Flemington small businesses making a return after the pandemic

Maria Rosa survives even after facing many struggles


Amanda Lippert

The outdoor patio at Maria Rosa, During the summer, large parties hosted events here and the tables were filled every weekend.

Located right off of Sergentsville Road lies Maria Rosa Pizzeria. The pizzeria is one of the three small businesses owned by the Marinelli Brothers Vito, Ralph, and Mike. The charming brick building is accompanied by a beautiful outdoor patio with twinkling string lights and a pond created by their father Giovanni Marinelli. 

As you walk in, the breathtaking smell of the pizza ovens overwhelms you as you immediately gaze upon the stunning and appetizing pizzas that sit next to the register. You are greeted with a warm, genuine welcome from either Ralph or Mike who are already covered in flour and it is only 4 o’clock. You sit down at a booth and admire what the people sitting next to you ordered, then tell your server you want the exact same thing. 

But what would happen if you couldn’t experience the ambiance when you placed your order?

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Maria Rosa, like many small businesses in Flemington, had to completely change their way of doing business that they had crafted for decades. How did they survive? What were their challenges? Were other Flemington small businesses as lucky?

Ralph Marinelli, Co-owner of Maria Rosa Pizzeria, had to make significant changes due to the pandemic. “We had to completely change our business model, going from a majority of dine-in to curbside delivery and take-out,” he said. 

Ralph and Mike Marinelli took over Maria Rosa from their father in 2006 after the business had opened in 1995. The brothers originally struggled with establishing their pizza cred as the new owners and encountered challenges faced by many small business owners during start up. Ralph Marinelli especially highlighted the importance of cash flow management and prioritizing projects and expenditures. However, by keeping Maria Rosa in the family, Ralph and Mike continued to foster the love of food with friends and family while producing delicious pizzas.

Ralph and Mike realize they were not the only small business owners who have struggled since the onset of the pandemic. Flemington has over 400 businesses according to jerseydigs.com, but not all of them were forced to shut down in March of 2020. 

Betsy Driver, mayor of Flemington, did not agree with Governor Murphy’s state mandate regarding small businesses made on March 21st, 2020. “It was not fair that he allowed large chain businesses such as Walmart and Target to remain open and forced small businesses to close,” she said. 

With small businesses being forced to shut their doors, small business owners like Ralph and Mike Marinelli had to get creative. Employees at Maria Rosa Pizzeria had to shift gears and learn how to upsell items over the phone which is already challenging to do face to face. Ralph and Mike struggled with meeting the supply and demand. Even pizza box suppliers were backed up and products took weeks to deliver.

We do not know if we would have lost those businesses with the pandemic or not.

— Flemington Mayor Betsy Driver

This did not stop the deafening ringing phones blaring more than ever, as Maria Rosa shifted to being primarily a take-out operation. There was no longer a need for servers. This presented an initial problem for Ralph and Mike as they had to address the excess staffing only to find a shortage of employees when they were able to reopen. Luckily, no employees lost their job during the pandemic but there were fewer shifts offered. 

Maria Rosa adjusted in order to survive the pandemic. They created a curbside delivery system and converted to a new computer system. Now, Maria Rosa is back to having indoor dining and their phones are still as busy. 

Ralph Marinelli is thankful that Maria Rosa is back to its normal operations and grateful for the generosity he witnessed from the Flemington community. “A lot of people sent food to the front line workers and I hope that doesn’t change,” he said.

 This past summer, the beautiful outdoor patio had reservations every night and the dining room was always packed. Servers were running around like crazy, trying to balance the inside and outside tables. Everything was truly back to normal. 

Maria Rosa was able to persevere but several beloved businesses in Flemington closed due to the pandemic, such as Jake’s Restaurant and Bar. In spite of some closures, Mayor Betsy Driver says that Flemington has actually gained many new businesses. New Jersey Business Magazine says 16 small businesses have opened in the Flemington Borough since 2020.      

COVID-19 affected Flemington small businesses tremendously. We should all support these local businesses as often as we can to keep our community thriving.