Seven days a week, 24 hours a day, New Yorkers stand at the outdoor counter of 99¢ Fresh Pizza and pay as much for a plain slice as they did for a subway fare in 1986. At $1.50, the fee to use the sidewalk A.T.M. nearby is more expensive.
This being a city with a 10.4 percent unemployment rate in January, this being a recession, there is no such thing as change that is spare. Customers, taking the signs at their word, have been known to ask for a penny back after paying with a dollar bill.
“I give them penny,” explained Mohammad Hossain, a manager at the pizza shop.
No pennies change hands one block down Ninth Avenue, at West 40th Street, where the competition posted signs of their own: “Pizza, $1.00 per slice, tax included.” Postal workers, teenagers and businessmen step into the 24-hour 2 Bros. Pizza, $5 bills in hand. Allegiances have formed. Trash has been talked. A cabdriver said he preferred 99¢ Fresh over 2 Bros., because it was easier to find street parking outside 99¢ Fresh. A patron of 2 Bros. prefers their sauce over the sauce up the block.
Each establishment has the same daily special: Two slices and a can of soda for $2.75, which is what most places charge for a single slice. There is indoor seating at 2 Bros., but none at 99¢ Fresh. There is grated parmesan on the counter at 99¢ Fresh, but none at 2 Bros.
Asked who opened first, Mr. Hossain was adamant, perhaps even offended: “This is first! This is first!”
In New York City, the domain of the $1,000 omelet (Norma’s, at Le Parker Meridien Hotel) and the $41 burger (Old Homestead Steakhouse), the dollar wars between 99¢ Fresh and 2 Bros. are an unlikely development.
The shops are two of a growing number of New York delis and pizzerias offering $1 slices, a phenomenon that has delighted, dismayed and disturbed pizza lovers, food bloggers and rival pizzeria owners while defying a basic fundamental of the city’s economy — charging as much as you can whenever and wherever you can.
About 15 eateries around the city now sell dollar slices of pizza. The owners of 99¢ Fresh and 2 Bros. have turned bargain pizza into a business model: There are four 99¢ Fresh shops in Manhattan, and four 2 Bros., too. Next month, 99¢ fresh will open its fifth shop on 34th Street near Third Avenue.
Pizza experts said the rise of dollar pizza was an economy-driven counterpoint to New York’s more celebrated high-end pizza. Last year, Di Fara Pizza in Brooklyn, widely considered one of the best in the city because each pie is handmade by the owner using imported ingredients from Italy, raised the price of a plain slice to $5.
“I don’t think a drunk college student cares about whether there’s San Marzano tomatoeson their slice,” Jason Feirman, 25, who writes a pizza blog called I Dream of Pizza, said of the $1 pizza trend. “It’s a good business model. They’re not catering to food blogs. The idea is to turn out these pizzas as fast as they can.”
Theories abound as to how an establishment can sell such cheap food in such an expensive city. Dollar pizza shops have been accused of using frozen dough, skimping on the cheese and sauce and cutting slices too small.
“I think that it’s great for the people that aren’t interested in high-quality product,” said Margaret Mieles, Di Fara’s manager, of dollar-slice establishments.
The owners of 2 Bros. and 99¢ Fresh contend that their slices are made fresh with quality ingredients and that they make their own dough and their own pizza sauce. They describe the dollar-slice business as a kind of public service, with minimal profit margins.
In 2008, when the first 2 Bros. Pizza opened on St. Marks Place in the East Village, the owners decided to have a grand-opening dollar-slice special. It was so popular, they made it permanent.
“Financially, it doesn’t make a lot of sense, but it’s part of our brand,” Eli Halali, 26, one of the two brothers who co-own 2 Bros. Pizza, said as he stood next to sacks of General Mills enriched flour in the East Village shop.
Abdul Mohammad, the owner of the 99¢ Fresh chain, said there was no secret to his formula. His stores are in small spaces with low rent in pedestrian-heavy locations that can support a 400-pie day. “If I sell like 20 pies, 30 pies, I cannot pay the rent, pay the employees,” he said. “My rent is cheap. If I pay $15,000 to $20,000 rent, I can’t do dollar slices.”
He said that he made roughly 15 cents to 20 cents profit per slice and that it was not unusual for one 99¢ Fresh location to produce up to 450 pies a day. His pizza is so cheap some customers treat him like a wholesaler, ordering dozens of pies in the morning and selling the slices elsewhere — for $2 each.
At lunchtime the other day at Ninth Avenue and 41st Street, 13 men and women stood on the sidewalk outside 99¢ Fresh, impatiently ordering and impatiently eating slices amid the ambiance of ungentrified Hell’s Kitchen: idling delivery trucks near the rear of the Port Authority Bus Terminal, a barking dog named Leo someone tied up down the block, a prostitute who hurried by saying something about $150 for a half-hour and a bearded homeless man with a cane who spoke loudly to himself about the size of the average bear. He ate two slices.
Some rave about the slices at the two chains, saying they are as good or better than more expensive slices, while others are only mildly impressed, or flat-out unimpressed. No one, however, complains about the price.
Last April, Adam Kuban, 35, the managing editor of SeriousEats.com and the founder of the pizza blog Slice, had what he called a “cheap-slice showdown” between 99¢ Fresh and 2 Bros. In part because of its “better hole structure” in the crust, Mr. Kuban declared 2 Bros. as the winner. Mr. Feirman of I Dream of Pizza would have voted differently, with 99¢ Fresh being his preference.
“Is it the best pizza out there? It’s not,” Mr. Kuban said in an interview, referring to both 99¢ Fresh and 2 Bros. “But for somebody who just wants bread and sauce and cheese, it’ll do you right.”
The inspiration for the trend, said Mr. Mohammad, considered the dollar-slice trailblazer, was not the cabbies, the tourists or the late-night drinkers of Hell’s Kitchen, but another demographic entirely: the homeless, who used a 24-hour drop-in center at Ninth Avenue and 41st Street.
“If they want to buy Chinese food, they need $4,” Mr. Mohammad said. “For a slice, it’s $2.50. I think about these people. I say, ‘I want to do something for these people.’ ”