Pizza: Transcendent of Class, Culture and (perhaps) Supply Chain Disruptions

By Berlin Schaubhut (NYC).

New York City’s food system is complicated, decentralized and growing. With unique geographic characteristics, immense cultural diversity and a booming, densely packed population, the Big Apple poses for an interesting case study in how the world’s urbanites are fed.

New York contains more people to feed than any other city in the United States. It also has the highest population density, containing 27,000 people per square mile. Servicing these people are more than 20,000 restaurants, 13,000 food retailers and 1,600 public farmers markets.  Each of these establishments receive their food from a variety of distributors, usually involving middlemen. Many retailers source their ingredients from distributors such as Restaurant Depot and Jetro.

Although sitting on one of the largest natural harbors in North America, most of New York’s food arrives on trucks.  As much as 96 percent of all food flowing into New York is hauled in on four wheels, according to a 2002 study conducted by the Earth Institute of Columbia. At that time, there were more than 33.5 million tons of food moving into the New York area. By 2035, this quantity will reportedly bump up to 54 million tons.

The diversity of New York is almost as staggering as its size. More than 3 million people living in New York -- almost a third of the population -- were born in another country. One would imagine this diversity makes the city not only one of the largest food systems but also one with the greatest variety in taste preferences. Yet, as the stereotype suggests and New Yorkers will concur, pizza transcends all. A long-time unifier of the city’s population, the New York slice is an icon for not just the metropolis, but the entire state.

New York state has more than 9,000 pizzerias, more than 80 percent of which are independently owned, the highest number in the country. Eleven percent of all independent pizzerias in the U.S. are in New York state, according to PMQ Pizza Magazine.

Union Pizza Works. Brooklyn, NY. Schaubhut, 201

Union Pizza Works. Brooklyn, NY. Schaubhut, 201

New York city consumes a large amount of pizza, much of which comes in the form of dollar (or $2) slices from to-go pizzerias all over the city. For those who aren’t on the go or don’t mind paying more for a slice, you can find gourmet and fine-dining establishments, some ultra-hip and farm-to-table, such as Roberta’s in Brooklyn, serving pizza that receive the highest of critical acclaim.

Pizza in NYC can come in a variety of forms to fit each of the unique dining needs of every social and economic class of consumers. New Yorkers can get their pizza from a delivery man on a bicycle, from the frozen foods aisle at their local grocer or bodega, via a pizza cart in Central Park, at a five-star dining establishment, a fast-food franchise restaurant or a local mom-and-pop pizzeria down the street.

European pizza cafe & the 86th street subway. New York, NY. Schaubhut, 2014

European pizza cafe & the 86th street subway. New York, NY. Schaubhut, 2014

Because pizza can apply to every demographic, social class, and economic class in NYC, and because of its iconic food status in the Big Apple, it is an ideal food to use to examine the NYC food supply chain. How do the supply chains differ between a pizzeria that tries to offer the lowest price versus a pizzeria that tries to serve the highest quality? Does the pizzeria serving 99 cent slices use the same ingredients, middlemen, distributors and food manufacturers, as a place like Di Fara Pizza, which sells its slices for $5 each?

Pizza remains a unique food commodity in a city that contains such a wide variety of cultures, economic levels, social classes and ages. A New Yorker’s pizza choice can illuminate a lot about that person. What can pizza itself illuminate about the entire city?