Lake Gaston Pizza

(From left) Kerry Huff, owner Pete Richardson and Jeremiah “Jam” Johnson comprise the brass of Lake Gaston Pizza & More. Huff, the general manager, and Johnson, the kitchen manager, are recent hires. 

The coronavirus pandemic, and government efforts to neutralize it, have not been kind to the restaurant industry. According to a survey conducted by the National Restaurant Association at the end of last year, 17 percent of U.S. restaurants permanently shut down because of COVID-19. Since the chaos ensued last year, Lake Gaston Pizza & More owner Pete Richardson has been determined not only for his business to survive, but to thrive as best possible. He’s not the type to lay down arms.

The latest chapter of Lake Gaston Pizza & More’s evolution during the COVID era includes a staff refreshing resulting in a new general manager and kitchen manager. There’s a new, more efficient online ordering system. And the lively adaptations are coinciding with a glowing recent review of the restaurant by N.C. Eat & Play, a popular digital media outfit that highlights businesses around the state.

The battle continues.

“My main goal is to keep these kids employed,” Richardson said of his younger employees, fighting back tears. “Because if I don’t have them, I don’t have a business. That’s one of the main reasons I do what I do.”

Ultimately, meeting the needs of the customers is what drives Richardson. The hires of Kerry Huff as general manager and Jeremiah “Jam” Johnson to lead the kitchen, allow Richardson more time in the dining room to stay on the pulse of his patrons. What do they like? What changes would they like to see?

No need to worry. The “tried and true” elements of the menu aren’t going anywhere: the pizza, made daily with fresh dough; signature Hawg Wings and accompanying homemade sauces; salads. That core led to Megan Nichols’ positive review of Lake Gaston Pizza & More for N.C. Eat & Play. Nichols called it a “must-try restaurant” and wrote, “Everything was really delicious and clearly made with quality ingredients.”

N.C. Eat & Play has more than 22,000 followers on Facebook and 34,000 on Instagram.

“It was definitely an ego boost. I’m not gonna lie,” Johnson said. “It feels good knowing that your food is not only good, but raved about. The fact that Pete and I came together and made food that got us all these rave reviews makes me feel good and it makes me know that I’m in the right place.”

Johnson, a Wake County native, is a restaurant veteran, and believes he “belongs in the kitchen,” having worked in eateries from the mountains to the coast and in between.

Johnson’s specialty is Italian cuisine and says he appreciates that ideas are welcomed at Lake Gaston Pizza & More, where the specials are regularly rotated.

“This is the first place in a long time I felt happy,” Johnson said. “This isn’t a corporate place. You don’t come in and feel like a drone. Pete brings you in and he makes you feel like family. He wants everyone that walks through these doors to feel like family. And that is something that I truly love.”

Pete’s wife Tami adds to the family atmosphere. She’s the “mother hen” while Pete is the disciplinarian.

A corporate environment? Definitely not. But Lake Gaston Pizza & More has taken a modern approach, with a revamping of its website that allows customers to order and pay online, while also being able to track the order, eliminating wait times. The website now includes a number of photos of menu items, which can be helpful in attracting new visitors, and promoting offerings other than pizza. Richardson said online sales have increased 50 percent since the implementation of the new platform.

Lake Gaston Pizza & More is currently still closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, but aims to go back to seven days when possible.

Staff shortages have left businesses everywhere reeling. That’s where Huff comes in for Lake Gaston Pizza & More. The Henrico native seeks to utilize his extensive professional background in hospitality, human resources and customer service to keep the operation running smoothly.

As for the menu, Johnson will work with Richardson to broaden it. But the staple items that keep some loyal customers coming in each and every day the restaurant is open will retain their distinctive flair. Balanced by Richardson’s willingness to adapt and try new things, that consistency is as good of a weapon as any to have while combating coronavirus.

“Pete personalizes a lot of it,” Huff said. “Like the chicken caprese is a sandwich he brought from somewhere else that he created. His hawg wings - no one else in the area has hawg wings. And also his personalized barbecue sauce - you can’t get it anywhere else but here.”