Guest Bloggers
Are You Ready to Turn Pro, Part 4
John Arena

Note from Peter: We've had great response to this series by John Arena, which has been a true reality check for all of us. For those who haven't seen the previous three installments, or who may want to review them, they are all still here on the homepage (scroll down a bit), and also in the Guest Columns section. Thank you so much, John, for sharing your lifetime worth of experience!


Before we move on to the fun stuff, let’s take a look at just a bit more pizza math. Remember that in our hypothetical pizzeria we determined that we needed to make $2100 per day to succeed.  That doesn’t sound hard does it? Well, here’s the tricky part. The bulk of your sales are going to be concentrated in a 3-4 hour span. You will take in 75% of your money between 11:30 AM and 1 PM and from 6 PM to 8:30PM. That works out to about $400 per hour. Let’s say that you are making artisanal pizzas that sell for $13 each on average. You will have to make 30 pizzas every hour during peak times to get to $400 per hour. That means a pizza will have to go in to and come out of the oven every 2 minutes for 4 solid hours. This is why I stress the need for speed.
I know we have all heard the stories about old school pizza makers who were famous for making their customers wait, limited the numbers of pies they made each day, and would throw anyone who complained into the street.

Sorry folks, those days are over and here’s why: Many of the legendary pizza makers used old math to run their businesses. Now, I’m not suggesting that anyone does these things today, but here’s the way it used to work. First off most of the immigrants from Southern Italy came here to escape feudal conditions at home. Let’s just say that they had a healthy distrust of the government. They ran cash only businesses. Many of these places employed only family members or friends from the old country. This meant they paid little or no taxes and had no insurance costs. They paid their vendors out of pocket and kept two sets of books, or none at all. Their restaurants were built with no permits or plans, and most of their equipment was scavenged from the neighborhood or brought from their home kitchens.

You may be thinking, “How much difference could that possibly make?” Well, here is a small example: If sales tax in your area is 8% and you take in $500,000 but only declare $250,000 you are holding back $20,000 tax-free that goes right to your pocket. Many if not most, old time pizzerias worked that way, enabling owners to keep their prices down and still make a healthy profit: DON’T EVEN THINK ABOUT IT!!!

Let’s say you have your kids working for you “under the table.”  You pay no payroll taxes, workman's comp, overtime, or social security. You didn’t pay an architect and engineer to design your pizzeria. You are using non-commercial grade equipment that is cheaper to purchase. All of this sub-rosa activity is going to save you some money and enable you to sell your products for less than the legitimate operators, but, you won’t be able to sleep at night and you will get caught.
First off, in the modern era, 70% of your sales will be debit or credit cards that leave an electronic trail a mile wide. Your guests don’t carry cash anymore so you will lose them if you don’t accept cards. Second, your suppliers use easily audited invoices, the government can track your purchases and they know how that translates into sales. Third, Uncle Sam doesn’t trust restaurants; you will get audited at some point and it is simple to place an auditor in your restaurant to track sales for a day. They will then multiply that by the number of days you are open and assume that is your annual sales. Guess what? They will pick the busiest day of the week and calculate your back taxes based on that number. If you can’t pay, they will lock your doors, auction off your equipment, and you will owe them the balance. You will lose everything and could even go to jail.

There are many other ways that old time operators made the math work for them, not the least of which is that they overcame obstacles with an unbelievable work ethic. They often sacrificed to buy the buildings they were located in and their descendants are benefiting from to this day. In addition these landmark places paid off their investment decades ago so their financial picture is quite different from what yours will be. They rarely upgrade their facilities and invest little more than what it takes to keep the equipment running each year.

Of course there are still some artisans who seem to be uncompromising and are held up as role models of what we would like our lives as pizza entrepreneurs to be. So, let me make this clear: YOU ARE NOT DOM DEMARCO! The truth is even Dom DeMarco wasn’t Dom DeMarco for the first 40 years that he was in business. Until Dom was discovered by some powerhouse food journalists, DiFara’s was a simple neighborhood pizzeria and Dom was no more famous or highly regarded than any number of hard working Brooklyn pizza guys who labored in anonymity banging out great pies all day long. After decades of back breaking work Dom has finally reached a point where his talent is recognized. The plain truth is that, unlike DiFara’s, you will not be able to charge $5 for a slice of cheese pizza and that makes all of the difference in the world. At that price an 18-inch cheese pie is bringing in $40! With a food cost that is probably around 12% and, doing much of the work himself, Dom and a few others like him are not subject to the same economic realities that you will face as a start up operator.

