Carved from 27-inch pies, each slice at JoJo’s NY Style Pizza spills out over the paper plate it’s served on. The crust is thin, the sauce sweet. Naturally, owner Jonathan Naranjo won’t say what’s in it.
Here’s what he will tell you: His tomato sauce is the best, as is his flour. His vegetables are the freshest. And chef and co-owner Francisco Laniez, who has been kneading dough for two decades, is at the top of his game.
He has to be.
Pizza competition in Hollywood encroaches from all angles. Little Caesars lies to the east, Joe's Old School to the south. JoJo’s isn’t even the only place in the area to pounce on the Big Apple branding. Pronto New York Style Pizza up the road offers the same thin crust with the bonus of a Bronx-born owner.
But at least on the home turf of Hollywood’s Oakwood Plaza Shops, a 22-store strip mall selling liquor, Chinese takeout, and hair extensions, JoJo’s was the preeminent pizzeria.
That changed in April 2016 when the landlord stopped by to inform JoJo’s owners that they would soon have the distinct displeasure of sharing a wall with the world’s most successful pizza chain.
Domino's was moving next door.
The new neighbor
When Laniez, 37, and Naranjo, 32, discovered Domino’s would be wedging its delivery entrance next to their east wall, neither owner was pleased.
“Nobody's landlord in their right mind would do that to their tenant,” Naranjo says.
The strip mall's owner, Joseph Mawardi, grew up in Brooklyn, a borough where blocks are stocked with “store after store of pizza, no competition.”
“People just picked their favorite one and went,” he says. “No fights.”
Mawardi is a fine-pizza enthusiast, gravitating toward a garlicky, thin-crusted slice. But, in 1989, he decided to leave behind his pizza haven and chain of 27 shoe stores to enter South Florida’s booming real estate market.
Its pizza scene wasn’t as hot. “I wanted a good pizza in Florida," he says. "I couldn’t find it nowhere.”
So he built his own pizzeria within one of his properties. He flew in New York water for the dough and a New York chef to knead it.
That pizzeria would become the original JoJo’s, a pet project of Mawardi's, before he sold it in 2001. Thirteen years later, Naranjo and Laniez took over.
Though Mawardi no longer has any stake in the pizzeria carrying his name, its staying power remains a point of pride.
Mawardi says he's always maintained "much, much confidence" that “JoJo’s’ll be there even after I die,” regardless of who's next door.
The current owners had doubts.
Naranjo describes Domino's making "a move” on the 1,600-square-foot pizzeria, luring the landlord with a promise of a 40-year lease splayed out over three neighboring storefronts. He feared JoJo’s would be but a casualty in the transaction.
“Somebody’s going to die off soon,” he remembers thinking.
Naranjo Googled pizza places throughout Florida to see who else had suffered such a fate. No luck. Soon, he was searching neighboring states for the elusive back-to-back pizzeria.
“I have not seen it,” he says. “I don't think such thing exists.”
There’s a reason competitors make rare next-door neighbors. When investing in a location, store owners can put a non-compete clause in their lease, which prohibits a landlord from moving in a competitor next door.
Neither Naranjo or Laniez knew such a clause existed at the time. “The landlord took advantage of that,” Naranjo says.
To what end, though, Naranjo can’t figure out. “You don't want to put any competition on another person,” reasons Naranjo. “You're basically sticking a knife in your own back.”
To Mawardi, it was simple business savvy. He’d watched independent businesses in the plaza open and close shop in the same year.
“JoJo’s is the last survivor,” he says.
So he decided to court a healthy chain that could weather the drab terrain. He knew someone who knew someone at Domino's.
Usually, Mawardi says, the chain “won’t even bother looking at it if there’s another pizza place” next door. “I mean, it’s common sense.”
But Mawardi is a businessman, or as, he puts it, a “mini-Trump.”
“I talked them into it,” he says. “We made a deal.”
This time, the deal would include a no-compete clause. If JoJo’s folded, there would be no more pizzerias at 2458 Sheridan St.
