Food News

Pirates and Pizza Boxes: The Story Behind Joy Hill's Missing Custom Pizza Boxes

Joy Hill's custom boxes are currently MIA.
Joy Hill's custom boxes are currently MIA. Molly Martin
"For a while, it was gloves," says Joy Hill co-owner Julia Duncan-Roitman of the ongoing supply-chain issues that have plagued the hospitality industry in recent years. Pre-pandemic, a box of gloves — a restaurant essential — was $50. Now it's $120. "And that's come down," she adds.

The latest supply-chain snafu for South Broadway's Joy Hill, one of our picks for the ten best pizza places in Denver: its custom pizza boxes. "We all found it really funny at first," Duncan-Roitman admits of being told that the restaurant's boxes were unavailable because of pirates in China. "But it's actually really sad."

While many restaurants that serve pizza use generic boxes or sport fairly typical designs, Joy Hill's boxes stand out as Denver's most whimsical way to take a pie to go.

The image of a girl offering a slice to a deer while sitting among flowers and butterflies began as a rough idea that Duncan-Roitman drew on the back of a cocktail napkin. Her friend, illustrator Kiersten Essenpreis, took that sketch and created the final design. "It's such a powerful branding tool," Duncan-Roitman says.

It even caught the eye of Barstool Sports' Dave Portnoy when he visited Denver last year and made a stop at Joy Hill. "I love that," he says in the video, pointing to the design. "I love the girl feeding it to a deer in a forest of fun."

But now that forest of fun is MIA because of an issue that's affecting a lot more than just pizza boxes. "This perfectly represents a much bigger problem on a really micro-scale," Duncan-Roitman notes.
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Custom box or not, Joy Hill's sourdough pies are some of the best in town.
Molly Martin
Joy Hill didn't even have pizza boxes when it first opened in early March 2020; the idea for the concept was originally a casual neighborhood bar that also happened to serve pizza. But after indoor dining was shut down during the pandemic, less than two weeks after Joy Hill debuted, pizza — and the ability to serve it to go — became a lifeline.

Like many goods, Joy Hill's custom boxes are manufactured in China. "Of course, I would rather have them made domestically," Duncan-Roitman notes. But unlike T-shirts, which she gets through a local unionized print shop, she's been unable to find a nearby business capable of producing the boxes at an affordable cost.

So it went through a local supplier. In 2020, it took about five or six months to get the first shipment of custom boxes through Joy Hill's distributor, Greco & Sons, Duncan-Roitman recalls. After that, though, the restaurant had been able to regularly order the 300 or so boxes it goes through weekly without an issue.

Until a few months ago.

"Here [in the United States], the people who load and unload containers onto large ships are unionized," Duncan-Roitman explains. "In China, they're not. They're kind of like a rogue actor," Or, as the representative of the box company described them, "pirates."
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The view from Joy Hill's rooftop patio is enough to make you forget about supply-chain issues, for a little while at least.
Molly Martin
But instead of brandishing weapons on the high seas, these pirates put a ransom on goods, demanding that distributors pay what's known as a spot fee in order to secure a shipping container's place on an outgoing vessel. While this isn't a new practice, the fees are currently five times higher than normal. "This is what every industry is experiencing right now. Everybody is paying these higher prices, and that's adding to inflation," she notes.

If a company opts to not pay the ransom, then the goods aren't loaded — which is exactly what's happened to Joy Hill's joyfully designed boxes.

There's no telling when — or even if — the custom boxes will arrive. "The rep from the box company said it could happen at any point. Maybe they get tired of waiting and just take the lower spot fee. Or, who knows, maybe it's really chaotic there and ours gets forgotten. There's no telling," Duncan-Roitman says.

In the meantime, Joy Hill is using plain boxes that it's purchasing through Greco — which cost even more than the custom boxes, which were priced at 18 cents each when Joy Hill first began getting them. Currently, the restaurant is paying 50 cents per box; getting custom boxes made domestically would cost over one dollar each. "That's not where I would choose to pass the cost along to our guests right now," Duncan-Roitman says.

So all she can do is use the bland boxes and wait out the pirates for her special design. "I would like to figure out something creative to do with the plain boxes," she admits. "I just don't have the mental bandwidth."

Joy Hill is located at 1229 South Broadway and is open from 4 to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 4 to 10 p.m. Friday, noon to 10 p.m. Saturday and noon to 9 p.m. Sunday. For more information, visit joyhilldenver.com.
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Molly Martin is the Westword Food & Drink editor. She’s been writing about the dining scene in Denver since 2013, and was eating her way around the city long before that. She enjoys long walks to the nearest burrito joint and nights spent sipping cocktails on Colfax.
Contact: Molly Martin