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Tonelli's Pizza: Built on Dough, Sauce, Ambition

Patch sat down with Tonelli's owners Chip and Maura Randa to chat about how the business started and juggling a full-time business with family life.

Chip Randa, the owner of Tonelli’s Pizza in Horsham, is driven by a fear of failure.

That fear has led him to take an almost bankrupt business and make it profitable. And, before Tonelli’s really became the household name that it is today, Randa’s seemingly unending persistence helped him succeed in what has been perhaps his most daunting task - courting and later marrying Maura Dougherty after months of rejection.

Tonelli’s beginnings

A college dropout (“I couldn’t see myself in a suit behind a desk for 12 hours”) Randa said his accountant father was none too happy to see his 19-year-old son without a career or a college degree. So, he bought him a pizza shop.

“All accountants always want to own their own business,” Randa said. “We got the cheapest, worst pizza shop.”

Randa said his father shelled out $50,000 for a struggling business owned by Leo Tonelli on Cottman and Castor avenues in Philadelphia. After some time there, Randa, an Abington native, moved operations closer to his home, running three minimally successful restaurants.

“We were slow when we first opened,” Randa said, adding that he used to sleep on the hot tables during slow periods.

Eventually his Horsham location, on Horsham Road, where Toscana’s is now located, slowly began to take off. Randa said he decided to close the other restaurants and “just bunker in” on the Horsham location. Slowly, he saw a rise in sales, going from double-digit growth and then two years of 120 percent growth. About 10 years ago, Randa moved to his current location on Easton Road. 

Meeting (the eventual) Mrs. Randa

Randa said he met his wife of 11 years, Maura, while making transactions at the Willow Grove branch of Abington Bank. 

“It was complete love at first sight,” Randa said. “I said, ‘I’m marrying Maura Dougherty.’  Lo and behold, that plan was very, very screwed up.”

After seven months spent trying to woo Dougherty with requests to take her out, flowers and even puppies, Randa talked to the bank manager, who, he said knew of his infatuation with Dougherty. He told the manager that Dougherty’s rejection was becoming too much to bear and he would make his last deposit the following Monday.

Randa said his plan worked in that when he stopped in that Monday, Dougherty “blurted out, ‘do you still want to take me out?’”

“I did like him,” a slightly embarrassed Mrs. Randa said while sliding a pizza in the oven. 

Now a family of six living in Ambler, Maura said their au pair, Deise (pronounced Daisy) helps out with Ryan, 2, Michael, 4, Kitty, 6, and Alison, 8.

But the Randas said they make time for family by getting up at 6 a.m. instead of 7 a.m. so they can play tag ball with the kids before the two oldest depart for Simmons Elementary School. The Randas all return home for an early dinner at 4 p.m. before either Chip or Maura returns to Tonelli’s for the dinner shift, they said.

Expanding the Tonelli’s team

If Randa learned anything from his father, it was to rely on himself, almost to the detriment. When the Randas were preparing to move to the restaurant’s current location, on Easton Road, Randa said he worked from 9 a.m. to midnight at the former Horsham Road shop, returned home to shower and worked from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. building the new restaurant.

“That was my dad’s thing, you gotta do it yourself,” Randa said, adding that the nine-month-long renovation could’ve cost him $8,000 and been done in three weeks.

It wasn’t until Randa broke his back and neck in 2006 – and soon after discovered he had stomach cancer – that he was forced to rely on others.

His year-long incapacitation meant that his staff had to keep Tonelli’s running.

“If I never broke my back and my neck, I probably would’ve never started believing other people could help,” he said. “Most small business owners are everything. They wear every hat.”

And Randa was no exception. He was the pizza delivery guy, the pizza-maker and the phone answerer.

But, while out recuperating, Tonelli’s was named best pizza in an area survey.

“How could you not believe in other people after that?”

Today, the Randas each put in about 60 hours a week – a far cry from the seemingly unending hours Chip Randa used to clock.

“My role is to give everybody here everything they need to succeed,” he said.

Stephanie Sauers-Boyd September 26, 2012 at 11:12 AM
Great story!
Cora Rowe September 29, 2012 at 11:43 PM
I really enjoyed this story, Theresa. Please write more of these

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