Wednesday, August 26, 2015

PMQ Band Offers Slice of Hope, Beats Memphis Blues

At PMQ, we usually cover pizza news, not make it. But on August 20 at Barron Heights Transition Center in Memphis, two of my colleagues became the face of a Slice of Hope celebration that brought smiles and pizza to some guys who just needed a break. Slice of Hope is the national pizza party outreach program founded by Indian-American actor and host of Bollywood-focused TV shows Obeid Kadwani. The organization sponsors events each summer in shelters in 25 states. Its mission, in Kadwani’s words, is to “Create one real moment of joy for folks who are facing tremendous hardships and challenges.”

The concept is to use pizza, music and friendship to kindle some hope in people who are down on their luck or just haven’t enjoyed a decent meal in a while. At Barron Hills, the audience for this particular “Party of Hope” was veterans. Many are being treated for drug addiction. PMQ staff members Brian Hernandez and Daniel Perea joined me for the 45-minute drive from PMQ’s Oxford, Mississippi, headquarters to the shelter site in downtown Memphis. I took the photos you see here and talked to residents like Ivory, former Navy member, Tommy, who served as a Marine from 1973-1976 and David who saw combat as an Army truck driver in the Persian Gulf.

While I wielded a camera, Daniel and Brian picked up their instruments and rocked Ivory, Tommy and David along with about 30 of their military brothers as the musical entertainment and MCs for the event. The concert took place just after a van delivered dozens of Little Caesars pizzas. The hungry men lined up for a slice and then took their seats in the Barron Heights meeting room.

It was time to boogy! Playing a variety of blues, rock and country favorites, Brian on acoustic guitar and harmonica and Daniel on electric guitar solicited requests from the appreciative vets. They picked up the musical pace inspiring their mostly 50-60 year-old fans to clap, whistle and dance to standards like Elvis’ “Good Rockin’ Tonight” and The Stray Cats’ “Stray Cat Strut.”

One of those veteran most moved by the infectious PMQ-supplied rhythms was Ivory, aged 60, who said he had returned to his Memphis home that very day from Dallas. The soft-spoken former Harrier jet mechanic said he came home to fight his drug addiction and depression.  “I’ve got things I need to do with my family and this is the starting point for me to get things under control,” Ivory says.

Another former Barron Heights client is now a drug abuse councilor. Derix served in the Army from 1977-1982 and fought his own alcohol and drug addiction for 40 years. He got his own life in order after going through the program at Barron Heights. “Now I return here every so often to encourage the guys,” says the big man who couldn’t resist shaking his money maker to the PMQ Band’s grooves.

After Brian and Daniel were finished playing, the vets who hadn’t left for their next treatment session thanked us for bringing some variety into their journey of recovery and transition.  As an Air Force veteran myself, it was a privilege to serve these American patriots in even a small way. But as I watched Brian and Daniel pack up their guitars and amps, I knew it was their musical talent that made the biggest difference in the hearts of warriors still battling for their futures and families. It was a team win we’ll all remember--and so will the guys at Barron Heights.



Wednesday, August 19, 2015

A Name to Forget

I’ve only been writing about pizza since last December, but this much is clear to me. America’s favorite food should be a rallying point for people all over the world—not an object of dissension. When the folks at the New York pizzeria Pizza by Certé decided it was a smashing idea to add a pie to their menu called "Pic-a-Nika," I take their word that they were thinking “summer picnic fun with an Italian accent.”

But there had to be a moment when the pie makers shared the topping list with the clever marketers at Pizza by Certé. “Yep, guarantee ya the peeps are crushing for an awesome tasty summer pie smothered in fried chicken, watermelon and sunflower seeds,” said the overenthusiastic white millennial who may or may not have been distracted by his or her ear phones busting out Miley Cyrus or even Nicki Minaj. Nobody saw the big picture? Nobody noticed their internal stereotype meter was pegging off the charts, blowing up their judgment data banks with huge RED flashing digital letters screaming, WARNING, WARNING, WARNING—Detonation in 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 …

The thing went off last week like a Twitter thermonuclear bomb and escalated rapidly into physical protests outside the store by a group associated with the Black Lives Matter movement. The cross section of pizza and politics has been full-on penetrated like a drunk, clueless college kid in a careening, beat-up Subaru at 2 a.m. on Sunday.

Point is I’m willing to accept Certé manager Vincent Guzman’s claim: "When we made it we never thought that it would offend anyone. We create to feed, not to offend." But by the time he made this plea for understanding, it was far too late. Independent pizzerias around the country live and die by their social media marketing. Getting out front of menu changes, special events, customer loyalty and employee recognition can set your operation apart and forge a unique bond with your community. I’ve seen the power of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to reach out and touch pizza fans and drive them to their neighborhood pie palace for food, friendship and fun times.

