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Cyberspace connects DC with the businesses next door

Michael Lastoria (seated) and Steve Salis, co-founders of &pizza, at their U St. location

&pizza tries to engage with the online community in a number of ways; it's not just a nice thing to do, but translates to more dollars spent locally


Each of &pizza's napkin holders is decorated with a photo of a local person, by a local photographer

Idle Time Books in Adams Morgan was visited by a Cash Mob earlier this year

Pleasant Plains Workshop was visited by a recent Cash Mob orchestrated by Think Local First

In April, 23 relative strangers gathered around dessert pizzas at H &pizza, tucking into sweet smears of Nutella and dollops of ricotta cheese atop the year-old restaurant’s crisp house-made crust. It was the last stop on a culinary tour of D.C.’s Atlas District organized by the San Jose-based company Dishcrawl, whose Facebook page says it is “bringing people and communities together over food.”  
 
The diners’ experience began where many city dwellers go to do everything from watching funny videos to buying  furniture: cyberspace. But it led to businesses right around the corner.
 
Today, the Internet plays a larger role than ever in commerce; a shopper in New York can have California oranges shipped to her door, while a Californian can overnight cannolis from Boston. Yet the Internet is also channeling retail dollars to local, independent businesses.
 
“We thought the Dishcrawl event was a good fit,” explains H &pizza co-owner Michael Lastoria. “Our brand is built around the communities and neighborhoods where we set up shop, so we try and support as many local initiatives as we can.” Even if that means working with an online company from California.

This summer, the pizzeria has also launched its own projects. Knowing that many of its customers come from nearby Gallaudet University, the restaurant invited the deaf and signing community to create sign language vocabulary for its specialty pies through the video website Vimeo. H &pizza also ran a contest to design its to-go boxes, publicized on Facebook and Twitter.
 
Meanwhile, more traditional social media works its magic. “We regularly have first- time customers mention a friend’s Instagram or Facebook food shot as the catalyst to getting them into the shop,” Lastoria notes.
 
This engagement has clearly worked for &pizza. A second location opened on U Street this summer, and rumors of several more abound.
 
A few blocks from H &pizza, social media and a solid online presence play a different role.
 
“It’s allowed us to tap into a whole new customer base,” says Jim Bannahan, franchise and information director for the 30-year-old regional chain Manny & Olga’s Pizza, whose newest store sits at the 1400 block of H Street Northeast. “It’s a group of people that spend a lot of time on Twitter and Facebook. That’s their way of communicating,” Bannahan says. And when a local business can communicate their way, dollars shift away from national chains.
 
Often, Bannahan notes, “someone on Twitter or Facebook says ‘I didn’t realize you guys were there’ and we say, ‘We’ve been there for five years!’”
 
Manny & Olga’s has also embraced online ordering, both via an online app and through the site Seamless. The pizzeria is just one of hundreds of D.C. area businesses—many of them independently-owned—that have signed up with the latter since it came to the District less than three years ago.
 
"When I started I was like, ‘Okay, this will be short lived,’ But it’s just taking off."
These innovations add to restaurants’ natural advantage of offering a product best delivered hot and fresh from nearby.  Now other initiatives are taking on more challenging arenas, including nonperishables like books and gifts. The organization Think Local First DC and others have used the Web to orchestrate cash mobs, groups of people who descend on a local business at an appointed time to spend cash. Those efforts have brought crowds to Idle Time Books in Adams Morgan and the Pleasant Plains Workshop on Georgia Avenue. Pulling Washingtonians away from decentralized online marketplaces for these products is quite a feat, but not surprising to those who have witnessed e-inspired local commerce.
 
“I have to admit,” says Bannahan, “when I started I was like, ‘Okay, this will be short lived,’ But it’s just taking off.”
 
Yet social media and online buzz don’t amount to a magic bullet. H &pizza and Manny & Olga’s Pizza still rely on traditional marketing strategies like ads in print media and direct mail. They also have the benefit of moving a popular product, and they leverage innovations like staying open until the wee hours of the morning on a bar-heavy street.
 
On H Street, the oldest forms of publicity still triumph. During a recent dinner rush at H &pizza, most customers said they came because they live in the area or had heard about it from friends.
 
Just one patron said she had learned about the restaurant on social media. Another had Yelped the pizzeria before coming in, but only after she and her husband spotted the storefront as they walked down H Street.
 
Dietra Cordell, an off-duty Metropolitan Police officer, said she and a colleague had discovered the restaurant when they drove by. Then they stopped in for a taste. “We were here twice that day,” she says. “And we’ve been coming in ever since.”
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