Longtime employees buy West Lebanon pizzeria

Co-owner Caleb Barr takes a sheet of garlic knots out of the oven at Cantore’s Pizza in West Lebanon, N.H., on Tuesday, April 2, 2024. Barr and Keith Friend, who have each worked at the restaurant for around a decade, took over operation of the business in January. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Co-owner Caleb Barr takes a sheet of garlic knots out of the oven at Cantore’s Pizza in West Lebanon, N.H., on Tuesday, April 2, 2024. Barr and Keith Friend, who have each worked at the restaurant for around a decade, took over operation of the business in January. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News / Report For America — Alex Driehaus

Co-owner Keith Friend organizes delivery orders at Cantore’s Pizza in West Lebanon, N.H., on Tuesday, April 2, 2024. The restaurant is open Tuesday through Saturday and takes delivery orders until half an hour before closing for a $4.50 delivery charge. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Co-owner Keith Friend organizes delivery orders at Cantore’s Pizza in West Lebanon, N.H., on Tuesday, April 2, 2024. The restaurant is open Tuesday through Saturday and takes delivery orders until half an hour before closing for a $4.50 delivery charge. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News / Report For America photographs — Alex Driehaus

Pizzas sold by the slice sit in a glass case before the lunch rush at Cantore’s Pizza in West Lebanon, N.H., on Tuesday, April 2, 2024. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Pizzas sold by the slice sit in a glass case before the lunch rush at Cantore’s Pizza in West Lebanon, N.H., on Tuesday, April 2, 2024. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

By PATRICK ADRIAN

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 04-04-2024 6:01 PM

WEST LEBANON — Two longtime employees of Cantore’s Pizza have become the restaurant’s owners.

Caleb Barr and Keith Friend, who have a combined 20 years of employment at the West Lebanon pizzeria, purchased the nearly 13-year-old shop from Vinnie Cantore in January.

With the sale, Cantore’s joins other Upper Valley businesses recently purchased by employees, including Molly’s in Hanover, which was sold to the manager Jennifer Packard in January, and West Lebanon Feed & Supply, which the owners sold last year to a company that helps to transfer a business to an employee-owned model.

Cantore, 57, said that selling the business to employees was a win for everyone.

“The restaurant’s been left in very good hands and I couldn’t be happier,” he said in a phone interview.

Cantore, who grew up in Hartford, opened Cantore’s Pizza in July 2011 in Glen Road Plaza. His father, James Cantore, was an original owner of Dirt Cowboy Cafe in Hanover and was instrumental in helping Vinnie Cantore finance and launch the pizzeria, the younger Cantore said in a 2015 interview with the Valley News.

When Cantore expressed a desire to retire from the restaurant last year, Barr and Friend approached him with their interest in taking it over.

The co-owners declined to discuss the sale price of the transaction.

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Barr, 32, has worked at Cantore’s for 11 years. He bought a 26% ownership stake in the restaurant in 2022.

“Caleb is the guy with time and experience and with a hand on the pulse (of the operation),” Friend said. “Even when he wasn’t a part-owner with Vinnie, he was still running the place.”

Barr, who lives in Springfield, Vt., with his wife and four children, said he bought Cantore’s in part because he had already built it into a career.

“I like it here,” Barr said. Owning it “is obviously stressful at times but I think it’s definitely worth it.”

Friend, 54, has worked at Cantore’s for eight years. After graduating from Hartford High School, he attended the University of Vermont, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration. After several years of working a variety of retail and sales jobs, he returned to Hartford and started working at Cantore’s.

Going from employee to owner is “like a full circle (trip) back to my business administration degree,” Friend said. “I’ve had lots of experience in sales and service over the years so the hard work pays off.”

The new owners said they have no plans to change Cantore’s. They plan to update the restaurant website and hope in the future to reopen the restaurant on Sundays, which stopped in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic and staffing shortages.

“But we’re not looking to change what isn’t broken,” Friend said.

Cantore’s pizza is a thin crust New York-style pie. Toppings range from traditional ingredients such as sausage, onions and bell peppers to options including macaroni and cheese, artichokes and BBQ sauce. They also have a gluten-free pizza crust and vegan cheese.

Customer favorites include the Loaded Philly Steak and Cheese, The Queen Margherita and Kris’ Maple Fennel Sausage Pie, a three-cheese white pizza with a homemade fennel sausage, caramelized onion and crushed red pepper, Barr said.

The owners do plan to introduce new food offerings as daily specials. Friend also created a new “secret sauce” recently that has been well received so far by customers.

“We call it Kiss Your Everything sauce because it really goes well with a lot of stuff on the menu,” Friend said.

Though declining to name any ingredients, Friend said the recipe is a combination of multiple sauces and ingredients that results in a sweet and spicy blend. Customers have used it on chicken wings, onion rings and sandwiches.

“I’ve actually tried it in a Philly cheese steak and it was really good,” Friend said. “I’ve even tried it on fish at home and it was great.”

The transition from employees to owners was relatively smooth, due to already having experience. Barr was already performing many ownership duties such as payroll management so the change in responsibilities was relatively minimal, Barr said.

The biggest complication was getting the restaurant’s business licenses and accounts under their names.

“That was more legwork than we anticipated,” Friend said. “We thought it would just be a matter of (updating the names) but that’s not the way things work. So we had to set up new accounts, fill out new applications and negotiate new prices … but we managed to get through it.”

Patrick Adrian may be reached at padrian@vnews.com or at 603-727-3216.