TORONTO - A.J. Hunt always knew he'd be opening a second Gem City Pizza location. He just didn't expect it - or storefront No. 3, for that matter - to come along quite so soon.
The original Gem City Pizza, a collaboration between Hunt and Eric Archey, 30, of Philadelphia, opened in Myrtle Beach, S.C., in late January. They opened a second shop Oct. 5 in Toronto and a third location in Yorkville on Dec. 3.
"I was happy with one, but I got the opportunity for a shop in Toronto," said Hunt, who describes the process as "surreal, stressful and exciting but fun."
EXPANDING OPERATIONS — Toronto native A.J. Hunt has added new Gem City Pizza locations in Toronto and Yorkville. Hunt, left, is overseeing operations in Toronto, while his lifelong friend Geno Villamagna will do the same in Yorkville. Hunt’s partner, Eric Archey, supervises the original Myrtle Beach store, which opened in January. -- Linda Harris
BAKED FROM SCRATCH — Above, Gem City Pizza is now making its breads from scratch, thanks to the expertise of Bruce and Elaina Harris, who previously operated the Yorkville pizza shop. If you’re wanting some good food and plenty of it, you’ll likely enjoy one of Gem City Pizza’s signature calzones, stuffed full and shown at left. -- Contributed
"It's really crazy to talk about something and say you want to do it, but I thought it'd be two or three years down the road before I'd open a second location," he said. "But we're on the third one, two months after the second one opened. It's exciting, but it's equally overwhelming. It's a ton of work, a lot to wrap your brain around, but you've got to capitalize (when you get the opportunity)."
The Ohio Valley stores have the same gritty feel as the original in Myrtle Beach, complete with bricked walls, "but the stuff on the walls has the flavor of the community," he said, like football helmets from all the high schools in the area and memorabilia from local labor unions.
The local shops serve up many of the same foods you'll find on the Myrtle Beach menu - along with traditional red and veggie pizza squares, there's Gem City's Sweet 'n Spicy, with brown sugar and crushed red peppers; Roni Balls," a golf-ball sized bun filled with pepperoni or other fillings, like Sweet 'n Spicy; and Hunt's very own "Swagger" dipping sauce.
Toronto also offers a S'mores pizza, featuring a chocolate base, a layer of marshmallow, a drizzle of chocolate and crumbled graham crackers, that will eventually be incorporated into the Yorkville menu as well.
Hunt said they use locally grown produce as much as possible and, thanks to the former owners of the Yorkville shop, Bruce and Elaina Harris, they now bake their own bread for hoagies, calzones and pizza.
Very soon he said both locations also will be licensed to sell beer and that, given the abundance of parking, opens door for them to stage special events like cars shows and bike nights.
"Up here, we also have salads and a bunch of hoagies on our menu," he said. "We don't have that in Myrtle Beach. We want to have them, but it's a smaller kitchen, and the lack of space is the reason we're not doing (them) in Myrtle Beach."
Hunt will oversee the Toronto store, located at 901 Franklin; longtime friend Geno Villamagna, Toronto, will handle the Yorkville shop located at 151 Market St.; and Archey, the Myrtle Beach location, though all three of them will rotate between stores as needed.
He credits Jeremy Trusky, his partner in another business venture, American Hooligan, with the spray painted design on the outer wall of the building.
"In Toronto, the first week we were open there was probably a two-hour wait," he said. "I thought people would just say they'd come back another day, but they were actually waiting. We were literally so busy that when we told people it'd be a two-hour wait they still waited. We had some who were standing there almost three hours. That's how it was in Yorkville, too."
Things have calmed down, but not much.
"It's not as crazy," he said. "It's still really busy, but it's a lot more manageable now. It's not as overwhelming."
Toggling between three locations only adds to the craziness.
"The biggest factor that I think makes it even remotely possible is trust," he said. "You have three guys, we'd all do anything for each other. A lot of people advised against going into business together, but we were so close - we're more like family than friends, and we all have the same goal - to build an empire. When we first opened in Myrtle Beach, our goal was to open multiple shops, but I thought we were years away from that. Myrtle Beach has only been open 11 months now, and in less than a year we're on our third shop. Never in a million years did I think it would happen that fast."
Hunt, though, said it was a logical next step, particularly in Yorkville.
"There's no pizza shops, really, there other than Martins Ferry and Wheeling," he said. "It's kind of a commute, obviously, but it was a market sitting there waiting for somebody to capitalize on it, and I figured we might as well be the ones to do it."
Gem City's specialty - square pizza - isn't a novelty here in the Tri-State Area, as it is in Myrtle Beach. "But we're putting our own twist on it and taking it a step further than anybody in the area," he said. "And aside from the difference in pizza there, the decor and our theme - just walking in is an experience itself, it's not just the food."
The Toronto store should be licensed to sell beer by the first of the year, he added, and that opens up the opportunity to schedule poker runs, car shows and bike nights in the spring and summer months "to try and bring more events, more positive things to do in the area."
"We're not only trying to sell pizza, we're trying to actually make a difference, a positive difference, in the area," Hunt said. "Pizza is just a means to do it."