In 2012, Hurricane Sandy devastated large swaths of New York City. For entrepreneur Maryann Piazza — CEO of Majestic Vending & Services in the hard-hit borough of Staten Island — Sandy was particularly painful.
It devastated her entire neighborhood, and its punishing winds caused significant damage to the roof of Majestic’s facilities. “It was another disaster,” she says, following earlier trials that had rocked both New York and her company. “How were we going to sustain this time?”
Ultimately, Majestic persevered. In fact, throughout Staten Island’s recovery period, it never closed its doors. And since the storm, it has grown by 30% in size and revenue, says Piazza (though she declined to disclose employee or earnings numbers). Moreover, her staff dug deep to help their neighbors, donating supplies and helping members of the community apply for grants.
Combined, these efforts won the firm recognition by the U.S. Small Business Administration. In May, the agency presented Piazza, as well as her co-founder and husband, Stephen, with the 2016 Phoenix Award for their determination to rebuild their business and help their community.
Piazza says it was a huge honor — and a huge surprise. “We’re not the biggest business, and we don’t have the most employees. So for them to see our resilience? It’s humbling. But we do what we do because that’s who we are; that’s what it’s about.”
Indeed, during the nearly 20 years that Piazza has been running Majestic, she has led its small team through multiple hardships. Really, Sandy was the just latest in a series of storms they survived that made Piazza stronger as an entrepreneur.
An Accidental Start, A Successful Ascent
The Piazzas have known one another for 36 years — they even attended their high school prom together — and have been married for 34 of them, tying the knot soon after high school. At first, their life was simple, if difficult at times, given the pressure of caring for four children. “Not only did we have to figure out how to survive and go through life as a married couple raising a family, but we needed money for our kids’ needs.”
They got by for awhile on her “part-time work and full-time family commitment” and his two part-time jobs. Then, in 1992, everything changed when Stephen was hired to install and maintain a $50 gumball machine in an office waiting room. That opportunity opened the door to several others — and led the Piazzas to start Majestic Vending & Services.
The duo procured, then placed snack machines in an increasing number of local stores and offices. Eventually, their clients got bigger, too. As Majestic grew, the couple diversified its offerings as new requests came their way — delivering coffee to clients’ break rooms along with snacks, for example.
During the business’ earliest years, Maryann Piazza educated herself about the ins and outs of entrepreneurship. She attended seminars, development conferences, workshops and more, while also visiting her local SCORE and SBA offices for training in skills like writing a business plan and setting up company finances in Quickbooks.
Nothing could have truly prepared the duo for the difficulties still to come, however.
Foremost was the emotional and political devastation resulting from the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, which heavily impacted New York City’s economy.
“Downtown Manhattan was a ghost town at one point, and for our type of product, business was dwindling rapidly,” she says. “Lots of places wanted to reduce the amount of vendors coming through. So, we asked [our clients] what else they needed at the time, and got certified in bringing those other products in. They wanted to keep doing business with us, so we kept diversifying.”
Even so, cash flow became a problem, so they took out a small SBA-backed loan. Over the next five years, the Piazzas managed to sustain their business — and even turn a profit. In 2006, they began to experience growth again.
But 2008 brought the Great Recession, and many of Majestic’s corporate customers reduced their orders as a result. The company was once again “limping along.”
Ever the survivor, Piazza used Majestic’s status as a certified woman-owned business to pursue contracts through both the city and the state of New York. While these new contracts didn’t replace the revenue Majestic lost during that time, she learned valuable entrepreneurial lessons all the same.
Meanwhile, her children were growing up and going on to college, which added new financial pressure. “We were trying to see what else we could do to rebrand ourselves, to reassess where to end up as a business, especially in an industry that changes constantly,” she says.
In 2011, the company received a much-needed boost when Piazza was accepted into Goldman Sachs’ 10,000 Small Businesses program. She spent more than a half-year acquiring new skills, which she then brought back to the firm.
But just as she graduated the program, Hurricane Sandy hit. This time, Piazza knew how to respond. “We’ve always blended community service into what we do. So, through that, we helped rebuild Staten Island.” She and her team donated water and other supplies, and also wrote small grant applications on behalf of members of the community.
Insurance payouts were slow to arrive, but the SBA’s Small Business Development Center helped them secure another loan to survive the latest storm. A chance email would also set the Piazzas further down the path of recovery.
A Touchdown of an Opportunity
A week after Sandy hit, the National Football League got in touch. The organization was just starting to search for vendors to work at Super Bowl XLVIII, to be held at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.
Piazza had low expectations, but responded just in case — a wise move, since the NFL ended up contracting with Majestic to provide snacks for an official, League-hosted pre-game party. “What we found out was that, when the Super Bowl comes to town, they want to encourage small local business to get involved.”
Ever on the lookout for a chance to grow her business, Piazza is now investigating how to use the nuts she sold the NFL — which she glazed, roasted and delivered herself — to further expand. Recently, she pitched them to higher-ups at Whole Foods.
Today, Majestic has essentially finished rebuilding from Sandy. Once again on solid ground, 54-year-old Piazza is hoping to bring on more employees — particularly from within the Staten Island community — and to forge new strategic partnerships.
As for her community outreach efforts, Piazza currently mentors young adults through the Staten Island Chamber of Commerce. Soon, she hopes to develop a nonprofit arm of Majestic that would offer more formal grant-writing assistance.
But above all, she plans to keep learning — and to keep her eyes open for new possibilities. “I’d love to be mentored by another professional woman,” she says. “There are a lot of things I probably am not doing, that I’m not aware of, that I could do, that could generate more business and more revenue.”