A foodie vacation destination in Ocean City and Delaware, Grotto Pizza has moved into Howard County after the restaurant chain opened its newest location in Columbia last month in the Minstrel Crossing shopping center.
Located between Jimmy John's Gourmet Sandwiches and AAA Columbia Car Care near Snowden River Parkway, the 9,000-square-foot restaurant held a soft opening on Feb. 16, General Manager Jon Pelkey said, with a grand opening planned in mid-April.
"During the course of the set up of the restaurant, we've had phone calls and people stop through who were very excited about when we were opening," Pelkey said. "The day we opened to the public, we had a great crowd for lunch and dinner, and it's been going well ever since."
Booths, tables and 32 televisions are spread throughout the restaurant's open space, with seating available to roughly 200 people. In addition to the private dining section in the back of the restaurant, a sports bar sits off to the right of the lobby, featuring rotating tap options as well as a wine and bourbon list.
"This, I believe, will resemble what we're looking forward to as far as [future] locations," the general manager said. "But, every Grotto Pizza location, especially the Delaware locations, have a different style about them."
On March 2, Columbia resident Dana Cook sat in the lobby with a menu in hand, skimming through options of salads, specialty pizzas, calzones, burgers, subs and pastas. While she had heard of Grotto Pizza during her visits to Ocean City, Cook said she never tried their pizza.
"I think Italian food is really good," Cook said. "It looks like they have a yummy menu. I'm going to do carryout today and take it back to the office."
Sitting next to Cook, Bobby Hill waited patiently for his takeout orders of meatlovers, veggie and pepperoni pizzas that he planned to take back to his co-workers at Capital One bank down the street. The branch manager said a co-worker praised the pizza, so he thought he'd try something different.
"It just depends on what everyone has a taste for on that day," Hill said. "Since this is open, instead of sending someone else, I wanted to come and see for myself."
Hill said he loved the atmosphere and friendly employees who greeted him as he entered, and was sure he'd be coming back for more.
"I think it's a great thing," he said. "It's always good to have more options beside Pizza Hut and Pizza Boli's."
Having worked in the industry for 15 years, bartender Janneane Warmack said she was shocked and surprised to see such a strong fan base for Grotto Pizza, with young customers already reaching out for job opportunities as waiters.
Warmack said she's waiting for the "hustle and flow" to kick in after the restaurant's grand opening, eager for the fast-paced work environment.
"I love for people to come out and enjoy themselves [and] enjoy their service because you can go anywhere and get food," she said. "But, I want to make sure that it's the service that's bringing them back as well."
Columbia's Grotto Pizza is the company's fourth Maryland establishment, including a Gambrills locations and two in Ocean City. The chain continues to expand its reach with 15, soon-to-be 16, restaurants throughout Delaware, and three Pennsylvania restaurants
Pelkey said he and operations manager Russ Wiedenmann began working with the company at its University of Delaware location in 1999, which is geared toward nighttime and weekend business. After fulfilling duties on "the pizza line" and later in managerial roles, both employees moved on to work at the restaurant at Rehoboth Beach, with peak times between Memorial Day and Labor Day.
In 2014, Pelkey moved to Anne Arundel County to oversee the Maryland expansion into Gambrills, where he said the restaurant found great success.
"It was a slow process, but when we opened in Gambrills, we were very, very well received," Pelkey said. "We got a ton of great responses. The next logical step for us was Howard County due to the customer base. It's a huge population [and] there's a lot of opportunity."
So far, Pelkey said business at Grotto Pizza has been exceptional, with great reviews from both employees and customers.
"We've seen a lot of repeat business in the first couple of weeks," Wiedenmann said. "There's one couple that's been in here at least once every day, sometimes twice. They're getting a little bit of everything, sitting in different areas of our restaurant."
"So far, this is my favorite location," Pelkey said, having worked at 14 other Grotto Pizza locations. "There's a very nice balance between our dining business, our bar business and our takeout business. … It's really refreshing that it's well balanced between the three areas."