Friday, November 16, 2018

The U.S. Pizza Family

The night air was cold. In Valley City, we were far enough from Lake Erie to be mostly immune to the freezing lake effect, but the seasonal chill still bit at your bones. The Ohio landscape had been a painter's palette of fall colors on the drive down from Detroit.

Some twenty pizzaiolos and some of their counterparts huddled near Jason Samosky's wood-fired oven, a welcome reprieve from the cold. A steady supply of a seasonal ale magically seemed to appear. It tasted....interesting....but the price of free couldn't be beat. Clinking bottles joined the sounds of merriment, and a din of 10 conversations.

We tried to put a guitar in Patrick Maggi's hands and badger him into some entertainment, but on this night, he wasn't budging from being off the clock. Maggi shoved it back to me, but a nagging cough had left my voice incapable of carrying a tune.

Jokes were told, photos of kids were shown around, and business problems were hashed over for input.

Tommorrow, they would all be competing against each other for a free trip to Italy, but tonight they were just friends catching up and re-living old times. None of these men and women really saw each other as competition.

Patrick Maggi debates the merits of fuel wood choice
with Sean Dempsey.

Tonight, they were mining each other for information, sharing their love of the craft and sharing trade secrets. Adam Smith's free-market economic philosophies may have pit these businesspersons in a dog-eat-dog scenario in theory, but in practice they were partners in a greater endeavor. An enterprise of improving quality and service for all.

For all the pomp and circumstance of awards ceremonies, "black coats," trophies, and titles; what makes the United States Pizza Team special are the not the melodies played in the stanza per se....but the spaces between the notes most people don't ever really hear in the song.

Dan Uccello listens to Anthony Scalia relating a story.
It's never been a "team" in the traditional sense of a hard roster, organized by a coach with some grand "Bear" Bryant strategic plan. But spend any amount of time around some of these folks, and it becomes clear that there is really very few descriptors that fit more than the word "team."

I can actually think of one. "Family."

Sean Dempsey admires a photo of
the handiwork of Lars Smith.

As this loose collection of wild cards all sat down to break bread together, I pondered on the meaning of family. By complete coincidence, my own original concept of what a family was began on this same road, exactly 3.4 miles east of Samosky's Homestyle Pizzeria. My family lived on a farm property in a rented house for several years. It was then the traditional nuclear family with doting grandparents living a couple miles away in Medina.

Eventually, my nuclear family would suffer an atomic split, an reconfigure a thousand miles away in a different form. The farm is no longer there, replaced now by a collection of weeds and trees, and a neighborhood of cookie-cutter mini-mansions where the back forty used to be. The remaining living members of that family are scattered across the country, blown to and fro by the winds of circumstance.

I learned then that family can change. It is not a strict definition determined by a census bureaucrat or defined by what names written are written in a family bible. The saying goes that you can't choose your family. That's not necessarily true. You may not have chosen what family you were born into, but you can certainly choose which people you spend significant parts of your life around. And to that end, as members of this United States Pizza Team keep assembling at this or that contest, year after year... they become connected and stay connected. They look to better themselves and each other, and measure their improvement in fits and spurts, hoping with each competition to not necessarily be better than the next guy... but simply be a better pizza maker than the one they were yesterday.

Ultimately, in these contests, each man and woman really competes only against themselves. The other guys? Well they're just family.


Wednesday, August 8, 2018

I Love New York

"I don't wanna talk. I've said everything already. It's already out there. I'm not gonna say it anymore."

Well, that's not the response I normally hear when offering to give someone free publicity. If you've ever been to the historic Totonno's Pizza Napolitano on Coney Island, and tried to talk on the record to Cookie, that's pretty much the response you're going to get. 

Cookie prefers to be left alone in a quiet corner of a little pizzeria located on an island in this city filled with millions. She leaves it to Mike to sling pies behind the counter while she barks orders at him.

Cookie is tough. She won't B.S. you. She's got a story, but she ain't gonna wrap it up in a bow and give it to you as a gift. You gotta put your shoes on, do some legwork and find it yourself. And this, in a nutshell, is also a microcosm of New York City. The same reasons I love Cookie are the same reasons I love New York. 

Writer Tom Wolfe once said of the Big Apple, "One belongs to New York instantly. One belongs to it as much in five minutes as in five years." How true that is. From the moment I first set foot in New York City years ago, I immediately knew it was the beginning of what would become a life-long love affair. 

What's not to love about New York? It's gritty. It's alive. It's loud, obnoxious, it's weird, it's in-your-face. It's millions and millions of teeming people with millions and millions of stories waiting to be explored, told, retold, or sometimes buried and hidden away forever. The Big Apple isn't good at keeping secrets, but she still holds quite a few close to the vest.

