When Chad Dolezal decided to move from Austin back to his hometown of Dallas, he had a plan. After a decade of working as a chef and restaurateur in the state’s capital — where he had El Arbol, the Hightower, and the burritos and bar with a record shop, Troublemaker —the pandemic, years of struggling, and a negative experience with a landlord piled up on Dolezal. He decided to move his family back to Dallas and landed in Oak Cliff, where a former gas station-turned-laundromat caught his eye. He was looking for a place that he and his partners, who are friends from high school, could buy and turn into a neighborhood gathering spot. And they landed on serving pizza.
Chef Jason Smith, whose work Dallas diners have tasted at Zoli’s NY Pizza, Pie Tap Pizza Workshop + Bar, 400 Gradi, and Pizza Leila, knew right away he wanted to do New York-style pizza (and he dropped one New Haven style pie on too). He developed a crispy, thin crust and Cenzo’s serves red and white pies that come loaded up with meat all the way to totally vegetarian. Diners can substitute a cauliflower crust. Dolezal developed the sandwich menu, including an Italian deli sandwich that’s backwards engineered so that all that great oil and vinegar from the lettuce and tomato land on the bread, just where it should be. It serves Oak Cliff soda, obviously, as well as a list of local beers and wines.
It wasn’t just a desire to control his own destiny or be his own boss that drove Dolezal to invest in building Cenzo’s Pizza & Deli. He also wanted to create a work environment that wasn’t the 80-hours a week, non-stop at breakneck speed model. “They call it being a restaurant widow,” he jokes to Eater Dallas while sitting in the dining room of Cenzo’s. “It’s awful.”
When it opened on December 19, Cenzo’s sold out by 8 p.m. Dolezal says the sandwich menu has been paired back since then to make more room in the fridge for pizza crust to meet demand. It required longer work weeks from the staff. And after the first few weeks, Dolezal says, they’ve been able to get the workload under control. Chef Smith was mandated to take a night off during Cenzo’s second week open. “I always say, the [work/life balance] we’re trying to attain for the restaurant industry should not feel so unattainable,” Dolezal says. “We’ve got to figure out a better way to do things.”
The other priorities for Dolezal include paying a living wage before tips and creating a system to empower workers. The former means charging around $25 for a pizza, which he hopes customers will see the value in. As Cenzo’s was being built out, someone popped in to ask about the place and immediately asked how much food will cost — adding that they liked the price point at Domino’s. “I was like, ‘Well, I can tell you I’m going to be more expensive than that,’” Dolezal says. “But all my people make at least twice as much as someone at Domino’s, and that makes me feel better. If it doesn’t make you feel better, then it’s okay for you to keep going there.”
As for empowering the workers, Dolezal notes that they’re too small for an HR department, so he and his partners set up a system for worker complaints addressing their higher ups to protect them. “We set up a series of steps where, if people have a problem with me, with [my partner] Vinnie Sherman, with Jason, we gave them go-tos to handle it,” Dolezal says. “Creating a safe space is assumed in most other industries, but not [in hospitality].”
Dolezal says he’s been thinking about breaking and remaking the model since his days in Austin a decade ago, when he found himself trying to convince dishwashers to take $9.50 an hour just to make a restaurant’s finances work. “I think it’s so gross, but I had no other choice,” he says. At his fine dining neighborhood spots run by a smaller-name chef in Austin, he frequently felt like he was at the top of his price range for what customers would pay. And he found that people’s expectation of what owners like himself make from a business did not match up with the reality.
“I’m not saying there aren’t rich restaurateurs, but I don’t know them,” he says with a shake of his head. “I hope this place and other affordable, to my mind, places in the neighborhood do what they need to do. Let’s not trade a dollar for a dollar. Let’s make sure our workers are happy and then charge appropriately.”