Mawardi says, for Domino's, it wasn’t a question of if but when.
“They thought they were going to put them out of business in two days,” he says.
The big boys
Take out JoJo’s from the equation, and the strip mall was prime real estate for the chain.
When scouting for a new location, Domino’s looks for “great visibility, easy access for customers and ample parking,” wrote Domino’s spokeswoman Danielle Bulger in an email. Off of Interstate 95 and across from a well-trafficked mall, the location fit the description.
Bulger says proximity to other pizza places is “not a main concern” in picking a location.
In the spring of 2017, the chain began erecting its newest outpost — with an unexpected perk for JoJo’s. Domino’s construction workers spent the morning building up the competition and their lunch break scarfing down slices next door.
But the detente ended before Domino's sold its first pie.
“One day they all stopped coming,” Naranjo says. He was told that “they got a message from corporate.”
“I was like, ‘Wow, these are the kind of people they are,’” he says.
Neither owner attended Domino’s grand opening.
Had they entered, they would have seen a different strain of pizzeria in which deliveries take priority while the register is shielded by plastic so thick that cashiers need to bend beneath it to hear customers. Pies are prized, slices are scoffed at, and bread gets stuffed with bacon and jalapeño.
This would all be news to Naranjo.
“I’ve never set foot in that place,” he says.
Still, the chain soon made itself felt within JoJo’s bottom line. After Domino’s opened its ovens, JoJo’s profits were down an average of $15,000 each month, a drop both owners attribute to the new kid in the plaza. One of their most devoted customers, Brian Shadakofsky, got hit by a Domino’s delivery car on his way into the shop. Shadakofsky, a Brooklyn-native who says he stops by JoJo’s roughly three times a week, now has a lawsuit pending against the chain.
“They just love to park in front of JoJo's,” Naranjo laments. “It’s kind of like they're trying to put a finger on us and cover us.”
The taste test
Eighty Google reviews paint a picture of a perfectly average Domino’s Pizza with a slightly below average 2.9 star rating. Some patrons commend the temperature of the pie upon arrival, the generosity of the topping portions, and the cleanliness of the facility. Others say it smells like a septic tank and their dessert arrives “ice cold."
But regardless of whether this specific location burns its cheese or delivers pies lukewarm, the pizza peddled here falls safely within the Domino’s brand. And that brand has rarely done so well in its 58-year history.
Since 2003, Domino’s has been emphasizing not just speed but savor, boldening their tomato sauce with red pepper and baking garlic butter into the crust. Since the brand's turnaround, its stock price has risen faster than that of Facebook, Amazon, Google, and Apple.
No matter how successful Domino’s is, though, Naranjo’s banking that there will still be a market for the little guy with charred crust.
Independent and chain pizzerias are “two totally different parts” of the same industry, Naranjo says. “That’s the reason that both pizzerias are able to survive right next to each other.”
This is the same argument his landlord once delivered to Domino’s executives, coaxing them to enter the strip center. “There’s no competition between them,” Mawardi insisted, because “they make two different products.”
“It’s a pizza, yes, but one is a real Italian pizza,” explained Mawardi. “Domino’s is recipe [from] corporate.”
Mawardi says, personally, he’d “rather go to a nice little pizzeria.”
Michael Dee, who “pretty much lived off their food” when he was in Hollywood doing hurricane cleanup, says he always supports "mom-and-pop" businesses over chains, despite working as a delivery man at Domino's for several years.
“JoJo’s is a home-cooked meal,” Dee says. “Domino’s is like going to McDonalds for a burger.”
Naranjo says the devotion of customers like Dee to an independent pizzeria have bestowed his store with “bragging rights.”
As the gleam of a shiny new chain restaurant dulls, profits are beginning to creep upward again for JoJo’s. Now, instead of knocking down their wall and expanding their kitchen, as they had once planned, the owners are thinking about opening a second JoJo’s elsewhere in Hollywood.
“I'm always looking forward,” says Naranjo. “I'm not looking next door.”