Coping with COVID-19: Stadium Pizza stays flexible

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Dan Nelson, owner and president of Stadium Pizza in San Jacinto, says he welcomes alternative ways of serving his customers. He removed his face covering for the photograph. Valley News/Diane A. Rhodes photo

Chances are anyone whose children or grandchildren have played sports in the San Jacinto Valley during the past three decades is familiar with Stadium Pizza in San Jacinto. First opened in 1991, the restaurant has been the go-to hangout for team celebrations and sports fans alike.

Dan Nelson, who purchased the restaurant in 1994 and is currently president and owner, expanded on its existing gaming spirit by providing support to Hemet and San Jacinto area schools, while sponsoring local teams during every sports season.

Dan Nelson has owned and operated Stadium Pizza in San Jacinto since 1994. He removed his face covering for the photograph and was more than 6 feet away. Valley News/Diane A. Rhodes photo

Learning curve

On March 17, amid concerns about the coronavirus pandemic, the restaurant reduced its seating capacity by 50%. Within a few days, the restaurant moved to take out service only.

“No warnings were given before the first shutdown; everything happened too fast,” Nelson, 51, said. “Most of the information we received was by watching television or by looking on the internet.”

Stadium Pizza already offered an in-house delivery and takeout system, which helped staff transition to the new way of serving customers, he said. But thinking outside the pizza box is something Nelson and his staff have had to do on a daily basis ever since.

“The biggest problem we have is storage and getting product,” Nelson, who has lived in the San Jacinto Valley since 1976, said. “Our food distributors went from working and delivering items to us three days a week, down to one or two. COVID-19 has taken a lot more of my time fixing product and distribution problems on the fly.”

Dan Nelson, owner and president of Stadium Pizza in San Jacinto, set up plexiglass and wooden partitions throughout the restaurant, removing half of the tables to reduce dine-in capacity by 50%. Valley News/Diane A. Rhodes photo

Management

One upside to being closed to dine-in customers is that it allowed Nelson to utilize his game room and rear dining room for dry storage. When so many customers enjoyed their meals in person, pizza boxes and to-go containers weren’t needed in bulk as they are now, he said. Before the pandemic, takeout orders comprised about 15% of Stadium’s business and now it accounts for 100% of it.

Just as many others experienced the shortage of flour, yeast and hand sanitizer at local grocery stores, Nelson said the sheer volume needed to continue his business made it very difficult for him. Limits on the amount one person could purchase at a time also became an issue. He said there was a huge pepperoni shortage at one point, and he had to search far and wide to get what he needed.

Nelson said he feels fortunate that he did not have to lay off any of his employees during this crisis. Stadium Pizza kept everyone on the payroll and hired 10 new employees.

“We were able to hire first-time workers that were not getting unemployment,” he said. “Stadium has been able to sustain its revenue and keep all employees working with the help of our customers and community support.”

Stadium Pizza’s rear dining room is being used for dry storage since the restaurant moved to 100% takeout options since March 20. Valley News/Dan Nelson photo

Health

Nelson said employees’ temperatures are taken every shift. Masks are worn by all staff and all delivery distributors coming into the business. Customers are required to wear masks when ordering or picking up food. Sanitizing stations are set up all around the restaurant, and countertops and registers are cleaned after each customer.

“My managers and myself have family members and friends’ family members that work at Stadium Pizza,” Nelson said. “We are making sure they feel safe to be at work; that is the focus for us. As long as COVID-19 is here, all we can do is try to be as safe as possible. If we can do this, then the numbers will do down and we can reopen per the governor’s guidelines.”

Keegan Libeu shows a personal pizza kit to bake at home, which he ordered from Stadium Pizza in San Jacinto. News/Dan Nelson photo

Weathering

The restaurant staff has also kept busy partnering with local residents to supply food for first responders and medical personnel, with the Hemet/San Jacinto Valley Chamber of Commerce and the Southern California Gas Company to make sure older adults are getting food so they do not have to go out and with the Kiwanis Club of Hemet by donating food to many volunteers performing community service.

“We are missing hanging out with customers and their families,” Nelson said. “Stadium Pizza is all about atmosphere – having kids in the game room, sports on TVs and families and teams hanging out.”

He said the staff still interact with customers on the phone and in person when they pick up their orders.

“We thank them for keeping us open and talk about when we finally can sit down in the dining room and just eat and relax,” Nelson said. “We also keep in touch with our customers on our website, Facebook and Instagram.”

With a menu that aligns with its theme, such as a “Scorekeeper” sandwich or a “Designated Hitter” appetizer, Stadium Pizza’s team of employees is dedicated to passing on its passion for sports to customers, Nelson said. Although the ambiance is not the same, he said his dedication to quality food is still strong. Personal pizza kits for children to take home were added to the menu in April.

“We’ve had a great response from those that are being schooled at home,” Nelson said. “It’s a fun thing to do with your kids, and they can be ordered on Facebook and Instagram.”

Stadium Pizza, 701 W. Esplanade Ave. in San Jacinto, is open daily from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. with deliveries available between 11 a.m. and 9 p.m. Delivery, pickup and curbside orders can be placed by calling 951-654-1142 or online at http://www.stadiumpizzas.com.