Now that we have some of the basic mathematical realities out of the way we can begin to explore the development of your pizzeria. But that will be in the next installment.

 
Are You Ready to Turn Pro? Part 3
John Arena

OK, so you have considered the physical challenges and demands of becoming a pizza professional. You are confident that you want to transition from being a great amateur to becoming a successful pizza operator. Allow me to introduce you to your new best friend…MATH!
I know that many of you have a dream of escaping from the mundane business world and earning a living as a pizza artisan. Math may not be why you want to open a pizzeria, but my mission is to keep your pizza dream from becoming a nightmare. If you intend to stay in business math is what’s going to keep the doors open and the lights turned on. Math is the spot where art and commerce meet. Having numbers that work is just as important as having the right equipment and recipes.

So let’s get started with some basics. Please keep in mind that although the numbers may change slightly from place to place, this is information based on what is common in our industry, so please don’t make the fatal mistake of thinking you are going to circumvent the economic realities.
Rule number 1: Everything starts with the rent. No matter how much money you take in you cannot overcome a bad real estate deal. To be safe, your rent should not be higher than about 8% of your projected sales. That means that if your rent is $5,000 per month you would have to take in about $63,000 per month to make a decent profit in your pizzeria.  At that rate you are going to have to ring up about $2100 per day.  It also means you will have to be open 7 days per week. My motto is “Every day that you pay rent you should be generating sales”. If you closed 4 days per month you would have to make up that $8400 in the remaining 26 days and there are no guarantees.  I know a lot of the old timers closed on Mondays, but the fact is they did a lot of things that you will not be able to do in the modern world (we will get into that in the next installment).

Rule number 2: If you are starting with a raw space you should plan on spending about $200 per square foot on your build out. Sure you can try to get by cheaper but factoring in fixtures, furniture, equipment and signage this is about right. Remember that a pizzeria is a special use project that requires costly plumbing, venting and electrical work that is usually not provided by the landlord. The days of having your brother-in- law “who’s a pretty handy guy” building your restaurant are over. Local health and building codes are getting stricter as municipalities run out of money and seek revenue from licensing and fines.

Let’s review our math:
Rent is $5000 per month
Construction investment is $200 per foot. Let’s say that your restaurant is 2000 sq ft. That means it costs $400,000 to build.
Assuming that you are getting that 63k per month in sales you are at about 750k in annual sales. $100,000 per year in profit will give you a 25% return on investment. You would need a 13% bottom line to make $100,000 on $750,000 in sales. Can you do that? Under the right circumstances the answers is yes, but it won’t be as easy as you think, so here is the most important lesson of the day and it addresses the most common mistake that I see beginning entrepreneurs make: Never base your price structure on what your competitors are selling their products for! Their costs and financial considerations have nothing to do with your business.  Your prices must be based on what it costs to make your pizza, including food cost, labor, rent, utilities, insurance, taxes, legal expenses, and that 13% you need at the bottom. Always keep in mind that your goal is to have a business, not just buy yourself a job.

This math stuff may not be what is calling you to a career in pizza, but understanding it and preparing yourself will make it a lot easier for you to experience and enjoy the more artisanal aspects of the journey.
Stay tuned for Part 4....

 
Are You Ready to Turn Pro, Part Two
John Arena

Note from Peter: Don't forget to scroll down the home page for Part One of this new series from our friend John Arena, owner of the hugely popular Metro Pizza in Las Vegas. We've been getting some great response to this. Thanks John!!)

There are many components to opening and sustaining a successful pizzeria, but for now let’s focus on essential pizza making skills.  So here is lesson number one:

From now on, every time you make a pizza, or any element of a pizza make it as fast as you can. It doesn’t matter if you are making one pizza for your family or 100 pies for a lunch crowd on a tight schedule. Work fast. You cannot make a living in the pizza business if you are slow. Speed is both a skill and a habit.
--Dividing and rounding dough balls? Do it at top speed.

--Extending dough? Work fast. You need the practice.

--How fast is fast enough? Of course that’s a matter of opinion, but for starters, 2 people should be able to divide and round an 80 pound batch of dough in the time it takes to mix a second batch so there is no idle time in production. The most crucial task in your pizzeria is dough management-making dough, fermenting dough and using it at exactly the right time regardless of ever changing conditions.

--When it comes to making pizzas, you should be able to fill your ovens before the first pizza is ready to come out. So, if you are making large pizzas in a standard 2 deck gas oven you have to extend (stretch), top, and insert 8 pizzas in the oven in about 9 minutes, while taking the time to rotate the pies if necessary. In a wood burning oven the same rules apply. You must be able to fill the oven and move pies around to get the desired bake, take them out without burning or dropping anything or having any down time where the oven is empty. Now cut and plate the pies and keep moving.