But the same tools, in the hands of even well-meaning operators with a limited or unchallenged world view, can lay waste to dreams and years of hard work. After the protests and the media megaton fallout, Pizza by Certé management finally got something right, saying this on their Facebook page: "When we named the pizza 'Pic-a-nika' we disrespected an entire community, perpetuated a hurtful ideology and brought embarrassment to ourselves. In a time and climate when words carry so much charge, we chose beyond poorly and cannot erase or ignore the damaging effects it has caused."

Along with the outraged cries of those offended by Pizza by Certé and their gaffe of all gaffes, you’re sure to hear others decrying the state of political correctness that punishes innocent, struggling business owners. The truth is, whatever their real motivation, the brains behind the Pic-A-Nika debacle screwed the pooch in every way imaginable. The competitive restaurant playing field is unforgiving and relentless. Sound marketing combined with quality food will lead to survival. Monumentally brain-dead choices will lead inevitably to equipment auctions and grand openings for the new owners. (See PMQ’s Pizza Insider, for a primer on why opening a pizzeria might not be in your best interest).

So the charitable approach might be to give Pizza by Certé the benefit of the doubt and hope they’ve learned their lesson. One definition in the Italian dictionary of certé is “It goes without saying.” If only the rocket scientists/ pizza pitchers in New York could really read Italian instead of amusing themselves by bastardizing a perfectly good word like picnic. It goes without saying, what they did say in promoting their racially charged pie was a recipe for divisiveness and professional disaster.

Then again, social and racial justice is a long-term, sometimes hard-edged battle. A fair advocate might argue these folks have earned their Darwin Award and bid them good riddance. I will simply hope that this case study in restaurant marketing gone terribly wrong will not detract from a lesson the pizza community knows instinctively—pizza is the best food in the world to bring all kinds of people together and pizza operators have a passion for serving, not tearing down, their community.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Love Letter to A Meatball Sandwich

In my blog last week I talked about my Colorado road trip with PMQ Thinktankers Richard “Daddio” Ames and Steve “Bodega Highway” Hitchcock.  But if I’m being perfectly honest, one of the Rocky Mountain highlights of my July journey was the meatball sandwich I inhaled at Wholly Stromboli in Fort Lupton, site of the Great Western Pizza Summit on July 15.

This iconic, self-styled “East Coast Eatery” is located in a 103-year-old historic building where locals imbibed illegal prohibition hooch. Now it houses a cat’s meow basement Speakeasy where former—long-dead—gangsters and flappers are said to materialize. The beautiful and, dare-I-say, sizzling flappers-waitresses who worked the July 15 pizza celebration and talkfest in the newly renovated Speakeasy at Wholly Stromboli were some scary-sweet tomatoes, see! These ladies were, decidedly, not dead.

Talk about scary-sweet tomatoes—let’s return to the meatball sandwich of my dreams. Co-owner and U.S. Pizza Team competitor Melissa Rickman (above) is a beautiful New Jersey girl. She moved to a lovely small town in Colorado with her sharp husband and entrepreneurial partner, Eric, to offer the game–accustomed westerners of Fort Lupton something unfamiliar. She and her staff cook up classic urban Italian dishes like New York-style pizza, mouth-watering stromboli and, yes, the best meatball sandwich on the planet.

The recipes are lovingly handed down from Melissa’s mom and grandmother. On the menu are improvised mashups like WS’s Peanut Butter and Jelly Stromboli—trust me folks, this sweet, chewy piece of Heaven ain’t just for kids. In fact, I wouldn’t hesitate to snatch one right out of one of my grandkid’s sticky hands. The inspiring food at WS, and great bar, have earned  Rick and Melissa’s joint mountain cred for the best place around to have a good time. And “around” in Colorado is awful BIG.

But I digress—back to the Wholly Stromboli Meatball Masterpiece. Hand-molded, tender dark globes of fresh ground beef covered in tangy, just-sweet-enough, marinara sauce and gooey mozzarella on toasted Italian bread. Since the day my mom took me to an Italian restaurant in Pensacola, Florida, at age 7, after she sprung me from the Navy hospital following a 3-day stretch for minor eye surgery, I have revered a well-executed meatball sandwich. The kind of ultimate comfort dish I committed to memory that Gulf Coast day is never cheapened with the blunt trailer, “sub,” despite its Naval roots. It is a perfectly balanced mound of red-sauce-immersed steaming meatballs on both planks of a halfed, browned, oven-crusted bread vessel blanketed in bubbling cheese. Sprinkle on some green sprigs of fresh Oregano to sign off the portrait.

That’s exactly what I got at Wholly Stromboli, as you can see for yourself.

So, in the end, I returned from Colorado with great memories of wonderful, passionate pizza makers, an incredible East Coast food Oasis operated with friendly western charm … and those mountains. Yeh, the high, snow-capped ones that John Denver sang about, sure—but also the 3-inch-round red ones covered in golden melted cheese. That’s what I’m talkin’ about!

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Colorado Pizza Journey--the Stuff of Dreams

So what’s the connection between the breathtakingly beautiful Colorado Rockies and two passionate pizza makers? Ask Richard “Daddio” Ames or Steve “Bodega Highway” Hitchcock and they might say it has something to do with freedom.

