The owners of Prince Street Pizza, a popular pizzeria in the Nolita neighborhood of New York City, are stepping down after allegations of unsafe COVID-19 behavior and racist responses to Yelp reviewers were resurfaced on Instagram in December.
The comments, most of which are still visible in Yelp reviews, were highlighted by data scientist Joe Rosenthal, who said he began digging into Prince Street Pizza after the pizzeria announced it would not be able to fill holiday delivery orders that shoppers had placed. Rosenthal's Instagram Stories about the pizzeria quickly gained traction, and the pizzeria issued an apology on Thursday night.
On Friday, it was announced in an updated statement that Prince Street Pizza's co-owners, father and son Frank and Dominic Morano, are stepping down from their managerial roles at the establishment.
“There is nothing okay about the comments I made on Yelp,” said Frank Morano in the statement. “I take full responsibility and wholeheartedly apologize to our customers, especially our Asian community. All of our customers are family to us, and you deserve so much better. I am stepping down because it’s the right thing to do.”
Prince Street Pizza, which opened its New York City location in 2012 and has a pop-up location in Los Angeles, is famous for its Sicilian-style (square) pizzas and walls covered in photographs of staff with celebrities. However, Yelp reviews for the pizzeria often referenced rude staff, slow service and allegations of racist treatment by staff. Those reviewers were sometimes sent even more inappropriate direct messages.
"One of the things I knew about (Prince Street Pizza) was for a while they were just aggressively responding to Yelpers," Rosenthal told TODAY Food. "I knew about it, but I had no idea how bad it was … I just knew it was stuff like 'Shut up' and things like that. But when I looked, it was distressing."
Some people shared screenshots of their conversations on social media, including user @Fan4RealLFE whose review was posted in 2017. TODAY was able to contact the user, but they did not respond to a request to be interviewed.
Screenshots shared on Twitter show the pizzeria calling the user a number of racial slurs — specifically "mongrel," "yellow dog" and "mutt" — and referring to them as "an absolute moron."
Other reviews on Yelp mention harassment by staff. In 2019, a reviewer said she felt the staff's "prejudice" against her and said that she had "never been treated the way she was" in the pizzeria. Another reviewer said that a cashier was "very rude and racist;" Prince Street Pizza responded with a comment calling the reviewer "a piece of s---" among other insults.
Rosenthal also highlighted social media posts from Dominic Morano that show Morano seeming to make light of violence against Black Lives Matter protestors at an event in 2016, and shared images that showed a Blue Lives Matter sticker, a "thin blue line" American flag, that had been displayed outside the pizzeria at least until 2019.
"I went to his Facebook page and found a post, a repost of a 2016 video that showed Black Lives Matter protestors being hit by cars and the caption joked about it … The video was disturbing," Rosenthal said, adding that after he shared a screenshot to his Instagram account, someone else shared it. That user got a response from the Prince Street Pizza Instagram account, with the owner defending the post with a meme.
"I think it makes this old social media post much more relevant if they're using their official platform to say, 'Yeah, this was fine,'" Rosenthal continued.
"Making light of violence is indefensible," said Dominic Morano in the statement announcing he was stepping down. "I apologize from the bottom of my heart. The horror the world has witnessed in unwarranted and unjust deaths of black men and women killed in recent years has been heartbreaking. And me making light of what is happening was and is wrong."
The statement also included an apology for the Blue Lives Matter sticker, which they said was removed in 2016, though an Instagram post from late 2019 still shows the sticker in the restaurant's window. Valerie Vega, who manages customer relations for the pizzeria, said there was "confusion" on the timeline regarding the sticker, but said that it was "originally placed several years ago" and removed sometime in 2019.
Vega noted that once the sticker was removed, the pizzeria left New York Police Department and Fire Department of New York signs on the door to "continue showing support" for the agencies.
"The sticker was initially placed on the store because the owners believed it meant support for first responders, which they have significant personal experience with," read the pizzeria's statement. "Frank Morano was a volunteer responder immediately after the 9/11 attack where he rescued at least one person and helped recover victims. The Morano family deeply respects and honors all first responders. However, the sticker was immediately removed once they realized the double meaning it holds."
The social media responses also included crude insults toward those who left negative reviews. One user, who asked to be identified only by his first name, Craig, left a negative review of the pizzeria in June 2019 where he said the quality of the pizza was poor. The owner of the restaurant quickly messaged him on Yelp, telling him to "choke to death" on a different pizzeria's product and calling him a "communist scumbag."
"I left that review and all of a sudden I got that response and I was like, 'Wait a minute,'" Craig told TODAY, adding that he had never gotten a response like that and said he had felt the owner was seeking a "verbal altercation." While he initially responded, he decided to back down rather than continue feuding.
"To get that that kind of response was just bizarre," he continued. "I was kind of just taken aback, like, 'Oh, is this really how they operate, a place that's so popular?' … It's not something you expect from a fancy place like that."
