Athens Pizza and Pasta, a staple of Auburn’s food scene since 1980, is set to re-open for take-out on Friday, April 1.
In December 2020, an electrical fire damaged the restaurant, forcing the restaurant to close its doors while contractors worked to fix the damage, said Nina Contoravdis, who co-owns the restaurant with her husband, Bill, and his brother Tom Contoravdis.
They initially thought the repairs would only take a short time, but after having one contractor fall through, the restaurant was closed for 16 months. In the end, Clyde Construction, the company that originally built the restaurant in 1980, finished the job, Nina said.
“We were actually doing OK through the pandemic, and then we had the fire, so we were closed for 16 months,” Bill said.
Having a fire damage your restaurant in the middle of a global pandemic would be enough to end most businesses. But with the help of the community, the Contoravdis family persevered. After the restaurant was closed for two or three weeks, the family started selling gift cards, merchandise and their dressings to their customers who wanted to show support, Tom said.
“We’re used to being the givers, not the receivers, so the community support was overwhelming,” Bill said.
After a few weeks of selling non-food items, the Contoravdis family decided they should take it to the next level by selling “take-and-bake” grinders that customers could cook at home, Tom said. Mayor Nancy Backus let the family use the Auburn Community Center kitchen at a discounted rate so they could prepare the take-and-bake meals, Nina said.
The first time Athens Pizza sold the take-and-bake grinders, they sold all 200 in a matter of minutes, Tom said. The next week, they sold out the 700 they made in a single day. That type of community support was unbelievable, they said.
After a few weeks of doing the take-and-bake grinders, they took it a step further and started selling take-and-bake dinners like ravioli and lasagna, Bill said. During that time, Athens Pizza actually gained a lot of new customers who heard about the fire and wanted to try their food.
They couldn’t have done it without the support of their customers, the city and other companies. Last summer when the temperatures rose, the Peterson Company let Athens Pizza rent a refrigerated truck for cheap so they could safely serve their customers outside, Bill said.
“As far as the take-and-bakes go, the Peterson Company, the Auburn Community Center, the mayor, they were a huge part of putting that together,” Nina said.
The money Athens Pizza made through selling the take-and-bake meals went to cover things for the restaurant that insurance wouldn’t pay for, Nina said. Being able to serve customers despite not having access to the restaurant may have been the thing that saved Athens Pizza.
“It kept all of our customers connected to us. We got to see them and they got their fix for their grinders and pasta,” Nina said.
“You can’t go 16 months without something because your customers are going to forget you,” Tom added.
Last November, even though they didn’t have their normal kitchen to work out of, Athens Pizza and Pasta held their annual Thanksgiving feed where they handed out meals to people in need.
“We didn’t let COVID stop us. We weren’t going to let the fire stop us either,” Bill said.
Beyond community support, Athens Pizza also received support from the Barstool Fund, a philanthropic wing of the media company Barstool Sports that helps small businesses in need.
Nina filled out an application for support and a few days later received a call from the founder of Barstool Sports, Dave Portnoy, who said Athens Pizza had been selected, Nina said. With money from the Barstool Fund, they were able to pay their employees for 11 months while the restaurant was closed.
Bill, Tom and Nina agreed the thing they’re looking forward to the most is seeing their customers back in the restaurant. Athens Pizza and Pasta will begin serving take-out only meals starting on Friday, April 1, but will offer indoor dining as soon as they get seating installed.