Chasing the Slice
June 8, 2020
A man carries a tray of bottled Cokes from the storage unit in the neighboring business complex to his building storefront. He crosses the parking lot with authority, his steps long and even.
His eatery is embellished with accent colors of red, white and green, the color palette of the Italian flag. The business, almost 60 years old, stretches out to 300-square-feet in length onto Crenshaw Boulevard, where cars chase each other north and south.
An array of benches and cement dining tables are nestled underneath vibrant red umbrellas on the patio. Spring flowers bloom from small, green shrubs that enclose the business.
The man opens up the door to his eatery to drop off the soda. He steps back out to observe his business. In front of his Italian flagged quarter, a sign beams with the company name: GiGi’s Pizza.
This mom-and-pop shop sits in the middle of the block, across from El Camino College.
Today, GiGi’s is positioned among popular chain franchises:
Taco Bell. McDonald’s. Starbucks. Del Taco. Domino’s Pizza. KFC. And now Chick-Fil-A.
However, only GiGi’s can deliver a unique offering, New York-style pizza by the owner, Robert “Bob” Gilewski.
Bob refers to his pizzeria as his “California Dream.” He puts his menu, business sharp work ethic and GiGi’s rich history and charm up against the big-timers six days a week. Besides GiGi’s classic, thin-crusted pizza, it offers torpedo sandwiches, pasta, antipasto salads and Sicilian-style pizza.
The Sicilian crust begins to rise on top of the 500-degree oven in a square sheet pan, while a thin-crust pizza is tossed, receives its layers of toppings and is put into the oven.
“A slice of normal life,” Bob says.
Bob, 58, is a small business and franchise owner in the South Bay who continues to carry family tradition and food to the highest standards. He towers above his employees in height with maturing ash grey hair and youthful work attire that includes a simple tuck of his red Dr. Pepper shirt into his light washed jeans.
His employees race back and forth in the tiny framework of the pizza stand with bright red aprons. Sprinkling the finishing layer of vegetables or cutting the sandwich precisely on paper, they are his extended family.
Bob has held a spot in the college area for 28 years as the owner of Subway and now GiGi’s for 5 years serving students, faculty and customers alike.
Customers from as far as Newport Beach and Los Angeles will travel to have a slice of New York’s finest pizza in the South Bay.
Students cross the busy intersection of Crenshaw and Manhattan Beach Boulevard to enjoy a quick pizza slice in-between classes.
The “good feelings” and “good times” Bob has made as an owner of Subway and GiGi’s Pizza on Crenshaw Boulevard makes him feel like one of the locals.
The uncertainty of global pandemic COVID-19 has closed down all “non-essential” businesses while GiGi’s continues to remain open as “essential”.
“Across from the college, we exist to serve the college community,” says Bob.
Bob takes the “unpredictable and difficult” nature of the novel coronavirus “day by day” and presses forward with his family, employees and returning customers.
He can’t stop smiling and remains present and hopeful while drifting back into his California dream.
“Surf. Sun. Sand,” Bob says.
Born in Canada, Bob envisioned a new reality during his childhood through the sound of the 1960’s band The Beach Boys courtesy of his older brother. The Hawthorne natives’ classic hits “Get Around” and “Surfin’ USA” resonated with Bob as each band member sang of a tropical paradise.
The warmth of the sun. The consistent wave swells. California.
“I gotta find a new place where the kids are hip,” The Beach Boys sang in their song “Get Around.”
Bob “got around” to Toronto University and remained optimistic about the possibility of living in California. He was a full-time student balancing a major in nutritional science and a minor in physiology, all the while running a furniture moving business with his longtime friend Mark Springett.
Bob graduated from Toronto University in 1985 with a bachelor’s degree in nutritional science and a business built from the bottom up. The shuffling of furniture back and forth became a tall tale of success. Mark and Bob together took out a $5,000 small business loan tailored to students and the business exploded into a new stage of interest.
Bob and Mark continued to create stability within their moving company and sold their business.
“If I start something, I just wanna finish it,” Bob says. “I took the leap.”
His leap of faith offered a wavelength of possibilities.
Once the business moved furniture to the next destination, so did Bob.
In 1991, Bob followed Mark and his family to California to chase a new set of business adventures and his childhood dream.
Only 12 miles away from The Beach Boy’s hometown in Hawthorne.
Bob made sure he knew the locality of his new home by his own book research of the South Bay.
He first lived in a small bedroom for rent in a family home and continued to work as a doorman to make sure “every nickel” was used toward purchasing a new business.
Walks along the Redondo Beach Pier were done during his past time, but Bob didn’t sit still.
Bob worked around the clock to invest in a company that would fulfill his dreams to start a family and migrate permanently to the South Bay.
In 1992, Bob became a local in the South Bay by joining a trade agreement (Investor Visa) between the United States and Canada, which allows equal access within the United States in order to partake in business ownership.
His first business? Subway across from El Camino College.
This franchise ownership helped Bob build a deeper understanding of what being a business owner in the South Bay community truly means.
“It takes a lot of hard work and some luck,” Bob says. “ [You] apply and use a bit of common sense.”
One Subway turned into two; and, in 2015, Bob took another leap, shifting his attention to an ownership position at a restaurant that has been running since 1964.
The small stand started with early franchise roots of Dairy Queen’s “Orange Julius” and followed thereafter independent ownerships.
Orange Julius. Perry’s Pizza. Bonello’s Pizza.
Bob’s knowledge of the historical timeline of blooming business ventures called out to him.
The architecture of the eatery made Bob reminisce on the “simpler times” of America’s historical past of food and small businesses.
