Aginah Maltabes, our NJMOMpreneur of the Week, had always wanted to own a restaurant, but she was never sure what it would be until she hosted a pizza-making birthday party for her son. It was at that moment she realized this was the concept she wanted—a place where you could personalize your pie with fresh, artisanal ingredients, all on top of a delicious organic crust with just the right amount of crunch. Now almost 4 years later, Pizza Den in Princeton, is a town and university favorite and has made the Daily Meal list of 101 best pizzas in the US. We chatted with this Hopewell mom of three to find out what got her interested in the food industry, how she and her husband are partners in both life and work, and her family’s favorite NJ place to vacation in any season (hint: it’s not the shore).
Please tell me a little bit about your family. My husband, Costa, and I have been married for three years, and we have three children together. Our two older children, Brooke (15) and Myles (11) are from my previous marriage, and our youngest, Costa (5), is named after his dad. I grew up in East Windsor and Princeton, but we live in Hopewell because we found the perfect home for us. It has enough property where I can grow my own vegetables, and the town has a wonderful school system, which was key in our decision.
What did you do before you opened Pizza Den? I spent six years at Princeton Eye Group as an Ophthalmic Technician. But, once we decided to have our youngest child, I knew that I wanted another career path to free up more time to be with my family. John Legatos, the food sales representative for Hoagie Haven (my husband’s business with his brothers), took me under his wing and taught me everything I needed to know to become a food sales rep. I worked as a food sales rep and buyer for Kast, a major food service distributor. I loved the industry, so I learned everything about it and quickly realized I wanted to run a restaurant of my own.
What was your “aha” moment that led you to open Pizza Den? I’d been thinking about doing my own thing for a while, but my actual “aha” moment came when I hosted a private pizza-making party for my son Myles and his friends. I loved putting it together, and seeing how much joy it brought to him, his friends, and their families made me realize this was the concept I had been searching for. Though the Pizza Den was my idea, my husband’s brothers owned the pizza place before, but they no longer felt passionate about it, so I had an opportunity to go in on it with my husband and buy the business from them. We worked on and perfected our recipes, rebranded, and made them our own. It wasn’t easy, but we made it happen and couldn’t be happier with the path it’s taken.
What do you hope your children learn from seeing you as an entrepreneur? I hope that my children know that no matter who you are or where you come from, you can start from scratch and make it happen if you set your mind on something and are willing to work extremely hard.
How has the pandemic affected your business? Like everyone else, the pandemic took us by surprise, but I’m so thankful that we made it through the roughest part and are still here. With half of the university gone, it significantly diminished the daytime business, but we found other avenues like contact-free deliveries and outdoor seating for our customers. We had to cut back our staff hours so I didn’t have to let go of any staff members, and I always made sure they got their paychecks before I got mine. And though most of the students are back now, Princeton University has its own set of stipulations that are stricter than the town of Princeton. But we’re working within the guidelines for everyone’s safety and making it work.
How do you and your husband split up the responsibilities of running your business together? Though it might change a little bit each day, Costa generally handles the back-end supply-demand and the day-to-day with the main pizza guys. At the same time, I take care of payroll, accounting, training, marketing, social media, and customer relations. It’s a good balance, and it works well for us.
What’s your best seller, and what’s your favorite thing on the menu? Pizza Den’s bestseller is the Brooklyn pie, which is similar to a Margarita pie, but everything is so good you really can’t go wrong. My kids all love something different. Brooke loves the Buffalo Chicken, Myles is always Plain, and Costa mixes it with Plain or Pepperoni. But, my personal favorite is the Sauceless Pie, a white pie with mozzarella, ricotta, and goat cheese with olive oil, fresh basil, and garlic.
What are some of your favorite NJ businesses? As a business owner, I know the importance of supporting local, so I love taking the kids to the Americana Kitchen & Bar in East Windsor, which had maintained the same ownership as when it was the American Diner but has evolved over the years. It’s now a white tablecloth farm-to-table restaurant, and the food is consistently great. I also love to travel to all the different wineries in New Jersey—it’s truly like wine country. My go-to is Unionville Vineyards in Ringoes because it’s like stepping into nature with a homey, welcoming feel.
What are some of your favorite things to do in NJ with your family? Grounds for Sculpture is a hidden gem and meaningful—we love it so much we got married there. There’s nothing better than connecting with art while surrounded by nature. And, Liberty Science Center is a must for families—there are so many hands-on and educational things for all ages. Also, Crystal Springs Resort is the perfect family getaway. It’s beautiful, budget-friendly, and there’s so much to do there in all four seasons. Costa and I always start our getaway with a massage at the spa–it’s the best way to unwind.
What is your best advice for an NJMOMpreneur just starting? Patience is everything. When you’re an entrepreneur, you expect things to happen overnight, but that’s not the way things usually work. Give yourself time to get things done and be patient with yourself and anyone you are partnering with. Also, be extra patient with your children because mompreneurs are being pulled in so many different directions. If you can find a way to include your family in your business—all three of my kids help out with preparation and sales when they can—it’s good for them and you in the long run.