Photos by Matthew DelDonna and Kelsey Thomas
From gigantic pizza slices to lobster rolls, it is no secret that Coastal Virginia is quickly becoming home to numerous casual chain restaurants and popular franchises that originated outside of the area. Whether they’re stationing themselves at the beach, in downtown areas or in their own unique spot, entrepreneurs are finding value in the CoVa market.
Here, we introduce you to two of them, Benny’s and Mason’s, but they aren’t the only chains making their way to CoVa. Chicken Salad Chick recently opened in Hampton, Mellow Mushroom (with locations already in Newport News and Williamsburg) planted roots at the Virginia Beach oceanfront and Charlottesville-based Three Notch’d Brewing opened a Town Center location. All offer unique experiences at their various locations.
Mama Mia, that’s-a-big-a-pizza! If there is one thing Benny’s is known for, it’s their giant slices. They’re so big, in fact, that they are served on two plates. An entire pie measures 28 inches, and you can typically choose between cheese, pepperoni, Italian sausage or their rotating monthly specials. The idea of the franchise started as part of a graduate school project that was transformed into a reality by Christopher Brown and business partner, Zach Toth, both Virginia Tech alumni.
Missing Blacksburg and wanting to start a business of their own, Brown and Toth’s first restaurant, Benny Marzano’s, was born in 2011 at their old stomping grounds. Fast forward to 2021 and there are currently 15 locations in the state (including three in Coastal Virginia) and nine dispersed throughout the states of North Carolina, South Carolina, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wyoming, with plans in the works for several new locations both in and out of state.
Having grown up in Coastal Virginia and recently returned to plant his roots here, Brown’s goal is to open a restaurant in all seven local cities. While all locations serves up the same giant pies, each has a different last name that ties to the area. For example, the “Cavalloni’s” in their newest location in Town Center means wave or breaker and “Cantiere’s,” which will be the last name of their planned Newport News location means dockyard.
The restaurant’s famous slogan, “Home of the Virginia Slice,” refers to the true story of “Benny,” a Brooklyn, NY native who made his way to the Eastern Shore and served giant slices of pizza to his neighbors. This legend was the inspiration behind the concept and the chain honors the story by serving up slices that are similar to New York style but with a custom five-cheese blend.
“Our story is simple,” Brown explains. “It’s all about the pizza at Benny’s. We aren’t flashy or fancy, just straight forward, great pizza. We focus on maintaining that simplicity and novelty of our brand in everything we do because that’s what folks want. Sorry, no salads or wings, just pizza. And of course, beer.”
Learn more at BennysVA.com.
Mason’s Famous Lobster Rolls
The lobster world in Coastal Virginia just got a little bigger. With fan favorite A Bite of Maine being a staple among locals, a new player has been added to the lobster roll game. It all started with Dan Beck, a seafood buyer who opened the very first location in Maryland in 2014 with the dedication of using lobster that is only sustainably sourced from Maine.
Mason’s Famous Lobster Rolls has now made its way down the coast with 17 locations from Minnesota to Florida and plans for new ones, including one on Atlantic Avenue in Virginia Beach that will appeal to tourist season. Their recently opened Shore Drive location at the foot of Lesner Bridge has already adapted a local-esque vibe and features a light menu that brings a simple approach to serving a New England classic.
You can order your lobster chilled with mayo and lemon butter in their Classic Lobster Roll or warm and tossed in butter in their Connecticut Roll. Other options include lobster and shrimp salad, Lobster BLT, Lobster Grilled Cheese, and soups like Lobster Bisque and New England Clam Chowder. Simplicity is key to their menu with lobster hauled from Maine and prepared according to tradition, Mason’s goals is to serve up easy lobster rolls “with no bells, no whistles, and no pretention.”
Sometimes less really is more, and at Mason’s they focus on authenticity exemplified by their motto, “Be Genuine.” In addition to all things lobster, there are also a variety of Virginia beers to choose from and some pretty cool Mason’s merchandise for purchase.
Learn more at MasonsLobster.com.