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Pizzamaker braves snow to deliver on Super Bowl Sunday

By Christian Davenport
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 8, 2010; A07

For pizza shops, Super Bowl Sunday is the biggest night of the year, a chance to do a week's worth of business in a single night, an event to look forward to all year.

"Tonight is like prom night for us," said Todd Wiss, owner of Radius Pizza in Mount Pleasant. "It's huge. We'd hope to do multiple thousands of dollars in revenue."

That's why he packed the walk-in refrigerator with an extra 80 pounds of mozzarella and 30 extra pounds of sausage. And that's why, as the Blizzard of 2010 smothered the Washington region, he put on his hat and duck boots and spent two hours digging out his sport-utility vehicle Sunday. Then he made a harrowing, 45-minute trip from his home in Shirlington to work in the District.

"It was like driving in Antarctica," he said.

People want their pizza on Super Bowl Sunday. They demand it. On Saturday, at the height of the storm, when Radius wasn't delivering, someone called and demanded to know why. But when Wiss's two drivers called Sunday to say they were snowed in, the boss knew he would have to put down his chef's hat and become the deliveryman.

"It's not what I went to culinary school for, but the bank doesn't care that it snowed," he said. "It's my money on the line. It's my credit."

At 1:30, he goes out to gas up his Honda Pilot and check the roads in his neighborhood. "It's a mess," he says when he gets back. Even the area's main thoroughfares -- Irving and 16th streets NW, Park Road -- are a mess. But Wiss shovels out a parking space and gets ready to roll, because Super Bowl Sunday is his industry's Black Friday.

Wiss bought the place with his wife, Nicole Ryan, in April. They tapped into their savings. Ran up their credit cards. Took out a $180,000 loan. Wiss didn't pay himself a salary for three months.

Wiss, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, worked as the executive sous-chef at the Post Moderne Brasserie on Eighth Street downtown and then as executive chef at Black's Bar and Kitchen in Bethesda. When the opportunity to buy Radius came up -- Ryan had worked for the owners at one of their other restaurants -- the couple jumped at it, although they knew that many restaurants fall flat on their faces within a few months.

But Wiss was starting to get something of a following for his cooking, and he had always wanted to own his own place. He knew he wanted to go to culinary school even when he was in high school. But his parents objected, so he completed a year at Northern Virginia Community College, then dropped out to make $8 an hour working for a caterer in New York.

Now he finally had his own place. He revamped the menu and added personal touches to the food -- he grinds and cures his own sausage and buys produce from local farms. Radius developed a reputation as a cozy neighborhood joint and is packed almost every night.

Alas, on Super Bowl Sunday, the sun casts shadows across mostly open tables. As kickoff approaches, Wiss gets a little nervous. There was a light lunch crowd, and the phone isn't ringing. Then, about 2:30, it does.

The people on the line want to know a) if they're open ("Yes, we are," Ryan says), and b) if they're delivering.

"Great, we'll call you back," the person says and hangs up.

An hour passes. No orders. The Capitals come from behind, in dramatic overtime fashion, to win on the TV behind the bar. A few more customers walk in. But it's quiet. Too quiet.

"Still no phone calls?" Wiss asks his wife.

"Sorry," she says with a sympathetic smile. "I checked the phone to make sure it still works."

By 4 p.m., 2 1/2 hours before kickoff, Wiss walks through the bar, saying, "No phone calls. I can't believe it."

Maybe people think no one is delivering after the blizzard. Maybe they are waiting until kickoff. Maybe there'll be a late rush. The life of a small-business owner is full of such day-to-day worries.

What if the power goes out, and all the cheese is lost? Shortly after buying the restaurant, the pizza dough maker went on the fritz, and Wiss and Ryan spent $2,000 to get it fixed. What if there's a fire? Those concerns are why the first bill they pay every month is the insurance.

But Wiss has faith that the business will be a success, and that this night will be, too, even with two feet of snow out there. January was their best month ever. It was cold and snowy, and people wanted comfort food. During the storm in December that dumped a foot-and-a-half of snow, it seemed the neighborhood descended on Radius, and the phone didn't stop ringing. And, yes, Wiss did the delivering in his SUV then, too.

"I'd tell them it might be an hour or so but that I'd get there," he says. "I'd call them and have them meet me on the street. I'd open the door and hand them their pizza."

But this was an altogether different snowstorm. Two days after it began, the roads were still impassable -- and probably would be for days.

The sun starts to set. Nearly game time. Then two young guys come in and pick up four pies. The bar starts to fill up. The beer flows. The bell from the kitchen signifying "order's up" starts ringing. The smell of pizza wafts through the restaurant.

Then, finally, at 5:21, the phone rings -- a delivery order for a large pizza, calamari, a Coke and a Sprite -- and Wiss drives off into the snow.

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