knowing the exact formula to stand out can be difficult and constantly changing.
“Having so many restaurant choices is great for the customers,” says Jim Durante, a new resident to Toms River.
“Many of the restaurants seem similar, but a few do stand out.” Durante said that live music and an inviting atmosphere are things he looks for in an Italian restaurant, “but regardless, the food has to be excellent," he said, “because, after all— this is New Jersey.”