EL PASO—The powerful aroma of homemade dough, tomato sauce and spices baking in the oven accompanied by the sensuous strumming of an acoustic guitar welcomes customers to the tiny, late night Pizza Joint.
But the secret ingredient for the success of the Pizza Joint, 2900 N Mesa, which features local musicians as well as the pizza slices, is the love that connects the two co-workers who manage the shop.
“It’s not being with him 24/7,” said Melissa Faviola Maese, owner of the restaurant. “I would say it’s more like 30/7 because it feels that much more intense sometimes.”
The Pizza Joint is managed by 30-year-old Maese and her boyfriend of three years, Timothy Michael Girts, 31, Girts is the special events and marketing coordinator for the restaurant. Maese in charge of paperwork while Girts is hands-on in the kitchen and creating events, but at the end of the shift, everyone’s doing everything.
Family owned businesses are a big sector of the US economy, according to a survey conducted by Family Enterprise USA, generating 57 percent of the nation’s GDP. This small establishment is one of an estimated three million businesses nationwide owned and managed by couples.
It is expected that two persons in a partnership will share the work on a 50/50 basis, but for Maese and Girts, working side by side in the Pizza Joint, it’s about two different occupations.
“This is the favorite job that I’ve ever had and I’ve been working since I was 16,” said Johnathan Gaytan, 24, a waiter at the Pizza Joint for six months. “I’ve known Miki [Girts] for about eight years. He’s my friend, but when I need to do something straight, he’s not afraid to let me know. Mel [Maese], she’s not one to tell us what to do. She works with us and we work as a team.”
It starts with an idea
But the Pizza Joint did not start as a couple’s project. Maese started it in March of 2011 almost spontaneously as a project with another partner. After Maese graduated from the University of Texas at El Paso with a bachelor’s degree in communication she was employed with MillerCoors. However, within two years, she was laid off.
“So I got laid off and I didn’t know what I was going to do,” said Maese. “I’ve always wanted to open a pizza by-the-slice. El Paso needs pizza. I needed Pizza growing up, especially with the bars near UTEP, but instead my friends and I had to buy frozen pizza instead to take home.”
With a $50,000 loan and approximately a month-and-a-half of frenzy, the brainchild of Maese was born in El Paso as the city’s first “late night pizza-by-the-slice” locale.
“For the first three weeks it was terrible,” said Maese. “We had nothing to look on to, we just experimented with everything. This was a crazy time in my life, I experimented with sauce. I experimented with dough and I didn’t know how to make pizzas until The Pizza Joint.”
Next comes the music
Not only was Maese exploring menus, but she started featuring music to draw El Pasoans to her doors. A month after opening, she met Girts at the April 2011 Coachella Valley Music Festival in Indio, California. A native of Jamestown, New York, Girts moved here with his military family 10 years ago.
“After Coachella we started doing Open Mic, hanging out and things just started off from there,” Maese said. “I didn’t even ask him to be a part of this business. He just sort of walked in, I guess because he was just a hop and a skip away.”
Maese had a vision to bring local arts into her restaurant and Girts made it happen with his connections in the city’s music scene. Girts would then help Maese open the Pizza Joint as a stop-and-go venue for both local and traveling musicians.
“There’s no chance for separation whatsoever,” said Girts about joining the business. “It’s a good thing and a bad thing, just depending on how you look at it.”
Working together on a dream
With Girts on the team, both acknowledge that staying professional is for the better of the business. “I always like to think that what stays at home should stay at home,” said Maese. “Plus it’s embarrassing to think that people can know about our personal life.”
The joint management is what makes their relationship work, they say.They don’t deny that owning a business detracts from personal time, but they never tire of each other. In fact, Maese notes that the only time that they’re not together is when she’s at home doing laundry and when Girts hosts his Open Mic night every Wednesday.
“It’s never, ‘hey you got to do this’,” said Gaytan. “It’s always ‘we’ve got to do this.’ The type of leaders that Mel and Miki are, are both to delegate but to also involve and that’s what I think makes them so professional.”
Maese and Girts have a dream, which is for the original Pizza Joint to spread throughout the city. They opened a second Pizza Joint downtown early in November.