We sat down with co-owner Sean Berthiaume to talk about Vinnie’s legacy, what sets them apart from the dozens of other pizza shops all over Williamsburg, and (of course) their pizza creations that made them go viral—more than once!
FREEwilliamsburg: Tell us a bit about Vinnie’s backstory.
Sean Berthiaume: We started in 2007—March 21st was our ten-year anniversary. It’s me and my two business partners, Henrick and Jacob, and we worked in pizza and food in college. Me and one of my partners worked at a fast-paced pizzeria for a couple of years. All three of us were friends and we were just hanging out in a college town for a while after graduating and just needed to get out. We moved to New York, not with the intention to get into pizza or anything, just to move to Brooklyn where we had a lot of friends. We worked a lot of odd jobs for a couple of months. We were kind of in a “what are we going to do with our lives” kind of place and my business partner [Jacob] basically stayed up all night on New Years Eve and had an epiphany and said we should open our own place. We went out that New Year’s Day and started looking for a pizza place and got into this place. This Vinnie’s has been around since 1960.
FW: This particular spot?
SB: Yeah, it’s been called Vinnie’s since 1960. There hasn’t been an actual Vinnie since then [laughs]. There have been about 4 or 5 different owners. We bought it from a guy that was kind of checked out. He was trying to get rid of the place. It was kind of run down, things were falling apart, people weren’t taking care of it, it was closing every day at like 9 p.m. So we took it over and kept the name Vinnie’s because it’s been around for so long—but we infused our own recipes, but of course kept the classic Brooklyn cheese and sauce recipe, and infused it with what we learned and what we wanted to do.
FW: Perfect segway to my next question! You guys aren’t like a regular pizza shop, you’re packed with all of this nostalgia and kitsch—so what was the idea behind that?
SB: I think the best part about Vinnie’s is there was no plan of “this is how it’s going to be”. It kind of revealed itself to us as we went on. My mom basically told me I turned this into my childhood bedroom overtime. There’s no plan to be some sort of retro “whatever”. All the kitsch and all of the stuff on the walls is either stuff that I’ve made or people have made us or stuff we thought was funny. All this stuff and the food is a result of being here and trying stuff and seeing what works.
FW: You think the customers like the aesthetic?
SB: I think so, yeah! I would wonder that, but I see a lot of stuff on Instagram or Facebook and people taking pictures in the shop.
FW: Who comes up with all of the crazy daily board recipes and specials?
SB: The special board drawings are all mine.
FW: Do you come up with them?
SB: I come up with them and draw them.
FW: There have been some pretty good ones.
SB: Thanks! [laughs] I like to draw comics and make bad puns so it all kind of came together. And it’s perfect for me because I get to make crazy food. But some days when I’m not here and the drawings aren’t being made, we still have our managers or other owners make whatever they want as the special. We usually have 2-3 specials every day. At each store they’re different. Whatever they’re feeling, we encourage them to go nuts. A lot of times things work, sometimes they don’t work.
FW: Do a lot of people actually order them?
SB: Oh, absolutely. There are people that come in every day to get whatever the special is. But of course, there are people who just come in every day for a cheese slice.
FW: So what do you think your favorite board specials have been over the years? Top 5?
SB: I don’t know! [laughs] I tried to count the other day and I think I’ve done almost about 800 over the last couple of years.
FW: That’s crazy! How do you even vary the slices? How does nothing overlap?
SB: Yeah, it’s 800 boards and 2-3 specials on each board. It really goes with whatever I want to draw or topical of what’s going on in thew news or pop culture. Or if I just want to draw Slimer from Ghostbusters [laughs]. I don’t really know if I have a favorite.
FW: So, you guys made the news over the last few years with the pizza-ception and the mini pizzas on the pizza thing—is that the first time you guys got national attention? What was it like?
SB: So I’d say what sets us apart from other places is I see a lot of them saying “let’s make this spaghetti donut or rainbow corn thing and it’s going to be huge!” None of the stuff we’ve made was ever set in place to be like “this is going to be a thing”, you know? It’s more-so us just trying fun stuff and seeing if they work out—and sometimes they don’t. So about 2 years ago, I made a picture of slices of little pizza on top of pizza. I made it thinking “what would be the best kind of pizza topping? Oh, more pizza!” I took a picture of it and put it online and it just blew up. We immediately started getting calls and interviews and TV spots and then we started making it. Now it’s a slice that we have every day. So that was kind of crazy. I was on Jimmy Kimmel and all sorts of news programs like Good Morning America and European news outlets.
FW: So it wasn’t only national, it was international!
SB: Yeah it was crazy! I was on Spanish morning television and stuff [laughs]. So that was kind of huge and that kind of blew up. I’d see pictures of my own pizza in my newsfeed by other people I didn’t know posting it. Then about a year later, I made the pizza-box pizza which started out as the same kind of thing—just trying to goof around and have fun and make a pizza-box out of pizza—and I posted it and that somehow even got huger. We were getting calls every two seconds about it—some people either wanting to order it or some people just wanting to talk about it—you know?
FW: Just to have a conversation?
SB: Yeah, it was very odd. People from Alabama calling like “y’all got the pizza-box pizza” and I’d be like, “yeah! You wanna order it?” and they’d be like “No! How y’all doin'” [laughs]. So now we make tons of those every day.
FW: So, is it in a regular box when you deliver it?