Vega told TODAY via email that Prince Street Pizza had no "formalized" system to respond to Yelp reviews, but said that Frank Morano had replied to many. Vega said that following "recent events," the pizzeria had implemented new policies, including a customer service team that would respond to reviews and a social media specialist who would manage the pizzeria's social media channels.
"As we learned about the behavior of the Moranos’, we took the concerns very seriously, acted quickly, and instituted significant changes that both address their behavior, but also ensures that such events will not happen again," Vega said, adding that asking the father and son pair to step down "affirms that we have no tolerance for their behavior."
"Our promise of excellent service to our customers starts with respect and honor," Vega said. "We want our customers and those who do business with us to trust us and have confidence in our standards. We take all concerns very seriously, with the appropriate sense of urgency, attention, and empathy."
In the statement published Friday night, Frank Morano apologized for at least one incident, though the statement did not specify which conversation it was referring to, except to say that it was a "heated and racially charged exchange" where the customer ending up being removed from the pizzeria for being drunk and violent toward employees.
"I wanted to protect my customers and employees," said Morano. "I should have never responded, I should have taken the high road and let it be. I was so incredibly offended because I love all of our customers and want to protect them and I was shocked at what I was reading. However, the fact of the matter is there is no excuse for what I said and how I responded."
Other reviews mention that the restaurant has been lax in following COVID-19 protocols and regulations. New York City restaurants have been under strict rules during the coronavirus pandemic, including limits on indoor dining.
Recent Yelp reviews highlight a lack of adherence to these restrictions, with reviewers alleging that cooks didn't wear masks. Reviewers said there was only a thin sheet of Plexiglas separating cashiers from those purchasing food. One wrote that they saw no "precautions against viruses" and another otherwise positive review said there was difficulty enforcing social distancing restrictions.
One reviewer wrote in July 2020 that staff and managers were not wearing masks, and her review was met with another crude comment from the pizzeria, who wrote that the "only COVID problem" in the restaurant was the reviewer.
At least ten 311 complaints for non-compliance with coronavirus restrictions were logged against the pizzeria between Aug. 2020 and Jan. 2020, with at least one warning given after it was "determined that the business is allowed to be open but was not in compliance with reopening guidelines." Several other 311 complaints for large gatherings and noise were filed during the same time period.
Vega told TODAY that the pizzeria "operates in strict compliance with health codes and CDC guidelines" regarding COVID-19, and said that the establishment installed Plexiglas at the start of the pandemic. She said that the store now "strictly enforces social distancing, only allowing one-to-two parties in" at a time.
"When the pandemic first happened, Prince Street Pizza did not close its doors," Vega said. "We continued serving our communities as best as we could and always followed CDC guidelines, as the city of New York and all restaurants navigated this new way of operating. We've never had a fine and we have always complied to all protocols."
Amid mounting social media criticism, the pizzeria issued a statement on Thursday evening on its Instagram Stories and website. The statement was updated with the announcement that the Moranos were stepping down on Friday, Jan. 8.
"We care deeply about our customers’ feedback and take it very seriously when a customer has a negative experience in one of our shops," wrote the pizzeria, in part, in its first statement. "Our actions in the past in addressing negative customer concerns have fallen short and were extremely inappropriate. What we said and how we behaved was wrong then, is wrong today, and will always be wrong. We truly apologize and empathize for the hurt we caused in these incidents and apologize to all of our Prince Street Pizza customers. Racism and discrimination have no place at Prince Street Pizza shops or anywhere else."
The pizzeria went on to say that it had "since learned from these mistakes and made improvements to their business," including hiring dedicated customer service personnel. Another part of the apology said the "majority of (the) staff at Prince Street Pizza are Black, Indigenous, or People of Color (BIPOC)," adding that the pizzeria was "proud of the diversity we foster and the diverse locations we serve."
The pizzeria also detailed some of its compliance measures for COVID-19, which include masking, frequent testing of employees and installing new Plexiglas.
Many social media commentators said the apology did not make up for years of racist and inappropriate behavior. The pizzeria also appears to have deleted several comments from posters who were critical of the apology.
"I’m disgusted by your history of racism, discrimination and abuse," wrote one Instagram user. "The verbal attacks and slander your owners made against customers voicing their honest experiences of discrimination at the restaurant are horrifying. Are you truly sorry for your prior conduct or are you just hiring better PR to cover up who you truly are?"
"I'll say it again since you deleted my earlier post," wrote another person on Instagram. "Saying you have BIPOC employees as a defence is basically saying 'I’m not racist because I have BIPOC friends.' Not how racism works. So own up to it."
When called for comment, Prince Street Pizza manager Tony Sosa, who will now operate the restaurant following the Morano's departure, asked that people give the pizzeria a second chance, citing the fact that they never closed during the pandemic and expanded their delivery area.
"My team, the employees behind me, asks those people who talk bad about us to not forget what we did for them," said Sosa. "There’s no room in Prince Street for racists, for haters. There’s no room for that."
EDITOR’S NOTE (Jan. 10, 2021, 7:03 p.m. EST): This story has been updated with statements received by TODAY from Prince Street Pizza spokesperson Valerie Vega.