Meanwhile, previous owner Benedetto Bonello of Bonello’s Pizza panned out Italian family traditions for 34 years.
From Sicily, to New York, and to his final stop in California, “Mr. Bonello” served El Camino College and the surrounding beach cities.
Bob and Benedetto “Mr. Bonello,” became extended business neighbors when Bob became the owner of Subway. After sharing local business together for 25 years, Mr. Bonello told Bob one day that he planned on retiring.
Bonello’s Pizza was in the market to be politely snatched by local corporate competition.
Starbucks, one of the biggest corporate competitors in the food industry, was a contender for a local spot because of its smaller size.
However, Starbucks opened a location a block south, previously occupied by Wienerschnitzel.
Bob enjoyed the idea of running a “family business, nonfranchise” restaurant, but he wanted to ensure himself from a business and personal aspect that the decision was sound.
The camaraderie between Bob and Benedetto created a transition to keep the Italian family heritage alive, including some new and familiar additions into the employed family Mr. Bonello created.
Bob jumped ships in 2015 to balance both franchises and now being an independent owner of GiGi’s Pizza.
“Mr. Bonello got it right,” Bob says.“It has always been my favorite ‘excellent’ pizza.”
Bob knew this was a business and investment he could carry forward into his own family traditions.
His parents told him growing up in Canada “you can make any life you want” and Bob did just that.
Bob now balances the life of being a father, husband, franchise, and small business owner.
Named after Bob’s Mom, GiGi’s Pizza continues to stand tall alongside rows of corporate competition.
Only a name change is not what Bob had planned. Bonello’s was a “family” name known by customers across the South Bay.
“He [Benedetto] wasn’t too comfortable passing the name on although I wanted to keep the tradition going,” Bob says. “We changed the name, but everything [is still] the same.”
Being the “new old guy in town,” Bob made sure that the traditional recipes of Bonello’s would stay and embody all the characteristics of Benedetto’s Italian quarter.
“Everything is homemade and it is a secret,” Bob says.
The spices are used in a unique formula that has turned traditional Italian delicacy into Gardena’s little treasure.
GiGi’s Pizza employee Sylvester Gutierrez, 47, is the keeper of the prized recipes and has been making Mr. Bonello’s dishes for 19 years.
He enjoys the inviting and “easy” environment of being in close proximity to home and sees using “only hands, no machine” when making pizza as another unique way to give back to customers who have kept coming back over the past 34 years between Bonello’s and Gigi’s Pizza.
“All the time the regular customers we have are really friendly,” Sylvester says.
On one occasion a long-standing customer returned to the pizzeria to give Sylvester a bike to ease the commute time to work.
Monday through Saturday, 50 pounds of dough is tossed on the finished, light wood prep board that has an indentation marking years of heavy labor to deliver top standards.
Pizza is prepped and dressed with an array of fresh ingredients. Along with pizza dough, homemade garlic bread and torpedo sandwiches are some of the customer’s favorites.
“The garlic bread we make is pretty special,” says Bob. “The bread is made “in house” having a “crispy, moist inside with garlic spread and mozzarella cheese.”
A special sauce is spread evenly on their torpedo sandwiches with an arrangement of Italian delicatessen meat and cheese.
Another thin-crusted pizza, the “jalopestroni,” glistens in the sunlight with fresh jalapenos and pepperoni.
The Italian cuisine has been structured over years of experience from Sylvester and other employees, holding a special place with customers and the community through the art of Mr. Bonello’s traditions.
El Camino College English and ESL Professor Elise Geraghty, says that the slices of Bonello’s and GiGi’s pizza she has had over the years while working at ECC are more “personal” and offer direct insight into the authenticity of the business.
“If I am going to get pizza I am not going to go to Domino’s, I’ll go to Gigi’s,” Elise says.
Today, while mass food corporations get bigger, Bob believes that GiGi’s Pizza will continue to stand as long as faculty, students, and local customers go down the stretch of Crenshaw Boulevard.
Bob’s outlook on new competition, Chick-Fil-A, does not scare him but has encouraged him to see the hindsight of it all, the business will not go unnoticed in the midst of chain food corporations.
The executive director of the Gardena Valley Chamber of Commerce, Wanda Love, says that the revenue and stability of small businesses keep the city of Gardena and the United States run as a whole.
“Small businesses [are] truly the backbone to America,” Wanda says. “Small businesses [are] the backbone period.”
Running two Subway franchises and GiGi’s pizza is no small feat, but Bob today continues to do so while showing the tenacity and humility it takes to fight for a self-made dream.
“You can have somebody do it for you [running a business], but as an owner, nobody will ever do it the same way you put care into things,” Bob says.
Bob’s smile and short words are intertwined in his focus hourly.
Six days a week Bob is on-the-go and faces the extended whirlwind of chaos from COVID-19 in order to keep his businesses afloat during self-quarantine.
Bob and his 12-year-old son will play basketball or baseball in his spare time outside of work at their home in Palos Verdes. They both keep a “social distance” and release any anxious tensions from the unexpected circumstances arising from COVID-19.
Together, Bob takes the time he has to reflect on how far he has come as a businessman, husband, and father.
“I am happy to have gotten the business a few years ago, and continue things on,” Bob says.
“I enjoy the business and the people and the employees are great.”
The “good vibrations” Bob has felt as a California local will not end. Bob does not plan on retiring for a while and hopes that his son will eventually carry on the tradition with GiGi’s Pizza.
“This is a big part of it, that dream carries all the aspects of having a family and being able to enjoy all of what California has to offer and having a business that is successful.”