The owner of the St. Clair Shores pizzeria was dealing with cancer when the virus hit, then a New York-based blogger posted a review that had sales soaring

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Award-winning pizza maker Shawn Randazzo has seen some ups and downs during his 25 years working in the pizza business. 

The struggles for the past few months include sales dipping at his Detroit Style Pizza Co. shop in St. Clair Shores due to the global pandemic. The stay-at-home order that hurt most food businesses came just weeksafter Randazzo started treatment for stage four glioblastoma, an aggressive brain cancer. 

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Brain cancer and a fast-spreading virus are both scary situations, but Randazzo soldiered on at his pizzeria, cutting staff and condensing business hours. 

Several weeks into the pandemic, though, Randazzo found himself with a new, unexpected problem. Sales tripled overnight, and he was short-staffed and had to scramble to churn out Detroit Style Pizza’s crispy-edged, deep-dish square pies. 

How did sales suddenly ramp up? An internet pizza connoisseur reviewed his pizza on April 21, giving it a high score of 8.5 out of 10. 

Internet celebrity David Portnoy is known for his blog Barstool Sports, but the University of Michigan graduate is also a pizza critic. His One Bite Pizza Review channel on YouTube has nearly 250,000 followers alone. 

"It’s been a huge impact. I never would have expected that," said Randazzo. "Our business tripled and people were waiting two hours, we had to shut online ordering off. The first couple weeks we had a lot of struggles and challenges of adjusting … (but) people were very understanding." 

Portnoy, whose business is based in New York, has an advertising deal with GoldBelly.com, a site that ships regional favorites and other restaurant food around the country. Randazzo has been selling frozen versions of his Detroit-style pizza through the site for a few years. That side of the business, largely run by his mother Linda Michaels, was steady.

One Sunday night in April GoldBelly.com reached out to Randazzo, asking him to send a frozen pizza pack to Portnoy for review.

"To be honest, at first I didn’t know too much about this guy but I did know it was a big opportunity, so I made it happen," said Randazzo, 44, who started working at the pizza shop in 1995 as a delivery driver and purchased the business with Michaels a few years later. Back then it was a Cloverleaf Pizza location, a longstanding local chain that dates to the 1940s and is part of Detroit-style pizza’s origin. 

"After that review I mean, geez-o-petes, I never would have expected … my phone was blowing up with text messages from all the lawyers and accountants from years ago and everyone saying 8.5, that’s insane," he said. 

Portnoy’s review was simple.

"Very good. Like, very good," he said on the six-minute video, which has reached more than 188,000 views and includes Portnoy showing off a bandaged hand injury. 

“Detroit Style Pizza Company is going to have a gigantic rush of orders today because this score is going high," said Portnoy, who is upfront about the deal he has with GoldBelly but says it doesn’t affect how he reviews the pizza. "This is an 8.5, it’s that good. I’m going to eat this whole (expletive) thing.”

Detroit Style Pizza certainly did have a rush of orders. The pizzeria was slammed and the online frozen pizza businesses exploded. 

"Normally we would do 80-100 three-packs of pizza a week on mail order," said Randazzo.

Thirty minutes after Portnoy’s review, 900 of the three-packs were sold, he said.

"We have a max limit per week of 360 packages at the current moment that we can get out," Randazzo said. "Obviously we’re working on that right now because we’re sold out. People have placed orders all the way through the end of June until we can lift our max limits."

Randazzo expected "a bump" in online orders, but didn’t think it would bleed into the pizzeria business and cause them to expand hours and hire more staff. 

"It’s a win-win-win," he said. "It’s good for sales, we’re hiring. I’ve got interviews every day of this week and we’re looking to hire a minimum of five people. It’s demanding, yes, but we’re all working our tails off too much right now. But we’re doing the best we can." 

Portnoy has reviewed other Detroit-style pizza brands recently. Just after the Detroit Style Pizza Co. review he sampled Motor City Pizza Co., found in grocery freezers, and he gave it a 5.9 saying "it’s good, but it’s heavy."

