Photography by Adarsh Shidhaye
Moving to college means having a lot to learn. Beyond the demands of coursework, it means figuring out things like which settings on the dorm laundry machines won’t destroy your favorite sweatshirts, which routes will get you to class on time when you’ve overslept and, most importantly, where to get a good slice of pizza. Village Idiot Pizza, with its locations in Five Points, Olympia Mills and Forest Acres, has been the answer to that crucial question for many UofSC students since the '90s. This year marks its 30th anniversary and to celebrate, Garnet and Black sat down with Kelly Glynn, who owns the restaurant with her husband, Bryan, to talk about their experience and what it’s been like as a small business staying afloat in a global pandemic.
Portions of this interview have been edited for grammar and clarity.
G&B: You and your husband both worked at Village Idiot starting in the '90s and you transitioned into ownership later. What was your vision for the restaurant when you guys took over?
So, we both worked for the original owners in the early '90s. We worked here for quite some time, I finished college and Brian actually stayed on. He never finished his degree, so he was managing the restaurant even after I left. But we both had been out of it for probably five or so years when we had the opportunity to purchase Village Idiot. The vision was really to make the brand a staple in Columbia. People know of the Village Idiot and if you came down to Five Points of course you knew of the Village Idiot but it was amazing how many students didn’t know we were here or that we delivered so it was really our vision to really build brand awareness in the community and really become a community staple.
G&B: What are some things that have changed since you guys have taken over?
Gosh, we’ve added to the company. We have two additional locations, we’ve had several iterations of our logo, our mark, and that was also in an effort to really brand us. When we opened the second location, we kind of rebranded, and then when we opened Olympia, we finally settled on this one set brand that would be the indicator for if you talked about Village Idiot, that’s it, no matter what location you were visiting. In the future, when we opened more, it was consistent. That’s changed a lot. When we first took over, we really honed in on the recipe. The recipe changed a little bit since we first took ownership but since then it's been consistent. We’ve remodeled here and there but that kind of comes with the territory. You won’t remember this, but in 2007 the bar in the Five Points location was super tiny. It was set up for mini bottles so it had these low hanging wooden kind of… really small kind of like a cave. We opened that up, dumped the bar seating... That’s a big change.
G&B: You mentioned the recipe and the food. Being in the heart of a college town, you guys get people from all over the country and the world who come and have your pizza. What’s it like to cater to that kind of community?
It’s very interesting to see when people, while they’re in school here, they become regulars. They become family. They’re very much creatures of habit. We get the same people for the four or five years they’re in school. Then they leave. Same thing with employees. We’ll have [student] employees the whole time they’re in school, then they move on. Then they go on, they get established in their careers and they come back for a game and it’s as if they never left. It’s important to us to welcome them back and that we have the consistent recipe and everything is fresh and homemade and they know that when they come in, the slice they’re going to get is just as good as what they got before. It’s just really nostalgic for a lot of people when they come back.
G&B: You work with your husband, what’s it like being partners in life and in business?
It has been a fun ride, I will say. Starting back in 1994 when we met here, we were not the only employees to meet here and go on to get married. We’ve had a lot of relationships form here. Obviously, we’re the only ones who got married and came back to buy it. As the business has changed, though, we’ve had to change with it. Now we have 3-year-old twins at home so that has added a whole new dynamic to it, but we've just stayed true to the brand and what we’re trying to do in the community. It’s important to us that every pizza, every salad, every meal that comes out of the kitchen is as consistent and as good as it can be because the consumer had a choice about where to get their meal. We definitely don’t want to disappoint. It’s very important to us to make everyone have a good experience.
G&B: This is a big year for you guys with the anniversary, but it’s also a big year in general with the pandemic. When did you guys know that everything was changing? What was your first response? What was going through your head when it all hit Columbia?
It was the week of spring break... we were getting into a zone for the spring semester. We were gearing up for March Madness, we were gearing up for the St. Patrick’s Day festival. We were gearing up for a busy time, so we weren’t glued to the television at that point. When the announcement was made that spring break was going to be extended a week, we really started to be very concerned about what the spring was going to hold. Every single day from that point on, we were learning something new that was going to greatly impact our business. Up until the point when the governor closed the dining room. Every day from when the university extended spring break and then stopped the semester for in-classroom, we were pivoting every day. Trying to figure out how we could keep all three [locations] open. March 3rd we closed the Five Points location because it became evident that with the dining rooms having to be closed, this location could not adapt to the changes that needed to be made. It’s upstairs, there are no windows, it’s very hard for us to do a curbside platform there. Luckily, the other two could. This whole six months since all this started, every day has been new information coming at us and having to change the way that we do our business to make sure that our staff and customers stay safe and feel comfortable ordering from us so that we could keep the two operating with the hopes that the Five Points location could re-open. It’s been nothing like we’ve ever experienced. There was no one to really talk to about it. No one has ever been through this, so we really just had to keep level heads and try to figure it out day by day. We needed to maximize what we could do to keep the company going, to keep our employees employed. Also, we wanted to support the community. We did the Pizza Gram Program where we helped healthcare workers. We really wanted to do as much as we could.
G&B: What’s the reaction been like from the community and from customers?
The reaction has been positive. This has been a challenging time to be any type of business that has been able to remain open through this. There are a lot of people with differing opinions and I think because we took things very seriously and made the changes that were needed and stayed ahead of the game… There’s been a positive reaction to that because they can trust that we’re doing the right thing.
G&B: How have things changed since students have returned?
You know, I will not mince my words here, it’s been very challenging. The model that we were operating under had finally gotten onto autopilot. Day by day, things were going well, but as soon as move-in weekend happened, things were upside down again. We had an influx of customers and customers that wanted to do stuff. They were back at school. They wanted to have some normalcy back. We had to do a little bit of changing again to make sure that we continued to keep our takeout customers safe, keeping our occupancy numbers where they should be, it’s been a challenge. But most of the students have been courteous and understanding about what we have to do as a business. It’s been great, I will say that. We’re so happy that they’re back but it’s been challenging. We can’t wait for things to get back to normal, but until they do we have to go by the regulations that are put in front of us. We think that that’s very important in order to get those restrictions lifted.
G&B: After going through all this, what’s your message to other local businesses and other members of the community moving forward? Do you have any advice or words you’d like people to take away?
I think we have to remain humble in all of this. There are so many small businesses that have not made it and are not going to make it because of the restrictions that COVID-19 has put on small businesses especially. We’ve been fortunate that our model could pivot to that takeout scenario. Small business owners are very resilient. If a small business can make it work, they’re going to do everything they can. It’s kind of in our blood. For us, we have to stay humble, keep our chin up and we support all of our local business neighbors as much as we can. And we have to support each other.