Family is everything. It’s the reason we get up in the morning. It’s the reason we go to work every day, and for Jonathan Neighbors, owner of Vito’s Pizza Truck, family is the reason he’s an entrepreneur.
“I grew up in Lynchburg, Virginia,” Neighbors says. “My grandfather launched the first Vito’s Pizza there in 1993. And he was a huge influence on me growing up. He taught me everything from how to make the best pizza to putting in an honest day’s work. When I look around these days, I know that it was my grandfather, Al Vassallo, who helped make it possible.”
A strong work ethic has served Jonathan well. “I started out washing dishes. While other kids were out playing, I was often working in the restaurant. And those lessons were important to where I am today.”
A husband and father of five, before this year Jonathan routinely put in 80-hour weeks running his food truck business. Hard work that was shared by his family. “My wife Ashley does all the backend work from scheduling events to finances and occasionally working with me in the truck,” he says. “My sister in-law Amber works with me on the truck, and we also have a couple of part timers. Overall, we make a really great team.” Asked about his children working with him, Neighbors says, “They’re all under 12, so for now their job is to provide us with inspiration to keep this business moving in the right direction.”
Neighbors has been serving pizza to a loyal and growing customer base from his truck, which has two pizza ovens that reach 650 degrees, since 2013. And using the tagline “Love at First Slice,” he has been winning the hearts and stomachs of people all around Charlotte ever since. “I particularly like serving a slice to a skeptical New Yorker. After that first bite, they’re not skeptics any more.”
Until this year, business was going great. Before the pandemic, the truck was busy four days a week for lunches, was a staple at community events and festivals, and had a strong catering business.
“Back in March when the virus hit, it was like the great unknown,” he says. “We weren’t sure if we’d be offline for a month? Two months? We just knew that our business was down and we rely on it for our family’s livelihood.”
It was during this time when Jonathan got to work on pivoting his business strategy. “People still needed to eat,” he says, “and when restrictions began to relax a little, and as we started to learn how to operate safely, we decided to go to where people live to serve our food.”
Using social media, and implementing a menu from a changeable online document, Vito’s was able to begin serving entire neighborhoods around Charlotte where people could order via text and receive a text when their order was ready for pickup.
“We’ve served between 40-50 different neighborhoods since summer,” Neighbors says. “It’s not like how it was before COVID19, but we had to adjust in order to survive.”
A recipient of the City of Charlotte’s Access to Capital Program, Neighbors says the grant helped him fill gaps in lost revenue from spring. “It definitely helped us hang on. We were so grateful.”
While he is hopeful that things may return to normal in 2021, Neighbors is realistic in terms of continuing to adjust. His advice to other entrepreneurs struggling to make these critical adjustments is simple, “You have to stay positive. I mean, I love things being routine, but this virus has forced me to understand that things sometimes change. And you’ve got to change with them. You have to use what you have in order to pivot. Businesses that pivot are the ones that make it.”
Thanks to a strong work ethic and a can-do attitude instilled by his grandfather, Jonathan and Vito’s Pizza Truck is sure to thrive in the coming years. “As my grandfather used to say, ‘Life isn’t always easy.’ And I’ve learned that the hard work you put in is worth it. Especially when you do it for and with people you love.”