New York is electric. It makes sleep irrelevant, and teases you with endless possibility. One wants to forego slumber, and spend all their free time exploring each nook and cranny; exposing every buried treasure waiting to be discovered. 

The Big Apple is the city that gave the world hip-hop, punk rock, crystalized the folk music movement, influenced the beat generation, was ground zero for the advent of television, and yes....started America's love affair with pizza. For decades, it served as the bellwether for the American cultural zeitgeist."What happens everywhere, happens first in New York," they used to say. 

The two oldest continuously operating pizzerias, Totonno's on Coney Island and John's of Bleecker Street, both have their roots in Lombardi's, which was once a little grocery store on Spring Street notable for one fact: in 1905, Gennaro Lombardi applied to the city for the first license to sell pizza in the United States. Here, American pizza was born. And thanks to being brought back from the ashes of near-extinction by John Brescio in 1994, Lombardi's still sells pizzas today - delicious as ever.

It's true that there is a philosophical divide between what is viewed as pizza by Italian purists and what Americans devour by the truckload. I don't personally think there's anything wrong with that. America rarely invents anything of cultural significance whole-cloth, preferring instead to take something else, re-invent it here, and make it uniquely its own. That's what New York represents for many an entrepreneur, foodie-turned-chef, and starving artist. An opportunity for re-invention.

New York is that shining city on a hill. The crossroads of the universe where one can go to re-invent oneself. And honestly, you don't really have a choice. New York transforms on a fundamental level, everyone and everything that lives there. As well it should....otherwise, what's the point of even going?
In the August 2018 issue of PMQ, we celebrate the legacy of New York style pizza with a story focus, a dough recipe, and a special pie provided to us by New York's own Tom DeGrezia. Be sure to check it out at

Friday, June 8, 2018

Anthony Bourdain 1956-2018

I've weakly attempted to model my entire professional career in media (without really any success) on the wonderful, wonderful television show that is Anthony Bourdain's Parts Unknown. Nothing was better than the weekly ritual of watching a bitter man's cynicism overcome time and again by the sheer wonder and beauty of the world, and the depths of the human heart. Bourdain was a man perpetually at war with himself. It made for compelling television to see the genuine joys of curiosity and beauty break through his own hard walls, to see his preconceived notions proven wrong, and to watch him sometimes serve as a model for immersing himself in the opposite side of an argument to try and genuinely connect with differing points of view; a lesson we can all continue to learn from.

Bourdain was a 1978 graduate of the Culinary Institute of America and a veteran of numerous professional kitchens, including many years spent as executive chef at Brasserie Les Halles. He first became known for his 2000 book Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly. In 2005 he began hosting the Travel Channel's hit culinary and cultural adventure programs Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations (2005–2012). In 2013, he switched to CNN to host Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown.

With each successive television show, he gained more and more creative control, and arguably an exponential increase in quality along with it. From the dazzling visuals of expert cinematography, to bold and sometimes experimental editing, to risky stylistic choices and riskier journeys, Parts Uknown wasn't just the best food or travel related show on television, it was easily in the top echelon of the best television shows ever aired. Period.

The gadget of his shows was simple. If Bourdain, who's seen and done it all, could still find wonder in the world, there was hope for the rest of us as well, no matter what we've experienced in life. With each new face and new exploration, the show always seemed to always drive home the the point (whether intentional or accidental) that human beings are more alike than they are unalike.

While the pilot light of that hope may now be snuffed out...the flame of hope still burns on. Today we are sad, but the best way to honor his legacy is to redouble our own efforts to chase the beauty, infinite variety in infinite combinations, and genuine love that exists in the world. 

Otherwise, we risk missing the entire point of life. 

Human Family - Maya Angelou

I note the obvious differences
in the human family.
Some of us are serious,
some thrive on comedy.

Some declare their lives are lived

as true profundity,
and others claim they really live
the real reality.

The variety of our skin tones

can confuse, bemuse, delight,
brown and pink and beige and purple,
tan and blue and white.

I've sailed upon the seven seas

and stopped in every land,
I've seen the wonders of the world
not yet one common man.

I know ten thousand women

called Jane and Mary Jane,
but I've not seen any two
who really were the same.

Mirror twins are different

although their features jibe,
and lovers think quite different thoughts
while lying side by side.

We love and lose in China,

we weep on England's moors,
and laugh and moan in Guinea,
and thrive on Spanish shores.

We seek success in Finland,

are born and die in Maine.
In minor ways we differ,
in major we're the same.

