"It's a dollar," Ethel told me.
She was a 60-something woman standing next to me outside 2 Bros. Pizza on 6th Avenue and 18th Street.
"If I didn't like it, I'd just throw it out. Whatever."
Though Ethel and I had just met, her no-nonsense attitude toward her lunch didn't bother me. In fact, it was the same attitude embodied by the storefront where we were eating. Dollar slice pizza isn't great pizza, but unlike lots of other cheap food in the city, it never tried to make you think that it was. The attractive quality in dollar slices isn't necessarily their taste or culinary craftsmanship—it's their price.
Today, one dollar is disposable. You can find loose singles on the street with some frequency, perhaps because they'll get you very little these days in New York. At most street corner carts, a dollar won't buy a cup of coffee, nor will it buy a copy of the New York Post. Dollar slice pizza is a revelation for New Yorkers, an easy exchange for the time-burdened—free of tax, coins, or time constraints. Just walk in, hand over a lone piece of currency, and receive pizza in return.
It's a beautiful system, but it's quickly vanishing from the city's food landscape right from under our noses. The spots that used to churn out this style of pizza, many of which still have the awnings over them marking them as $1 slice establishments, are giving way to outside forces and silently raising prices to $1.25, $1.50, and even two dollars per slice.
Dollar slice pizza is actually a recent phenomenon in the city. No newsboys had slices sticking out of their caps. The street food scene blew across the city around the timing of the 2008 financial crisis. As belts tightened financially, they loosened for lunch, with pizza being one of the most affordable lunches available, whether you worked inside a skyscraper in an Armani suit or outside the skyscraper's scaffolding in a construction helmet. Pizza became an equalizer in troubling fiscal times.
According to Scott Wiener, pizza historian and owner of Scott's Pizza Tours, "The real boom started in those first two years following the economic decline of 2008. A lot of them had to do with that decline. It became a great market for high volume, low-ticket price foods—the slices. People realized that if they made a lower-quality pizza and a smaller margin, [they] could sell more."
But as the economy has gradually bounced back, inflation has come for these dollar slice joints, too. Many purveyors of dollar slices can produce as many as 400 pies a day. Because their business is based on quantity over quality, keeping the quantity high is most paramount.
"Now, all that is predicated on your overhead costs not changing very much. Once those things start to run out is when you start to see the decline," Wiener says. "That's why they're sinking right now. It's 2018, the ten-year mark, so if people signed a ten-year-lease, those [leases] are all running out."
Wiener's love of pizza in the city isn't purely one of fandom; in his tours around town educating the masses on pizza craftsmanship, he's identified a key reason why and how traditional pizza outposts seem to churn out a better quality. While ingredients from Restaurant Depot and the varieties of cheeses certainly factor in, dollar slice places tend to use electric ovens, which can make more pizzas faster, and allow for a single location to make that 400-pie day all the more possible. The downside is that electric ovens don't evenly heat certain parts of the pie, leaving the outer crust dry and overly chewy. As Scott puts it, the pies are left tasting "like a facsimile of traditional pizza places."
The writing is on the wall at places like Macdougal Street's Jr's Pizza and Brew, the awning of which has a crossed out "$1.00" sign with a newly jacked up price written over it in Sharpie. According to Wiener, "They put the price as the name of the place, which is dangerous because you can never change the price without changing the name of the place. You're not going to see places called 'Dollar Slice' much longer. Five years. Within five years we will really feel the decline."
Unlike other types of once-ubiquitous stores that eventually became obsolete—like Blockbuster Video, Tower Records, or Radio Shack— Wiener doesn't think that dollar slice joints will live on in our nostalgic hearts.
"When dollar slice does die, we'll think of it the way we do a dollar store today. If you bought a watch at a dollar store, you can't be surprised when it stops working," he says. "You can't be surprised that when the economy changes that this happens. We probably will still have the $1.50 slice or the $2.00 slice. Maybe we'll still have an appreciation for $1.50 slices, but it doesn't have the same ring to it."
Some pizza shops are still working hard to keep prices steady at one dollar. One of the most iconic players in the dollar slice culinary genre is 2 Bros. Pizza. For Eli Halali, the co-owner of 2 Bros., the dollar slice game has evolved from a simple promotion in its earliest days to the basis of his business' success.
"We loved pizza and were always intrigued by the pizza business," says Halali. "Initially the $1 price point was meant to be a promotion to get people in the door. From day one, the reception was overwhelming."
Halali's locations are some of those experiencing volume at the highest degree, with several locations regularly meeting that 400-pies-a-day standard. As the business has continued to grow, he has been adamant about keeping prices consistent. He's certainly aware of the shift in the city's food scene. While 2 Bros. doesn't waver on meeting customers' needs, the chain's local retail peers in the area are starting to crack.
"There are the obvious issues, like increased labor and rent costs. Another big issue that I believe is less talked about is market saturation in the fast food space in NYC," Halali says. "As traditional retailers continue to close around the city, many of the vacancies are filled by fast casual and quick-service restaurants. For instance, a block which may have had three lunch options servicing a given amount of customers in 2010 may have 18 restaurants today servicing the same amount of people." Larger chains coming into the fold also bring with them the corporate capital raised in other markets and used to transition to these locations.
The dollar slice has become a beloved feature of the city and a mainstay snack for New Yorkers. Maybe a wedge of pepperoni-topped pie was the first thing you dug into after getting off the train in Midtown the day you first moved here. Maybe it was your everyday lunch during that first crappy assistant job you took to pay the bills. Watching the dollar slice slowly drift away from us feels like losing a friend, but the times are changing. If a food is defined by it's price, its eventual disappearance feels inevitable.
But as Halali told me, "There is definitely an element to our brand that is a public service. In some cases, people are relying on us for a meal because it's their only quality option. As long as we can keep our doors open at $1.00, we will."
In the meantime, grab some quarters and head to the counter of your nearest dollar slice joint, and enjoy its cheap, greasy greatness while you still can.