Mario’s Pizzeria Ltd chairman and founder Richard Harford, left, with his son CEO Roger Harford at the company’s El Socorro head office.

When Mario’s Pizzeria opened its doors in June 1972 it was the first pizza parlour in this country.

“Fifty years ago pizza was a new food item. It was largely unknown to the population of T&T so in the early days, the campaigns and promotions were about building awareness and introducing the new product,” chief executive officer of Mario’s Pizzeria Roger Harford told the Business Guardian.

But times have changed since then.

“Today pizza is a staple throughout the world and there is a lot of foreign competition that has entered the local market over the last 25 years,” Harford explained.

Despite the changing landscape, however, Harford said Mario’s has been able to keep its share of the pie.

“We have been able to stand on our own and compete against these international companies. We command the largest number of stores as well as the largest segment of the pizza market in the pizza industry in T&T,” he said.

Every month Mario’s Pizzeria serves over 150,000 customers, Harford revealed.

Mario’s has since moved from that first pizza parlour in Valpark to now having 21 stores nationwide.

There are also plans to include a 22nd store this year in the Aranguez area, Harford said.

Like others, Mario’s has not been spared the brunt of the ongoing global rising food prices.

“We have been affected by global rising prices as much as 15 per cent increase in the cost of raw materials. In some items as high as 100 per cent but on average we are seeing a 15 per cent increase across our costs,” he said.

So far customers have been insulated from these rising costs.

“It has been quite difficult to manage because we have not been able to pass that increase on to our consumers because of the high level of competition,” he said.

What has happened over the last six months however is that Mario’s has had to reduce the number of discounts they have been able to offer customers.

“I fear that soon we will not be able to continue to hold pricing with the continued rising of food costs,” Harford said.

Harford added that the COVID-19 pandemic and the restrictions put in place to stop its spread adversely affected the organisation.

In 2020 Mario’s was closed for five weeks. Last year they were closed for 13 weeks.

“So having our business totally shut down for that period of time had a tremendous impact on our financial capabilities to continue with our commitments,” Harford said.

Unfortunately, he said staff had to be temporarily laid off as a result.

Mario’s however supported staff through the shutdowns with weekly stipends and hampers as often as possible.

Harford told the Business Guardian staff played an integral role in Mario’s reaching its golden anniversary.

“Our loyal staff who has stuck with us for the last 50 years, many of our senior management has been with the company for 30 plus years. They have seen the growth we have gone through, they have grown with us,” he said.

Harford himself has seen the organisation grow before his eyes. And grown with the organisation.

He is the son of Mario’s co-founder Richard Harford.

According to the history of Mario’s “on his return from working in Canada, Richard began to explore the entrepreneurial possibilities within the local business market. After surveying the landscape, Richard decided upon a restaurant with close friend, Roger Gibbon. At about the same time that the friends began their search for a location, an ice cream shop at the Valpark Shopping Plaza was offered up for sale. The duo grabbed the opportunity and purchased the business as a joint venture.”

Richard and Gibbon each invested $4,000, going into business as partners of a deli-style restaurant selling sandwiches, roti and drinks.

Within months of opening the deli at Valpark, Richard was persuaded to serve pizza instead of sandwiches and roti.

Friends of Richard—Colin D’Arcy, Vernon Charles and Trevor Acanne—had returned from studies in Canada with a pizza oven in tow.

The friends persuaded Richard that a pizza parlour would be a far more lucrative venture than a run-of-the-mill sandwich shop. Pizza had been a staple food of the friends’ diet while on campus and they had become quite proficient at preparing it.

D’Arcy, Charles and Acanne convinced Richard and Gibbon to turn the sandwich shop into Trinidad’s first local pizza parlour.

The five friends banded together to form Mario’s Pizzeria Ltd and Richard Harford was appointed the store manager.

Eventually, when business slowed down, Gibbon, D’Arcy, Acanne and Charles offered Richard and another mutual friend Victor Pereira the option of buying them out.

Richard then became the proud owner of 50 per cent of Mario’s Pizzeria Ltd.

Pereira would soon sell all of his shares to Richard when Trinidad’s economy started to swing south.

Despite the grim outlook, Richard’s determination, and passion for quality products and high standards maintained the popularity and the slow but steady growth of Mario’s Pizzeria.

Richard now sits as the chairman of Mario’s Pizzeria Ltd.

“Fifty years is a huge milestone in any organisation,” Harford said.

“I grew up in the business from as young as I could remember I have been involved in some way or fashion following behind my dad to visit stores, going with him to the market to buy vegetables on weekends. Growing up going to school having friends come over,” he said.

While the 50th anniversary was passed with only a congratulatory post on social media, Harford said the celebrations will take place this Saturday.

“We celebrate national pizza day on the second Saturday of every June which is basically in commemoration of our Anniversary. So national pizza day has been a marketing campaign that we have created over 15 years ago and it has grown each year,” he said.

“National pizza day is like our customer appreciation day we have lots of specials, give-aways and activities for children and the family to come in-store and enjoy pizza along with our other menu items,” Harford said.

Harford said Mario’s has utilised social media platforms to help its marketing and reach out to customers.

Under Harford’s initiative, the Mario’s Pizza Facebook Fan page was launched in 2009 well ahead of local competition.

The chain quickly expanded into other popular social networks including most recently Instagram and Tik Tok.

“Social media is a staple in our advertising budget. We have seen our migration from traditional media to social media and digital advertising,” he said.

Harford thanked staff, customers and fans for their continued support over the last 50 years and said that Mario’s looks forward to continuing to provide its pizzas and meal options far into the future.