--Sorry, but if you intend to be a pro there will be no more painstaking placement of every single mushroom. Yes, your pies have to look beautiful but the next hungry guest is waiting. Now here is the hard part- Once you can fill the ovens…do it again. OK, now do it again… and now again. Keep doing it for at least 3 hours without a break or slow down, because that is how long the average dinner rush will last. Speed is important but it is useless without endurance.

--Now, let’s not forget that all of these top speed pizzas must also resemble each other. Even if you are making artisan pies your guests are going to expect that there is a basic defining look and consistency to your pizzas. So like it or not, pizza making is repetitive work. What you do right now is what you are going to do again in 60 seconds and what you do today is going to have to be done again tomorrow.

--You are going to find that there is a rhythm and spirit to each part of your day. Throw away your clock -- and your calendar-- because from now on you are living on pizza time. You’re a football fan? So are your customers. From now on you will be using your DVR. You like to spend holidays with your family? Give them a job, so you can build the business together.

Is this starting to sound daunting? Be fearless, because here is the great part. You are going to take flour, water, and yeast and, using your own hands and some fire, create the world’s greatest communal food. You are going to join the ranks of a time honored profession and your pizzeria will become a vital part of your community.

In the next installment we will explore the common pitfalls of creating a pizzeria and teach you how to avoid them.

 
Are You Ready to Turn Pro?
John Arena

Part I

OK, you’ve been making pizzas at home now for years. You invested in a great oven. You source the best ingredients. You stay up all night arguing on the internet about water sources and fermentation times. You obsess over every detail.  Everyone tells you that your pizza is better than what they can get in any pizzeria. Well… even if no one else says it, you know that you make the greatest pizza in the world.  Certainly you can do better than those hacks at your neighborhood pizzeria (how have those guys stayed in business for so long?). Admit it, you want to turn your pizza avocation into a vocation. You want to own a pizzeria. The question is, how do you know when you are truly ready?

I speak to ambitious amateur pizza makers all the time. Many of them have amazing passion and talent. Those qualities are an important start, but there’s more to it if you want to succeed. Allow me to explain: I’m sure you can all remember the incredible satisfaction you received from baking your first pizza, cutting it, and sitting down to enjoy it with your friends and family. I envy you. My experience is quite different. 45 years ago, on September 8, 1967 to be exact, I made my first pizza. My Uncle Rocco took it out of the oven, cut it, boxed it, and collected $2.25 from a waiting customer. Out the door went my pizza, a small step for the customer, but a giant leap for me. At that moment I fell in love with the pizza business. I fell in love with the idea that someone would spend money to buy and consume something that I had made with my own two hands.

Growing up in a small family pizzeria I also understood that this was hard work, with small profit. I learned from childhood that making a great pizza was only part of it. If you want to stay in business you have to be able to make pizzas that people are willing to buy at a price that covers your expenses and makes you a little bit more. Most importantly, you have to remember that you are selling an experience. The perceived value of that experience is what will allow you to charge enough to make a profit. No matter how high or low your price points the customer must always feel that the experience was worth more than they paid for it.

That’s the key. How your customer feels after they pay the bill will determine whether or not they come back. That is the pizza business. It doesn’t matter if you trained with Raffaelo Esposito’s great grandson or that you hand-feed hazelnuts to the pigs that become your sausage. In the end you will have to be able to sell enough of your great pizzas at a profit year after year to keep yourself in business.

Note: In Part 2 we will explore the skills you will need to make pizzas at a professional level and how you can prepare yourself for the transition from dedicated amateur to successful pro.

 
Di Fara Pizza
Brad English

Di Fara Pizza - Part I of a 3 stop pizza quest:

Dave Wilson (our very own Pizza Quest Director of Photography and Co-Director on our various webisodes) and I were working in New York together and realized that it looked like we were going to actually have a Saturday afternoon off.  Time for ourselves!  The wheels were spinning.  What to do?  Where to go?  NY is limitless after all!  With this much time off we quickly came up with a small "p" pizza quest to keep ourselves busy and fed.

Our first stop was Di Fara.  We had heard so much about it, but neither of us had ever been.  We figured we would go try some pizza there and make our way over to Roberta's while still in Brooklyn and then come back to the city and end our quest at Keste -- because Dave had never been there either and I insisted that he would have to try it.

