NORTH TONAWANDA — Lumber City Pizza Company opened up shop Jan. 3 on Erie Avenue in North Tonawanda and just 26 days later, they officially became a fan favorite.
The company is “a big family affair,” owned and operated by Jon Cohen, his wife Colleen, and their four sons, Josh, Alex, Michael and Grant, the family patriarch said.
Soon after opening their doors, Jon said he was contacted by the Chamber of Commerce of the Tonawandas to participate in Pizza Fest on Jan. 29. They took home third-place honors for both people’s choice best pizza and people’s choice best wings.
Jon said he was surprised at the acknowledgement from attendees at the event, but hopes it helps the restaurant stand apart from the location’s previous tenant, Pizza Junction.
“It just goes to show ... let the people try (our pizza) and I think they’ll like it rather than come in with a predetermined notion,” Jon said. “People come and they think that it’s Pizza Junction. You can’t duplicate something like (Pizza Junction’s pizza). It took the guy 40 years to build it.”
“We’re trying to do our thing and I think people will be happy down the road ... just give us a chance,” he added.
Doing their own thing includes a menu full of a variety of specialty pizzas that Jon describes as a mix between Chicago and Buffalo style.
“It’s a thicker crust. We put a lot more cheese and a lot more toppings than your traditional pizza,” he said.
The menu lists a dozen or so specialty pizzas, including a pulled pork pizza, eggplant and their Pizza Fest prize-winning Pittsburgh pizza, which includes Riviera dressing, chopped steak, seasoned French fries, melted provolone and cole slaw toppings.
Josh, one of Jon’s sons, said he feels like the Pittsburgh pizza could become a signature dish for the restaurant, which is why he picked it as the Lumber City Pizza Company’s entry for Pizza Fest.
“Nobody that I know of in the area does French fries on pizza. That’s why I selected that one,” Josh said. “People were excited to try it. Some of the workers said, ‘Ew, it sounds odd.’ Pretty much when everyone tries it, they really come around.”
In addition to pizza, the restaurant’s menu includes salads, wings, calzones, subs, soups, pastas and other entrees. Jon said he wants to put emphasis not just on their pizza, but their catering and banquet offerings.
“I’m very heavy into the banquet business (and offer) a lot of off-premise and on-premise catering. This building intrigued me because it holds 78 people ... it’s a diamond in the rough,” Jon said.
“Basically I just want to become a part of the community. This is probably the easiest city I’ve ever worked with. They just can’t do enough for you,” he added.
But mostly, Jon said, his main motivation for taking over the old Pizza Junction location is that he enjoys buying failed stores and building them back up.
“It’s going to sound corny but it’s like a guy restoring a car ... certain things just shouldn’t go by the wayside,” he said.
This isn’t the Cohens’ only business in Western New York. They also operate two Johnny C’s delis — one in East Amherst and one at the University at Buffalo’s north campus — and Westwood Country Club in Williamsville.
Jon has a degree in restaurant management from Florida International University, and said he opened up his first restaurant immediately after graduating.
The biggest thing he’s learned over years of restaurant ownership is that “you have to listen to what the customer wants.”
Within the first few weeks of opening Lumber City Pizza Company, Jon said he realized he had to do things a little differently than his other restaurants.
“In East Amherst we have a chopped steak ... almost like a Philly cheesesteak. We tried ribeye steak and they wanted the chopped steak. We come out (to North Tonawanda) and they wanted the ribeye steak (instead),” he said. And so they switched.
“I like to say I get paid 100 percent commission,” he said. “It’s all through the customer.”
Contact features editor Danielle Haynes at 693-1000, ext. 4116.