By Dave Rogers
---- — NEWBURYPORT — Good-bye Upper Crust, hello Anchor Stone Deck Pizza.
That’s the message from the owners of the State Street restaurant after recently announcing it will terminate its relationship with the beleaguered pizza chain, effective Monday, and break out on its own.
Workers on Thursday morning removed the Upper Crust signs, On Monday, the pizza shop will close for one day. When it reopens Tuesday, new signs and a new brand will be in place.
Since Mark and Jennifer Tramontana made the decision to leave the once-powerful Boston-area pizza chain, it has been waging a social media and word-of-mouth blitz. The couple want to let their loyal clientele and anyone looking for a quick slice know that, despite the break from Upper Crust, they will still be part of the local business community.
Mark Tramontana said leaving the Upper Crust family will allow them to control their own destiny and shed any of the negative connotations associated with the once-robust brand.
“The idea is to drive the car yourself,” he said, adding he and his wife were excited, nervous and relieved at the idea of being completely independent.
As recently as two years ago, there were 17 pizza places under the Upper Crust umbrella, most of them official branches of the business with a few others, including the Tramontana’s shop, independent franchises.
But as a result of declining sales and a series of investigations into Upper Crust’s hiring of illegal immigrants from Brazil and then exploiting them, the chain has all but disappeared. Last November, 10 locations abruptly closed a month after Upper Crust trustees filed for bankruptcy protection. Today, only a handful of locations remain, including the original restaurant on Boston’s Beacon Hill.
One of the locations to close was the Tramontana’s Portsmouth, N.H., branch, which served its last slice in February, only two years after opening. Mark Tramontana said the Portsmouth location never gained traction — in part because it opened during the height of the media firestorm into Upper Crust’s hiring practices and financial difficulties.
Since those allegations came to light and spread to an official investigation by the U.S. Attorney General’s Office and Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, the Tramontanas have been reminding their customers that they are a locally owned business, separate from the chain.
The Tramontanas opened the Newburyport Upper Crust in the fall of 2008, after moving to the city they call home more than seven years ago. They said they enjoyed the chain’s pizza when they lived in the Boston area and wanted to bring it to their new city.
To thank their loyal customers for their support, the Tramontanas announced they would be lowering prices on many of their items without cutting back on the quality of their ingredients. The price reductions are one of the benefits of being an independent restaurant, they said. Previously, they had to follow price guidelines made by corporate officials, which led to the business losing many customers when price hikes were made.
For years, the Tramontanas have been purchasing many of their ingredients from local vendors and that tradition will continue. In another twist, the owners will be renaming their specialty pizzas to better match the Greater Newburyport area and to adhere to conditions from their split from the Upper Crust brand.
While the business and the pizzas will have different names, quality will remain top-notch, Mark Tramontana said. The shop will still be using its 5-foot, stone slab ovens to bake its pizzas. The stone ovens, he said, lend to the restaurant’s famous thin crust and bursting-with-flavor toppings.
“It makes for a better pizza,” he said.
As for the name, Anchor Stone Deck Pizza, it was literally right above the couple’s head all along, Mark Tramontana said. The building they have occupied since opening has three brass anchors attached to it. Anchors also symbolize strength and security, not to mention a nod to Newburyport’s nautical background, he said.
“When you’re home, you drop anchor,” Mark Tramontana said.
He said employees are excited and relieved with the changes as well. Paying close attention to all the bad news regarding the company and worrying whether the Tramontanas would follow suit and close down weighed heavily on their minds, he said. But not anymore.
“Our employees are thrilled,” Mark Tramontana said.
Greater Newburyport Chamber of Commerce and Industry president Ann Ormond said there was always a risk when a business changes its name, but in the case of the soon-to-be Anchor Stone Deck Pizza, she called it a positive move.
Ormond added she felt confident the owners would be able to succeed, if not overnight then in the future, saying the pizza shop’s location coupled with its strong community ties and loyal customer base were important factors in its favor.
“In the long term, they’ll be fine,” Ormond said.