Assemblyman Adam Gray names Pizza Villa top small business of 2021

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MERCED, CA. -- Anyone who eats at Merced’s Pizza Villa can tell you what makes the pies special. For some, it’s the fresh-made sauce; for others, the dough that puffs up golden brown. Many rave over the incredible array of toppings.

But the truly special ingredient in each Pizza Villa pie can be found in one word: Tradition.

Owners Seth and Alma Fisher have kept alive Merced’s oldest pizza tradition. Their dedication to creating something both excellent and unique has led Assemblymember Adam Gray to name Pizza Villa the Assembly District 21 California Small Business of the Year for 2021. Pizza Villa and other small businesses from each Assembly District will be honored in a reception in Sacramento on Aug. 18.

The Pizza Villa tradition almost died in 2018 when Andy Cuttone taped a sign to his front door offering to sell the ovens, equipment and fixtures to anyone interested.

Seth Fisher, who started his career mopping Pizza Villa’s floors, wasn’t interested in buying just the ovens. He wanted to save the business.

After taking a few months to make the transition from employee to owner, Fisher continued making pizza pies the Pizza Villa way -- creating “a slice of happiness” for lunch and dinner customers.

“It’s an institution,” said Gray, who has been eating Pizza Villa pies (pepperoni and Canadian bacon) his entire life. “The place is one-of-a-kind; it’s part of what makes Merced Merced.”

When he was 17, Fisher attended the Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in San Francisco. That didn’t last long. After a year he joined the Army. When his hitch ended, he came home to Merced and began mopping those floors. Soon enough he was making pizzas, then he was the assistant manager and now the owner.

“I don’t consider myself a chef, but a very high-end cook,” said Fisher. “I realized that this is not just a regular pizza restaurant – but a high-end, really classy restaurant. Perfection in pizza. That’s what I was taught. … And that’s what brought back my passion for cooking.”

But it’s a lot of work being the owner. His 80-hour weeks include two days -- Mondays and Tuesdays – just for catching up. That’s when he does the deep cleaning and maintenance the restaurant requires at its Loughborough Drive location.

Because business is good – Fisher anticipates selling 30,000 pies this year – he’d like to add 10 more employees to his staff of 12, but he’s having trouble finding them. He needs dishwashers, servers, cashiers and delivery drivers.  He figures two thirds of his employees will learn to make pizzas.

It’s not as easy as it sounds. Setting aside the hours of prep to make sauce and toppings each day, Fisher said controlling for the variables in cooking is the key. You have to adjust the oven’s temperature for the outdoor heat and humidity – too much heat dries the dough, too cool outside and you lose the crispy crust. Even the thickness of the sauce affects the baking time.

Such attention to detail keeps people coming back and creates new customers from UC Merced.

If you had visited Pizza Villa back in 1962, some 27 years before Seth was born, you might have met his grandfather at a table eating a pie. If you had dropped in during the 1970s, Fisher’s dad might have been sitting there.

“It’s an honor and a privilege to serve the customers who have been coming here so long,” said Fisher. “I get so many people who will come in and say they remember coming in in 1960 when Andy was on J Street. Some people have even gotten married there.” 

That’s why being named the Small Business of the Year delights Fisher.

“It’s awesome. To me it’s everything. It means I’m doing it right, that I’m not straying off course. I’m running the place the way it should be run – which is making the best pizzas.”