A hand holding a pizza peel scoops a pizza out of a large oven. A second pepperoni pizza bakes in the oven to the left of the first one.
Manager Justinh Tapia-Falcon takes a pizza out of the oven to serve to a customer at Dagwood's Pizza and Deli. (Grace Salley/Fresh Take Georgia)

Dagwood’s Pizza and Deli in Norcross was a haven for Steve Lembo, 14, who would walk a mile to the restaurant for a slice of pizza and a Pac-Man machine. With some ambition, Lembo lied about his age to work as a dishwasher. After being hired, his employed friend trained him without the manager’s knowledge as his replacement before he moved away.  

Working at Dagwood’s Pizza and Deli throughout high school, the owners promoted Lembo to manager before he left for college. He continued working on the weekends of his college years. Upon his graduation from University of Georgia with a finance degree in 1993, one of the then-current owners had a medical emergency that allowed Lembo to step up and get involved with ownership. After the ailing owner requested Lembo bought out his shares, Lembo officially started his management journey.  

By 1995, the last original owner sold his portion of the restaurant to another co-owner who was involved with Dagwood’s until 2023, making Lembo and the other man the sole owners. This year, under Steve Lembo’s leadership, Dagwood’s will celebrate its 42nd birthday on May 12.  

According to an article on Menu Cover Depot, about 60% of restaurants go out of business by their third anniversary, which makes its 42 years remarkable. Despite challenges that affect most small restaurants, Lembo accredits this feat to the consistency of the place. With the warm wooden booths, the license plates covering one wall and pictures and documents throughout the restaurant, the scene of Dagwood’s is designed to feel nostalgic and familiar.  

“McDonald’s is consistent, for better or for worse, you know what you’re getting,” Lembo said. “You know what you’re coming here for, and it doesn’t change.”  

The recipes that the staff uses are the same as they were when Lembo took over. He said he strives to keep the ingredient quality the same and even the 50-year-old ovens and the 70-year-old slicer are still standing.  

Diana Lembo, Steve Lembo’s wife and partner, agrees. She said that despite inflation, the quality of the meats, cheeses and other ingredients always stayed the same.  

This is the goal along with the family-friendly environment, with game machines and trivia on Wednesday nights. Diana Lembo is often in the thick of the dinner rush. As owners, she and Steve can usually be found in the kitchen making dough or helping clear tables, which contributes to the family dynamic of the employees.

Allie London has worked as a server since 2021. She said her current serving team is the best it’s ever been, which is important to the inner workings of the restaurant.  

“There are so many people that have worked here for so long that you can’t help but feel like they’re family,” she said. “And we spend so much time here together, more than we do with all of our loved ones.”  

London also emphasized the importance of the environment and the people that she serves. For her, the customers are the biggest part of her job. For example, there is a group of three ladies who come to lunch every Sunday going on more than 20 years and always finish their meals with a hot fudge sundae. There are also the regulars whom the staff have dubbed “Lover’s Quarrel” because of their stances on toppings. One loves pineapples and the other meatballs, but they do not want them to cross over.   

Kennesaw State University lecturer Jonathan Brown teaches with the Culinary Sustainability and Hospitality program and stresses the importance of having regular customers. Brown said having those loyal customers is vital to any small restaurant.  

“There’s an 80-20 rule,” he said. “It essentially says that 80% of your business comes from 20% of your customers.”  

Brown said the more a business focuses on its 20%, the higher the likelihood for success.  

Part of that 20% of loyal diners includes friends Ryan Venuti and Patrick Waets who meet frequently on Saturday nights at Dagwood’s. Typically, Venuti sticks with his favorite, the chicken parmesan sub with french fries, while Waets likes to get a pepperoni or BBQ chicken pizza. They said the food is not the only thing that brings them to the restaurant.  

“I do like the atmosphere,” Waets said. “It’s very chill.”  

Venuti agreed. They both said they appreciate the attention to detail by the staff, specifically how Diana Lembo always welcomes them and makes it a point to chat with them.  

Operating a small business is not as easy as it may look. Some frustrations include rising ingredient prices and labor shortages. According to the US Department of Agriculture, in 2023, the price of food increased by 5.8%. Steve Lembo expressed his disappointment with rising prices.  

“From COVID to now has been the hardest five years that I’ve ever seen in this business, with a combination of food costs and labor costs,” he said. “You can pay [employees] more, but you’ll have to charge more, and it’s a vicious cycle.” 

Lembo also said that staffing the younger generations can be more difficult in terms of their work ethic compared to more seasoned employees. While grateful that he is fully staffed now, he noticed that there is a divide between his older and younger employees. 

KSU Professor Brown explained how with older generations, there’s a mindset of doing your job and taking care of what needs to be done, but that’s fading through the younger generations.  

“As you start to move into the millennial, and now younger generations, what you’re finding is that there is a mixed bag of those who really want to put the hard work in and there are some that don’t,” he said. “They want freedom, they want flexibility, they want to do what they want to do.” 

But despite all the setbacks and the challenges of being a small business in 2024, the Lembo’s have stayed steadfast and involved.

“We’ve been here for 40 years, we’re serving the third generation of people and we’re comfortable,” Steve Lembo said. “It’s not pretentious, even if you take the restaurant part out of it, everyone needs a little break.”  

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