He also tried the new Detroit-style from PizzaPapalis in Greektown. He ate it fresh during a visit to Detroit earlier this year and ranked it a 7.6, saying "I could have this all day long." 

This yo-yo of being down because of the pandemic and then up because of Portnoy’s review comes at a crux time for Detroit Style Pizza Co.

Randazzo, who is married and a father of four, has been going to treatment, getting radiation and chemotherapy for his cancer.

"It’s been challenging," he said. "But I’m grateful to be alive and I’ve got a lot to fight for. I’ve got a beautiful family and a business that is just growing right and I’m not going anywhere soon."

His wife Keri Randazzo says the increase in business has given him something positive to focus on. 

"He’s so excited for this chapter in his life right now with how busy we have gotten," she said. "And just trying to move forward and being an inspiration to others and just trying to stay positive. He’s doing great." 

"He has another MRI in five weeks, he started on the optune cap and he’s back on the chemo right now as well ... he’s doing fantastic," she said, adding that the pandemic helped them grow as a family and as business partners.

"We’re just slammed," she said. "People are out of work, their businesses are failing and we’re so very thankful that, with his diagnosis as well, that we’re just succeeding and cranking business like no other. We are very blessed and thankful."

The Randazzos were about to announce a new partnership with co-owner Joe Maino, a Detroit native who co-founded Poughkeepsie, New York-based, Hudson & Packard Authentic Detroit Pizza.

"We were going to revamp the menu and make a big splash," said Shawn.

Maino, who also has roots at Zingerman’s Bakehouse, was brought on to manage daily operations and staff while Randazzo, who in December had surgery to remove a brain tumor, would focus more on the distribution business. Based in Roseville, that side of the family-owned pizza company was already planning for an expansion later this year. 

"We actually have a deal with QVC coming up in October selling mail order pizzas," says Randazzo, who was named World Champion Pizza Maker of the Year in 2012 at the International Pizza Expo in Las Vegas. 

That same year, he transitioned from being a Cloverleaf pickup and delivery location to Detroit Style Pizza Co.

It was around 2009 that Randazzo, after winning first-place at the North American Pizza and Ice Cream Show in Ohio, realized square Detroit-style pizza — with a thick layer of cheese, crisp at the edges and sauce on top, baked in a deep pan — was special, and not something you could get outside of his hometown. 

"I go to Columbus, study the competitors, and I’m the only one with square or rectangle pizza with caramelized cheese, sauce on top," he said, adding that at the time the city had a "bad rap" and wanted to see the name Detroit associated with something positive.

"After I realized how special this style was, I had a personal mission to get it on the map."

Randazzo operated under the Cloverleaf pizzeria name when, in 2012, he beat out 200 competitors for first-place at a competition in Las Vegas. But he took with him his own dough recipe, which he had been working on for three months. 

"It was probably the 30th version and I was pretty happy with it. My family was sick of pizza every single day," he said. 

Randazzo made a deal with himself that if he placed within the top 30 at the Vegas competition that he would consider that a win for his new dough recipe, which he would use to branch out as an independent pizzeria. 

He imagined the publicity blitz that he could have enjoyed had he won the competition with the same recipe used at the pizzeria he owned. The glory was muddled because the pizzeria he owned said Cloverleaf on the door, but he used his own dough recipe for the win.

That’s when he knew it was time to branch away from Cloverleaf and become an independent pizzeria owner using his new, award-winning dough. With some of the money he won at pizza competitions, he transitioned to Detroit Style Pizza Co. in 2012. 

Randazzo said he chose the name to further promote the region’s special square deep-dish and make it known worldwide like New York- and Chicago-style pizzas.

By making a version of the pizza that wowed at least one major influencer, he's been able to further his mission. 

Detroit Style Pizza Co., open for lunch and dinner Tues.-Sat., is at 28630 Harper in St. Clair Shores. Call (586) 445-2810 or order online at DetroitStylePizza.Co

More: PizzaPapalis debuts a satisfying Detroit-style square pizza with crispy crust

Recipe:Making your own Detroit-style pizza

mbaetens@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @melodybaetens

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