Armed with iPhones and subway apps we hit the rails.  Our destination was in an out of the way place in Brooklyn.  We didn't know how "out of the way" it was until later when we were trying to find a cab to take us "up" to Roberta's.  The road trip was happening.  Too bad, we thought, that Peter, Jeff and the rest of the crew and equipment weren't all piling into the subway car with us.

 

Brooklyn, here we come!

The stop at Avenue J is only steps from Di Fara's.  You notice right away that this area is different. It's more run down, or less developed depending on how you look at it.  Not knowing the area, you have to wonder if it's safe.  Since we were on a quest, we knew it was safe.  Nothing happens to you when you are actually on a quest, right?!  (Well, miracles happen, but nothing bad.)

There was something else different about this stop, these streets, and this pizza place.  The Di Fara Pizza sign is original to say the least.  It's a classic to be sure. The street and the pizzeria seem suspended in time.  This place is the same pizzeria you would have visited 5 years ago, 10 years ago, 15, 20 etc.

 

 

As we walked up to the pizzeria, we could see Dom DeMarco through what may have been an old ordering window open onto the street.  We snapped this picture on one of our iPhones.  The funny thing is that there is a artist rendering inside that is of Dom in almost the same position as we found him - how old was that?  How old is this place?  How much time has Dom stood there, making pizza after pizza over the years?

The place wasn't as crowded as I expected.  We were there a little after the lunch rush around 1:30Pm I think.  There was one guy taking orders and Mr. DeMarco was making pizza.  I think there was another kid in the back kitchen, but didn't see him.  We placed our order for the classic Regular Pie with Fresh Basil.  The guy said it would be about an hour.  Really?  There were not that many people around.  Ok?!  We'll wait.

 

 

I couldn't wait.  It all smelled so good.  An hour?  I found a way to let go and embrace the experience.  I decided to visit this place in this warp of arrested time and allow it to unfold around me.

Mr. DeMarco made a pizza.  We watched.  We walked outside again and watched through the window. We took a few more pictures of the sign.  Time passed quickly, but not because it seemed like all of a sudden our pizza was ready, but because time acted differently.  I'll admit that our quest may well have been the main reason we seemed to pass our time so effortlessly, but it was something I not only noticed, but felt.

We wanted to get a table to experience the place instead of eating our pizza on the street.  There are only about 6 tables, so after our hour or so, we waited inside and got some sodas and sat down.  I think we waited almost 2 hours for our pizza in the end.  Mr. DeMarco made pizza after pizza after pizza by himself.  He wasn't rushed, and wasn't necessarily taking his time either.  He was making each pizza with as much time as each pizza needed to be made with - as if time was actually one of the ingredients.  I have never seen this before and didn't really think about that until just now as I am writing this blog post.  That's an interesting concept.

Our waiting time was up.  Mr. DeMarco held the basil over our pie and snipped away at it with his shears.  I broke the time space continuum here, and moved quickly through this stalled timeless place and snapped a photo of my pizza.  It was still Mr. DeMarco's pizza though, as it hadn't been passed off yet, but Dave and I were soon to become it's new owners.

Dave and I were dying to speak to Mr. DeMarco.  I knew that Peter has met him before and I could have easily said hello.  Instead we wanted to visit this place and experience it for what it was.  I'm glad we did.  I have often thought about watching Mr. DeMarco make his pizzas.  It's almost surreal. He gave each pizza his undivided attention.  Would he have done so if we told him we would likely be posting pictures and writing an article?  Based on everything we saw, it probably wouldn't have phased him one bit!

We ate.  We smiled.  We enjoyed.  We watched everyone around us doing the same.  For the record, Dave ate one more slice than I did and he's half my size!  We had to stop though, because this was stop 1 of 3 on our small "p" pizza quest.  But wait, I didn't say enough about the pizza.

 

 

 

Oh my god!  So good!!

 

 

 

 

What makes great/memorable pizza?  Is it the dough?  Is it the tomato sauce?  The cheese?  Is it super fresh basil?  Is it the oven temperature, or type of oven?  I think the answer in part to all of these is yes, certainly, but there is something beyond that.  Perhaps another important aspect is, in fact, time.  It's the time the pizzaiolo has spent perfecting his craft.  It's the time he spends focusing on each ingredient.  it's the time he gives to each pizza, which is really being given to each customer.  You could call it love, dedication, or passion, but it's all about the connection of the food to the customer through the time given to sharing the experience.

I'm glad I spent the first part of my day off in Di Fara's time-less zone.  I thought time had stopped, but it was, instead, shared.

 

 
Montanara Starita
Brad English

 

This is not a restaurant review!

