GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A restaurant group that saw 80% of its dining sales disappear overnight at the start of the pandemic will celebrate the grand opening of its newest pizzeria on Monday.

Franca’s Pizzeria is the fifth business for Flo’s Collection restaurant group, founded by Dan and Davide Uccello. It’s named after their mother.

“She’s done so much for us throughout the years and she taught us how to cook, so what a great way to kind of give back to mom on naming a pizzeria after her and utilizing a lot of the recipes that she taught us how to make,” Dan Uccello said.

(Co-owner Dan Uccello displays a margherita pizza baked at Franca’s Pizzeria in Grand Rapids.)

FOUNDING FRANCA’S

Franca’s Pizzeria is located at 1551 Wealthy St. SE, next to Tamales Mary near Lake Drive. The Uccellos took over the Eastown storefront earlier this year after predecessor Papa John’s moved out.

Over about two months, the team redid the walls, repainted and brought in new kitchen equipment. The Uccellos tapped another young entrepreneurial team, Grand Rapids’ Launch Kit, to kickstart their new brand.

(Franca’s Pizzeria co-owner Dan Uccello talks to the founders of Launch Kit during the soft opening of Franca’s Pizzeria on May 16, 2022.)

“Davide was 19, I was 24 when we were opening our first restaurant. So we were very young and ambitious, so these guys kind of remind us of us back then,” Uccello said.

When you step into Franca’s, you’ll notice something is missing: a dining room. Uccello says that was by design before COVID-19 came to town, but the pandemic reinforced their business plan.

(An employee of Franca’s Pizzeria boxes a pizza for takeout on May 16, 2022.)

“The takeout and delivery models really blew up because of COVID — people couldn’t go out to dinner. But the trend that we’ve seen is that it hasn’t really died down. There’s still a good amount of guests out there that feel more comfortable eating at a park, or eating outside or eating at home, and that’s where we come in. We can deliver it to any park in the area and we can deliver it to your home as well,” he said.

WHAT’S ON THE MENU

Franca’s menu is also smaller than the brothers’ other pizzerias in Belmont, Greenville, Rockford and Plainfield. Uccello says they are forgoing fried foods and focusing on freshness, using ingredients employees prepared the same day and recipes passed down through the Uccello family, which moved to Grand Rapids from Sicily, Italy in 1998.

“Whether you’re eating one of our pizzas or one of our pastas, these are all sauces and dough recipes that have come from generations and that my mother has taught us. The pasta sauce is the same sauce we eat at home every Sunday as a family. So very, very authentic, and I wouldn’t serve anything here that I wouldn’t serve to my kids or my family at home,” Uccello said.

(An employee of Franca’s Pizzeria tosses pizza dough for an order.)

Uccello says Franca’s sources local ingredients as much as possible. Crushed tomatoes are an exception; those come from a California farm.

“The beautiful thing about it is it’s the only company in the U.S. that I know of that will go from the farm to can within six hours. And there is no additional preserves or anything added to the tomatoes. And that’s how I remember making sauce back in Sicily with my grandparents, is we would go to the farm, we would pick the tomato, we were bringing it back and we’re cooking it and bottling it hot, which is exactly what they’re doing,” he said.

(A May 16, 2022 photo shows a margherita pizza from Franca’s Pizzeria, 1551 Wealthy St. SE in Grand Rapids.)

Sauces at Franca’s are made in-house, but the mix of spices added to each sauce is a family secret. Uccello says pizza bites and garlic knots have been the best sellers during Franca’s soft opening, but the pizza also stands out.

“Our Maui Wowie is amazing. That is something you won’t find anywhere in the city. It has coconut flakes on it, it has a pineapple Sriracha drizzle on there, candied bacon, candied pineapple. (It’s) just absolutely amazing for those Hawaiian pizza lovers,” he said.

BUILDING THE BRAND

The plan to expand started long before Franca’s with the Uccellos creating an operations team for Flo’s Collection.

“We built all of that through COVID in hopes to be able to take advantage of the opportunities that were going to be out there ‘cause we all know that unfortunately, a lot of restaurants didn’t make it through COVID and were shutting down. Well, we doubled down into our industry and we realized that there would be a lot of great opportunities. And this was one of them,” Uccello said while standing inside Franca’s. “Now we really have the team and the foundation and the systems in place to really take this thing to the next level.”

Franca’s is the family’s first restaurant in the Eastown area, but Uccello says this won’t be their last location. In the next three years, his goal is to grow Flo’s from a $7 million company to a $10 million company. He said they’re working on identifying sites to grow the brand. He expects to reveal where the next Franca’s locations will be in the next six to eight months.

For now, they’re excited to continue “giving back to the community that supports us daily” through donations to local groups and organizations — a business philosophy that paid off in community support during the pandemic.

“When we were shut down (for dining)… just about everybody was getting pizza two, three times a week, it seemed like, to be able to support Flo’s because they realized how we supported them over the last 11 years when we first started our first location. So that was really great to see,” he said.

WORKER WOES

(A photo provided by Franca’s Pizzeria shows the staff surrounding the restaurant’s namesake, Franca.)

Uccello says Flo’s Collection hasn’t totally rebounded — staffing is at about 80% of pre-pandemic levels.

“We lost a lot of the part-timers. We lost a lot of the moms that were working part-time because a lot of the schools are virtual, so they no longer had that opportunity to go out and make some extra money for the family while the kids are in school because now they’re tending to their children at home. So that’s the biggest group that we lost within our organization,” he said.

And like many businesses, Franca’s had to delay its opening for weeks because it couldn’t get enough workers.

“We’ve definitely had to raise wages. Unfortunately, that kind of leads into raising some menu prices, but our customers have been really, really great about that — they understand that this money is going right back into our staff and taking care of them,” Uccello said.

Franca’s will celebrate its grand opening Monday. Its namesake has flown in from Sicily for the milestone.

“She’s very proud of this place, and as she should be,” Uccello said.

(A May 16, 2022 photo shows Franca’s Pizzeria at 1551 Wealthy St. SE in Grand Rapids’ Eastown neighborhood.)

And Uccello is happy to grow it in Grand Rapids.

“This is where our roots are. Yes, we grew up in Sicily, but Grand Rapids has given us so much. This is where I met my wife, this is where my kids are growing. It’s just been a great community. Believe me, we’ve thought about warmer climate, but it’s just not us. We really feel at home here and the people in Grand Rapids make us feel that way… this is home,” he said.