Pizza Joe’s Will Be Latest to Leave Struggling 20 Federal Food Court

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – The food court in 20 Federal Place, downtown, was a bustling place before the pandemic.

During peak hours, the lines at some of the eateries would be up to 20 deep as hungry office workers queued up for lunch. But with many still working from home because of the pandemic, business has sharply declined. An exodus of stall operators has begun and those remaining wonder how much longer than they can hang on.

The food court will take another hit at the end of this week when Pizza Joe’s closes. The franchise was once one of the most popular in the food court and was a mainstay for 15 years.

Owner Aleen LaRocca, who owned the franchise for the last decade, cited the sharp reduction in foot traffic that the pandemic has caused, as well as rising costs for ingredients.

LaRocca expressed her gratitude to the downtown workers and residents she has served over the years and said she is “saddened” to have to close. She has no plans to reopen at another location.

To say farewell and thanks, she will offer $1 slices of pizza Thursday and Friday.

“We’ve had so many regulars and we hope they will all stop by to grab a slice and share a memory with us before we go,” LaRocca said.

Hers is the second in the food court to pull up stakes this year. In October, Fresh to Deaf closed its food court location and moved to Southern Park Mall. Owner Tiffany Hamilton had only been open for one year at 20 Federal Place when she decided to leave. 

Many customers of the food court work at VXI Global Solutions, a call center on the upper floors of the 20 Federal Place building. The company employs hundreds but many now work remotely.

“When the delta variant hit in July, VXI sent a lot more home,” Hamilton said. “We weren’t seeing the foot traffic.”

Hamilton said she was grossing less than $50 on some days. “That was not going to work,” she said. “I needed something more solid, consistent.” Her new location at the mall grosses in one day the same amount it made in a week at 20 Federal Place, she reports.

“I already had my own clientele and there is more foot traffic here,” she said. “I’m doing better in Door Dash business, too. There was nowhere for their drivers to park downtown. They either had to park far away or risk getting a ticket.”

Chris Paladino, human resources manager for VXI, declined to give figures on the company’s staffing levels or how many are working from home.

Even with the departure of Pizza Joe’s and Fresh to Deaf, the food court still has several dining options. Eman’s Lebanese Cuisine, Capitol Grill, Top Notch Meals, Mocha Boca and Subway will remain open, as will The Shoppe Downtown, which sells snacks and Lottery.

But all are feeling the pinch.

Ibrahim Jafar, owner of Eman’s, said his business is down by 50% since the pandemic began and he can’t afford to go on indefinitely like this. He is exploring his options, which include remaining where he is but creating a presence along the new Phelps Street pedestrian corridor.

Toward that end, Jafar and his cousin, Hachem Jafar, who owns the adjacent Capitol Grill, submitted a plan to the city in August whereby they would create a patio with seating on the walkway and serve food there or offer carryout during weekends and in the summer.

The rear wall of both the Capitol Grill and Eman’s abuts the walkway. The two owners hired an architect to draw up plans for the endeavor and would pay for its construction. They have not yet heard back from the city.

Like all of the food court vendors, Eman’s and Capitol Grill close no later than 4 p.m. each day. Having a presence on the walkway would significantly increase their potential for income and provide another option for visitors to the downtown entertainment district, they said.

But everything is on hold, they say, because the future of the 20 Federal Place building is unclear. 

The city, which owns the building, is in talks with the Desmone Group, a Pittsburgh architectural company that has proposed to renovate the building and add apartments, a rooftop restaurant, office space and other amenities. Council entered a memorandum of understanding with Desmone earlier this month.

The murky future – and the lack of information provided by the city – has been a source of frustration for the Jafars and other food court operators.

Kevin Flinn, the city’s commissioner of buildings and grounds, did not return messages in time for this article.

Ehab Traish opened Mocha Boca coffee shop in the food court in 2013. He and his business partner built up their sales over the next seven years, only to see them sink lower than ever when the pandemic hit.

The food court closed for much of the first part of the year in 2020. When it reopened in mid-summer, it was takeout-only. It later reopened its dining area but with seating capacity reduced by 50% and hours cut to 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

On any typical afternoon nowadays, there are only a handful of people eating at the tables with a few others trickling in for takeout orders.

For now, Traish is hanging on and looking for ways to adapt to the new reality. He co-owns a wireless telephone company, Buckeye Wireless, and formerly sold phones and plans at the downtown location, along with his coffee and pastries. He also operated a video game room at the site that has since shut down. 

To create a new niche, he is considering offering grab-and-go prepackaged takeout food for downtown workers with little time for lunch.

Traish said he hates to see his fellow business owners leave.

“It hurts to lose the pizza shop,” he said, “because the more businesses we have, the better the foot traffic. People think, ‘Oh, if they close that’s more business for you,’ but that’s not how it works.”

He also laments the uncertainty about the building’s future but said he has faith.

Like others in the building, he has applied for a Youngstown Microbusiness Grant. It was approved in August but he doesn’t know how much money he will receive or when he will get it.

As a lottery and snack outlet, The Shoppe Downtown is the only business in the food court that is not a lunch stand. But the downturn in foot traffic has severely impacted his revenues just the same, if not more.

“Things are tough,” said owner Stan Simon, who has been on the ground floor of 20 Federal Place for 20 years. “I have loyal customers but it’s not like it used to be.”

Simon said his revenues are down by 80% to 90% when compared to before the pandemic, adding he might have no choice but to shut down if there is no improvement.

Pictured: Aleen LaRocca has owned the Pizza Joe’s franchise in the 20 Federal Place food court for about a decade. She will close at the end of this week because of the downturn in business.

Copyright 2022 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.