SB: So, here’s the thing. It started out just as a picture and me having fun and when people started to order it I was like, okay, I have to figure out how this is going to work. We want it to show up clean so if people want it delivered, we’re going to put it in a box. Even when stuff gets online, I see comments and I try not to read them but I usually do, and people are like “How do you touch it?” We wear gloves when we’re making it, we wear gloves when we’re putting it in the box, and we never touch it. We have to put it in a box for hygiene reasons. Usually, people get it to eat in-house. Like a party comes or a group of people and they sit down and kind of just tear it apart.
FW: So were there people coming all of the time? Was it overwhelming?
SB: Kinda. My biggest problem was, and probably the reason why my employees were cursing my name, is I invented that and then immediately went on vacation that night. So there were calls and calls like “how do I make this, what do I do?!” So yeah, there was a very high demand. And also, that pizza-box is like, three different kinds of pizza assembled and it takes a little while. It’s not as simple as making a 10-minute pizza. It takes 30-40 minutes to make from scratch. You have to let the dough rise and all sorts of stuff. Yeah, there was a high demand but we figured out how to streamline it and make it fast.
FW: How many different slices do you think you have daily? Different types?
SB: Probably about 40-50 different types every day because we have a meat section, a vegetarian section, a vegan section. Every day, there are at least a dozen different vegan slices available just to get, then the ones people want us to specially make. The best part about having the 2-3 specials every day is that someone will really like one and be like “hey, you had this one last week” and I’d say “well, we don’t have it now but if you wait 5-10 minutes I’ll make it for you” and I feel like that keeps people coming back.
FW: It’s a sense of “mom and pop” shop and that specialization for the customers that people like.
SB: I hope so, I think that’s what keeps them coming back.
FW: Like your friendly neighborhood people making pizza. It’s not like going to any other pizza place.
SB: Well, yeah—when I’m hiring people, that’s kind of the spiel I give them, like “listen, if you’re not a people person you’re not going to work out here”. We don’t expect you to be fake or whatever, but if you can’t talk to people or come in and be ready to work and be friendly then you aren’t going to work out here. Just from my experience at other pizzerias in New York, or everywhere, I never want to be the place that’s screaming out “NEXT!” trying to move the line. You kind of have to figure out the mindset of your customer. Are they the kind of person that wants that quick slice out the door or do they take their time and look at what you have and ask questions. Some people want that New York experience of in-and-out “don’t talk to me” and other people are going to be like “what’s that? What’s that? What’s that?” and if you’re going to be hungover or be like “whatever” or rolling your eyes—then you’re not going to work out here at all or at any of our stores.
FW: Is there anything exciting coming up in the near future that you want to talk about? Something you’re working on?
SB: I feel like that’s a question I get asked a lot, but I never have a good answer because anything that becomes some sort of viral success has not been planned and has come out of my, maybe, ADD.
FW: Well the best things like that are never planned.
SB: Right, I think one of the first things we got recognized online for was the T. Hanks trash can. We inherited this trashcan and it just said “Thanks” and then it just came to me by staring at it all day.
FW: Has Tom Hanks every acknowledged it?
SB: I have heard on a podcast someone bring it up to him, and he said, “Yes, I’ve seen it”. But he hasn’t been in here yet.
FW: Well hopefully we’ll get him in.
SB: And it’s very odd, especially with the pizza-box pizza, to see yourself in a meme. You know? Like, there’s a picture of me holding it and that just got like everywhere. To see some sort of meme/ Instagram thing that you follow and you see your face—
FW: No one’s safe from becoming a meme.
SB: I know, it’s very odd. It’s like, “Oh, I wish I had worn a better shirt!” [laughs].
FW: Can’t plan for that.
SB: Yeah. So, there’es nothing planned or in-the-works, but there’s always something. There’s always going to be our employees or my partners saying “let’s try this or let’s try that”. We encourage that and, you know, what’s good about this place, or anywhere in Brooklyn, is everyone that works here are artists in some sort of way. They’re painters, musicians—they’re something. There’s a boom of creativity always percolating back that [gestures toward kitchen].
FW: Lastly, are there any good stories from the years you’d like to share?
SB: I don’t know. It a hard question. I remember when we were signing our initial lease when we took over the place in 2007, we had to sign a 10-year lease and I was like “I don’t know, 10 years? That’s a long time. What if I don’t want to do this” or “what if we’re not successful or what if I get bored” and then we’re coming up on renewing our lease and I’m like “Oh my god, we need a new lease!” It went by so fast and the years kind of blend together and I never once thought “I don’t want to do this”. But it’s kind of hard to look back at moments I guess. Definitely being on a lot of television shows has been great. We’ve never once had to pay for advertising.
FW: Uh, that’s pretty good. Not a lot of businesses can say that [laughs].
SB: Yeah, it is kind of great to say we’ve never taken out an ad anywhere. Just for it to be kind of word-to-mouth or articles—it’s great. So there hasn’t been just one moment where it was like this crazy thing happened. More so, it’s just a collection of awesome moment after awesome moment.
FW: So you didn’t get bored?
SB: I didn’t get bored at all! It’s weird, especially with social media, things will die down and then pick up again and get reshared and people become re-interested. It’s great.
Vinnie’s Pizzeria is located at 148 Bedford Ave in Williamsburg and 253 Nassau Ave in Greenpoint.