I soaked in stories and observations from these two entrepreneurs, naturalists and renaissance pizzaioli as we drove through majestic mountain passes and skirted the mighty, untamed Colorado River. I joined them on a 240-mile road trip—with a few pizzeria pit stops—from Denver to Grand Junction, Colorado. Ames, owner of Daddio’s Pizzeria in Grand Prairie, Alberta, Canada, was hosted by pizza comrade Hitchcock, who founded Soda Creek Pizza in the picture postcard Colorado mountain resort port of Steamboat Springs in 1999.
Ames was returning to his native state after more than three decades in Canada for a reunion with former classmates and get-togethers with new pizzeria friends. He kindled those new online relationships through the idea-fanning discussion oven of’s Think Tank. Think Tank power plugs Daddio and Bodega Highway served as half the panel for The Western Pizza Summit held at the iconic, 100-year-old Wholly Stromboli restaurant in Fort Lupton, Colorado, on July 15. Wholly Stromboli co-founder Melissa Rickman and Master Pizza mastermind and U.S. Pizza Team superstar Mike LaMarca were the other pizza panel provocateurs. They informed and entertained a lively crowd in Wholly Stromboli’s flapper-evoking, wholly kick-butt Speakeasy with wide-ranging riffs wrapping up with the impact of Colorado’s legalized reefer rules on restaurants.

But back to Daddio and Bodega Highway—Think Tank nom de plumes for Ames and Hitchcock. Daddio runs a bustling pizzeria just 1,500 miles north of Denver in some rugged Canadian terrain where customers scale mini-mountain winter snowdrifts to earn their pizzas and wings at Daddio’s.  Daddio himself told me that his pizza delivery drivers routinely have to contend with moose and bears. The softspoken family man, hunter, fisherman and avid nature photographer is sharp as a tack when it comes to sharing innovative ideas about marketing and operating an independent pizzeria. “I’ve been successful in a lot of jobs,” he says without a hint of arrogance. “Even solved electric power generation challenges for the Canadian government as a consultant in remote locations, but my greatest love, besides my family, is being part of the pizza business.” The Colorado native routinely wears a t-shirt sporting the Daddio’s logo and the words “Think About Pizza.”
Ames wraps his delivery vehicles in low-light reflecting vinyl to combat the long northern nights and illuminate his "Think About Pizza” credo for quirky Canadian customers. “I actively employ high- and low-tech marketing solutions to drive my business, including a very active Facebook page, gift card program and even fun contests,” he says. “But in the end, it’s the quality of our ingredients and our pizzas that set us apart. As we say in all of our promotional materials, that’s ‘because taste matters.’”

Steve Bodega Highway Hitchcock took a winding professional road to arrive in his beloved Steamboat Springs, home of Soda Creek Pizza. Hitchcock founded the take-out-only pizzeria 15 years ago after he and his wife picked the 6,695-foot-elevation skier’s paradise to put down stakes. “My wife is from Colorado and I had lived in Illinois, Minnesota, Europe and California before stepping down from my national sales position with an outdoors product firm and moved to Colorado without a job,” he explains. “We planned to stay in a bunch of different towns when making our decision, but after spending a night in Steamboat, we both said, ‘This is it!’” Now, the community-minded businessman own a clothing boutique along with his sparkling pizza joint that offers familiar favorites along with specialty pizzas like fresh Sockeye Salmon and Elk-topped  pies.

Between his two businesses, Hitchcock works considerable hours. Still, he insists on making the time to support other Steamboat businesses. A skilled fly fisherman, he cherishes the natural wonders Colorado offers. “We raft, canoe, hike and mountain bike together as a family in one of the greatest spots on Earth to enjoy those activities,” Hitchcock says. “With Soda Creek Pizza, I have put together a team who I trust to create ‘Best in the Boat’ award-winning pizza with unique, fresh toppings and daily-made dough. We do this with solid point-of-service technology and automated budgeting software that allows me the freedom to take time off, recharge and appreciate my awe-inspiring surroundings. I truly believe people in the pizza industry have a duty to themselves and their families to get away from the store and reach out into their communities.”

Our PMQ crew parted ways with Daddio at the summit of the Grand Mesa in Western Colorado where jagged snow-lined peaks gave way to rolling flat-top vistas of green and blue. The separated Coloradoan spoke wistfully of his mountainous birthplace and the pizza community that sustained him on his journey home. “It’s remarkable that that you can travel all over this continent and share a passion and a way of life with the great, dedicated people who work in the pizza industry,” Daddio says as the slightest trace of a tear welled up in one eye. “I love Canada and Alberta because that is where my family and my livelihood reside. But the beauty of this Colorado wilderness is a memory you can never forget. It sets your spirit free.”

Yes, Daddio, our Colorado journey with you and the experiences we brought home with us to Mississippi are the images of dreams.