This is a selfish blog posting about being on my own little pizza quest and running into one of the masters in the world of artisan pizza.  I had been trying all week, while I was working in NYC a while back, to fit in some pizza questing and I had the opportunity to visit one of New York's newest ventures.

Don Antonio by Starita opened recently and is getting some rave reviews and, now I know, that's for good reason.  It's a new venture by Pizzeria Keste owner, Roberto Caporuscio, and Antonio Starita, who owns one of Naples' most famous pizzerias, called Pizzeria Starita, which is 110 years old (the pizzeria, not Antonio).  I have been a personal fan of Roberto's for some time having visited Keste on nearly every one of my visits to New York since it opened.  His pizzas have not only pushed beyond good to great, but very well may have reached a new level in my book.  They are what Peter Reinhart calls "Memorable," here at Pizza Quest.  Memorable is something more than just "great".  If you remember a very good pizza you had, you can describe it and even imagine the taste.  But, a memorable pizza is one that goes one or more steps further and makes sort of a time stamp in your mind and is experienced and remembered on a totally different level.  You can seemingly taste and almost experience it again as you recall it.  I don't mean to gush, but that's just what I feel about Keste.  Roberto's dough and crust is that good.

Now back to me…my window opened and opportunity called!  I had time to escape the office for lunch; I bolted for the door.  I took the subway, which popped me up only a block or so from Don Antonio. I went in and sat at the bar for lunch.  I had a limited amount of time and knew that, while here, I had to try the signature pizza called the "Montanara Starita" which is made with a lightly fried pizza dough.  Scott Weiner, of Scott's Pizza Tours, had told me that if I only had time for one pizza there that I had to try that one.

I asked the bartender if Roberto happened to be in today.  Unfortunately, he wasn't.  I ordered a salad and my Monatanara. As I ate my salad, I overheard someone say "Roberto!"  After a few minutes I asked the bartender again and as it turns out Roberto was there (what am I, chopped liver?).  When his conversation wrapped up behind me, I introduced myself and was lucky enough that either Pizza Quest, or Peter Reinhart's name got me into a conversation and,, later, back into the kitchen!  I was about halfway through my Montanara when Roberto came to sit with me.  We talked about, what else, pizza.  I went on a bit about how much I liked Keste and enjoyed the fact that I was eating a pizza with him.

He asked me back to the kitchen to meet his daughter Georgia, who was the pizzaiola working the oven.  We talked bit more back there with his staff and Georgia took me over to watch her make a Montanara pizza.  It's simple.  Spread the dough and drop it in the fryer.  It sits in there for a few minutes.  She would touch it here and there, pushing one side, or the other under the oil as it floated to the top and turned it a couple of times before pulling it out to drain a little before she topped it.  At this point it's prepped like any other pizza.  Add the sauce.  Add the Cheese and some basil and it goes into the oven.

As I was about to leave Roberto asked me how I found the Montanara. As I began to tell him, I referenced how I first found Keste's dough, he misunderstood me and thought I was trying to tell him how I got to Don Antonio!  I said, "No, no! I understand!"  We then discussed the pizza.  I had the feeling he was really interested to know what I thought about it, not because I was an expert or anything, but because it was something "new".  When I was at the Pizza Expo in Las Vegas months earlier, there was all sorts of chatter about fried dough being the next rage.  I think Roberto was, and is, curious about this new trend, one that is apparently not new at all.  It's just newly in fashion.

So, how did I find the Montanara - fried pizza?  It was my first fried pizza, to be certain, and I honestly didn't know what to expect.  I found the Montanara to be a unique pizza experience.  The dough was lighter than I thought it would be.  It was puffy and crunchy, but still soft.  The tomatoes were bright and the sweet acidity worked well with and against the dough, which had a buttery quality to it due to the frying.  The pizza was rich, but balanced. The smoked buffalo mozzarella was delicious and there to be tasted, but wasn't overwhelming or in a competition with the tomatoes and dough. Then there was the fresh basil which came in with a nice aromatic finish to this ensemble.

 

 

I found this pizza interesting.  Okay, I found this pizza to be delicious!  But most importantly, I found this experience of getting to eat this pizza with Roberto, and watch Georgia making one while standing with us in the kitchen by the wood burning oven, well, I found it memorable. Maybe "memorable" is about more than just great food.  Maybe memorable is about great food, plus good people, a unique experience, and maybe even simply great timing!

 

 

 

I'm still haunted by Roberto's traditional wood oven baked doughs, but was happily surprised by this "new" variation of an old deep-fried classic!

 

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