I note the obvious differences

between each sort and type,
but we are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.

We are more alike, my friends,

than we are unalike.

We are more alike, my friends,

than we are unalike.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Why Should I Market?

Time and again, when I question successful pizza operators in the pursuit of sage marketing advice, I'm confronted with the answer, "I don't do any marketing. It's all word of mouth."

I hate that answer. Not because I disagree with it... the truth is, good pizza really does sell itself. I hate the answer because it makes it is detrimental to my long-term job security. (Why have a magazine about marketing pizza if nobody needs to market pizza?) It also gives me nothing to work with.

Okay, fine. So you're selling enough pizza, and don't want to bother with any marketing. Fair enough. But let me give you an argument as to why you SHOULD put more effort into marketing. Everybody loves a story. And everybody IS a story. Without marketing, you let everyone else tell your story. Marketing gives you an opportunity to control your own narrative.  Marketing gives you the chance to reach new customers.

So some of you may be saying "I'm selling all the pizza I can handle. I got enough customers already." Sure... but through marketing you could turn those same  consumers on to higher profit margin menu items and steer them away from high-cost, low-profit pies. That way you could be slinging the same amount of pies, but have an increased profit margin. There's ways to engineer your menu to do that for you. Check out this article for some ideas on how to do that.

Marketing also gives you a chance to cement yourself from one generation to the next. Maybe you're doing fine now, but if you ran brand campaigns in your region, that could help indoctrinate the next generation of consumers into loving the brand and product they grew up with. Once Mom and Dad retire and move to Florida, you need someone to replace them with. Through marketing, you can help ensure the next generation can be buying pizza from the family you leave your pizzeria to when you're ready to retire and hit the bocce courts.

My final point is this: People love to be sold to. The musical Chicago probably puts it best:

Razzle dazzle 'em, and they'll beg you for more!
Give em the old double whammy
Daze and dizzy 'em
Back since the days of old Methuselah, everyone loves the big bambooz-a-la!

Everybody wants the ole ballyhoo. But don't take my word for it. I bet you can think of someone who watches the Superbowl just for the ads. 

So now, if I've convinced you to give marketing a try, can I interest you in a subscription to PMQ Pizza Magazine? Tips and tricks delivered monthly to your door, absolutely free! Now even the late, great Billy Mays couldn't beat that offer. (OxyClean not included.)

Friday, January 5, 2018

Pizza History: 3 Factors of the American Pizza Boom

Pizza is big. BIG. HUGE. Even a cursory glance at the big numbers in PMQ's Pizza Power Report makes the the most obvious thing in the world. 

But how did it get so big so fast in the United States? Post-war mid-century American history combined a number of key factors to create the perfect storm in which pizza would become arguably the most dominantly popular food in the U.S. for the next 70 years. 

1. Production: A pizza parlor needs only two pieces of specialized equipment, a heavy stand mixer for the dough and an oven that can hold temperatures over 550F.  A particularly handy person could even build an oven themselves. So long as you weren't trying to open a full-service restaurant with lots of seating and a varied menu, the only expensive piece of equipment you would need to acquire is that stand mixer.

2. Infrastructure: after World War II, the US government had a lot of surplus items they were selling cheap: jeeps, canteens, army boots... and huge Hobart stand mixers. The Hobart mixers were big enough to mix a battalion's bread, and they were going cheap. A vet could get a small business loan from the GI bill, buy himself a mixer, rent a small storefront, build an oven, and viola!  He was in the restaurant business. Just like that. It's a restaurant that can make a lot of pizza efficiently, but it can't make much else. In this bare bones operation, a restauranteur had limited capacity for sit-down traffic and limited menu. And for many folks, that was just fine.

3. Portability: This may, in fact, be the most under-appreciated aspect of the dish. As pizza parlors spread from urban centers, owners realized there was a limit to the walk-in traffic they could expect. They knew from their urban experience many customers were taking the pizza home. How could they replicate that trade in the suburbs? By offering a new service: pizza delivered to the customer's house. And that was the real ticket right there. Delivery.  There is no other food that holds up to travel and portability like pizza. It is the supreme delivery food item. 

With third-party food delivery services coming into the market, and cloud based apps for them, that last point is important to note. Pizza is the supreme delivery food.

The consumer now has an increasing opportunity to get a wide variety of food delivered from any and every type of restaurant. But those slinging pies still maintain a competitive advantage over other food types. Who wants soggy french fries? Or disheveled fajitas? Nobody. That's who. 

If those factors hadn't lined up the way they did...who knows what would've happened? Somewhere, there is an alternate universe in which hardly anybody eats pizza. 

Sucks for those guys.