Guest Bloggers
Roberta's - Mini Quest Part 2
Brad English

Note: For a recap, scroll down the homepage past the halfway point, to read about Dave's and my visit to Di Faro's, which is Part One of our NYC Mini-Quest:

Dave and I had to force ourselves to stop eating pizza at Di Fara's.  This was no easy task.  You're sitting there in front of what is a "perfect" pizza in a "perfect" place and you have to stop eating so that you can eat more somewhere else.  We had a plan though, so we put the brakes on in order to make this a quest and not just lunch.

We left Brooklyn to get to Brooklyn.  As I mentioned, there was just no getting a cab from Di Fara. We walked around looking for about 20-30 minutes.  So, we jumped back on the train and headed back to Manhattan to grab a train to come back out to Brooklyn to hit Roberta's for our second stop on our mini pizza quest.  Perhaps there should be a Pizza Quest train line put in that better connects some of New York's best pizzerias?  Am I the first to come up with this?  There is one pizza maniac that comes to mind who has made a living making these connections, but more on that later.

It really is too bad we didn't have Peter, Jeff and the rest of the crew with us.  We were having a ball.  Di Fara's left us completely satisfied -- and, in reality, a little too satisfied.  We had started out with a plan to taste the pizza at Di Fara, but as it ended up, it became more of us eating the pizza.  I'm sure you can imagine.  When we left we couldn't just leave the rest of it there or, God forbid, throw it away!  So, with our foil-wrapped leftovers we moved on.

 

Another train ride, a change of lines in Manhattan and we were headed back to Brooklyn.  We popped up from under the streets not far from Roberta's and into what seemed like a set from the film The Warriors at first. Robertas is in an old warehouse district neighborhood called Bushwick,  that had seen better days, but is coming back with a young artist scene moving in and transforming this into a trendy neighborhood. I was telling Dave what Peter told me before we came to NYC.  He said Roberta's was like walking into the TV show Portlandia.  He didn't say it was like visiting Portland.  His point was far more metaphorical. There was a coming transformation from the "real" world to the two dimensional surreal world of Portlandia.  If you haven't seen it, you should.  My favorite episode is when the main character discovers Portland and describes it to a friend in LA as if it's a place you must enter through a portal in time!  Our first steps onto the street and I was starting to see what he meant.  When we turned the corner and almost walked right by Roberta's it again made more sense.

Here we were.  There's a sign that says Roberta's right there.  The exterior of the building looks more like a set from Gotham City with graffiti all over it and a sign that almost seems like they are hiding it.  It was time to go in, but we still had our leftover pizza from Di Fara's that we had hoped to give to someone along the way, but never ran into anyone who seemed interested.  We couldn't bring our Di Fara's into Roberta's!  So, we left it on a mailbox, hoping someone would pick it up.  We found out later that night that someone did indeed pick it up and our offering did not go to waste, but I'm getting a little ahead of myself here.

Having spent plenty of time in Portland, we had another laugh about Peter's description as we took our seat at one of the picnic tables inside.  (We love Portland, by the way.  We have some serious questing to do up there eventually.)  We all want a great place to sit and have a beer a great pizza and maybe, more importantly, just hang out with friends.  Roberta's is that place.  They are getting rave reviews about their pizza and food, but I think a major aspect of this place's success (being fairly off the beaten path), is it's qualities as a place where you can come and spend some time.  It doesn't feel like home -- it feels like Portlandia -- but it has a certain comfort factor as if you've come into this special place and found a hidden secret.  It feels local and full of regulars.  It was Saturday afternoon and it was busy and continued to get more busy.

Our first order of business after all this travel was to order a couple of beers.  When you're in Portland, I mean Brooklyn, do as they do.  We then ordered a couple of pies to "try" -- you know, we were there to do some tasting now in the second part of our three part mini pizza quest.  We chose the "Bee Sting" with Tomato, Mozz, Sopressata, chili, basil, honey, and another with Tomato, Mozz, Speck, and a sunny side up egg.  I think that was a special.

Delicious!  The dough is terrific and their ingredients balanced.  I loved the touch of honey on our Bee Sting and if there's an egg on a pizza on the menu, I'm going to order it.  It was "done to a turn!"  Two more beers.  Too much pizza now.  Did we have a third Beer?  I don't think so.  We were drunk -- pizza drunk!  We thought we may have gone too far and ended our quest a little early.  How could we make it back to Manhattan and get to Keste and order more pizza after all of this?!

It was time to go.  We managed to leave some pizza on the platters.  As we were walking out the door, I was looking back over my shoulder to grab a last look at the place.  We were, after all, about to leave Portlandia and step through the front door and back to our three dimensional selves.  I hadn't left yet and didn't want to leave the memories behind.  As I turned I heard a voice I recognized.  We passed each other but my back was turned.  I had only met this voice a few weeks ago, but it had to be him.

"Scott?"

It was!  The Scott Wiener of New York's -- Scott's Pizza Tours (www.scottspizzatours.com) had just walked in as we were walking out.  He's the pizza maniac I mentioned above.  I met Scott in Las Vegas at the Pizza Expo and had traded emails here and there.  If I'm a pizza nut, he is the tree.  He's off the charts pizza crazy.  Well, I turned Dave around and we went back to Portlandia to have another beer with Scott and his friends.  I think we may have had two.  Dave was ready to go get his camera and come back and start filming as Scott regaled us with Pizza lore. I think our favorite part was how he wrestled with having a slice of our left overs.  You see, he has a pizza slice log on his phone to track how many slices he eats in a week.  He gives pizza tours daily (Scott's Pizza Tours) after all, and without that log he would not be able to walk!  He took the slice anyway even though he was already over his weekly slice limit! Not only that, where is he hanging out in his free time?  Roberta's -- love it!!

 

 

This should have ended here.  We enjoyed another beer and some good conversation with Scott and his friends in the outside bar of Roberta's.  This should be part 2 and 3 of our mini pizza quest.  We started hours ago and had been eating great pizza and now had a few drinks in us.

 

 

 

 

 

It wasn't.  We said our good byes and walked a little slower out the door this time heading back to the city to visit Keste Pizzeria on Bleecker Street.  Dave hadn't been and this looked like our only chance.  As we left we saw that our offering of Di Fara slices still sat on the mail box.  We smiled and walked down the street thinking back on the two pizza stops we made in the last few hours.  We felt like time had stopped in Di Fara's Pizza World and we transcended space and time visiting Roberta's world.

This had been quite a day already.

But, it wasn't over.  In fact, it wouldn't really be over for some time, not until after we got back from our next stop - Keste Pizzeria.  I was just getting to my hotel room and I got a text.  It turns out that our offering had finally found it's proper home! See final photo, below -- ahh, Portlandia....

 

 

 

 
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.

 

 

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