As Robert (Bob) Petrillose, the owner of Ithaca's late-night Johnny's Hot Truck, nears retirement, a group of Cornell alumni are seeking to give his locally famous menu of pizza sub sandwiches a national audience. A partnership of graduates is scheduled to open the first outlet of PMP: The Original French Bread Pizza in Boston on Sept. 1.
Five years ago alumnus Jeffrey Riedl '70 called Petrillose with the idea of nationally marketing the Hot Truck's fare of French bread pizza subs. Petrillose then brought Riedl, a Wycoff, N.J., attorney, into contact with Andy Miller '87, who had previously raised the same possibility with the sandwich-maker.
"I've wanted to do it since I was 17," said Miller of the new venture, "ever since I ate my first Hot Truck sandwich."
Riedl and Miller, president of a Boston Internet development company called MarkeTVision Direct Inc., along with Gregory Dunn, a client of Riedl's who operates four Wendy's restaurants, formed a partnership that acquired the rights to use Petrillose's recipes and menu in franchises around the country. They recruited Erik Lehmann '95, who worked with Petrillose on the Hot Truck for six years, to round out the management team for the initial store in Boston.
The storefront will offer the same French bread pizza subs that Petrillose has been selling to hungry Cornellians late at night from his Stewart Avenue truck since 1960. The menu is to include such favorites as the "Poor Man's Pizza" (PMP), "Meatball and Cheese" (MBC) and the "Suicide" (Sui). PMP Enterprises Inc. will also serve Cornell alumni outside of the Boston area via its web site www.thepmp.com, through which customers can place overnight delivery orders with a yet-to-be-established outlet here in Ithaca.
Petrillose, who claims to be the first person ever to sell French bread pizza, created the original PMP in 1960 because he didn't like selling pizza by the slice. The dish has become a late night tradition on the Cornell campus since then, and it achieved national recognition when a Cornell alum convinced Stouffer's to sell the product as a frozen food.
For Riedl, the Boston storefront is the realization of a long-time dream. "I'm the guy who used to fall asleep with these sandwiches in the freshman dorms," said Riedl. He always thought he might contact Petrillose about the possibility of marketing his food outside of Ithaca. After he went to a hotel school alumni function and saw a group of older graduates milling around the truck in the early morning hours, he decided that a chain of French bread pizza stores was a real possibility. "When I saw these people going back, I realized there were generations of Cornell grads who really loved this product as much as I do," Riedl said.
Miller, who at the age of 26 drove from Boston to Ithaca in the middle of a snow storm for a Hot Truck fix, also has harbored a long-lasting enthusiasm for Petrillose's subs.
"If you like pizza and you take the best slice of pizza you ever had, and you multiply that by a hundred-fold, that's what you're getting," he said of the Hot Truck subs. "I don't know how I got away with eating 47 of those a semester."
Whether or not the French bread pizza will sell as well out of a storefront in Boston, or via the Internet, as they do in a truck in Ithaca remains to be seen. Riedl said the partners hope to market the product to students at Boston University and Boston College.
"We thought it would be a good hedge to start our prototype store in a market that was predominantly college students," he said. "We thought Boston was a good place because of the demographics, all the students."
Lehmann, who will be managing the store, said his challenge will be to make PMP particular to the students it serves, just as Petrillose's Hot Truck is particular to Cornellians. He recalls how kids would wait for two hours in freezing cold temperatures to place an order with the truck -- and enjoy the wait. "One of the things we can't lose is its uniqueness in the community," he said. "My task is creating a team that can emulate the magic in Ithaca."
Even without the lure of the truck and its charismatic owner, the Petrillose family recipes will win the hearts of the Boston public, Riedl and Miller insist. The Poor Man's Pizza served there will be identical to what Petrillose sells, down to the ingredients in the meatballs. "We want to have the product be exactly the same as what Bob produces out of the truck," said Riedl. "We're even getting our bread from Ithaca Bakery."
Petrillose is enthusiastic about the venture, but harbors some worries that the subs may suffer in quality depending on who is making them. "I think it will be great," he said. "My problem is the consistency."
If the first storefront does do well, however, the partnership intends to open two PMP restaurants a year in the Boston area. Once there are five successful stores established, Riedl said, PMP Enterprises will seek to franchise the chain around the country. He said Cornell grads in California, Ohio, Florida, Texas, and New York have expressed interest in taking part in the venture.
Miller, who is overseeing the marketing of the PMP restaurants, sees Petrillose playing a key roll if and when the chain gains momentum. "We will certainly be branding [Petrillose] in the Colonel Sanders mode," he said. "We're talking about an intelligent, educated, hardworking, all-American man. He's the perfect guy to brand."
But for now, however, Petrillose's involvement is minimal. Though he will receive a cut of any profits, he is leaving the heavy lifting to Riedl and company. Meanwhile, he is in search of someone to take over the tradition he started 39 years ago so he can retire. Said Petrillose, "It's going to take someone who really wants to make a commitment."