Interview: Ajith Dharma, Owner of Fire Within
Note from Peter: I first met Ajith Dharma at the 2015 Forno Bravo Wood-Fired Oven Expo in Salinas, California and, surrounded by hundreds of fellow fire freaks, we became instant friends. As the new owner of FireWithin Mobile Ovens he has built very sensitively and strategically upon the foundation established by the original founder Joseph Pergolizzi, who we’ve featured here on PizzaQuest in the past, and Ajith has now grown the company dramatically. He originally hails from Sri Lanka, brings a unique blend of Eastern and Western philosophy to his management style, which you will see here via his thoughtful yet practical responses. A few months ago he invited me to serve as one of his two instructors for the recent Wood-Fired University held in Denver, along with talented Denver chef Tommy Garnick, where I had the privilege of meeting a number of current and future mobile oven owners, baking and breaking bread with them, and eating some of Chef Tommy’s amazing food, all baked in FireWithin mobile ovens. Here is our conversation — enjoy!!
PQ (Peter): Ajith, thanks for doing this interview with me. We’ve been writing about FireWithin mobile ovens for a number of years now but I have lots of questions about the company and about how you envision it. This is obviously not your first rodeo. Can you tell us about yourself and how you became the owner of FireWithin?
Ajith: First, thank you very much Peter for being an inspiration to FireWithin and it’s community — the oven owners throughout the country. My background is in Computer Science and Mathematics. Soon after graduating, I was fortunate to be employed with EDS (Electronic Data Systems), a subsidiary of General Motors, that was led by Ross Perot. I spent 13 years in the IT field and I also taught courses in computer technology as an adjunct faculty member for local colleges.
I came from a family of businessmen and women and I imagine that my entrepreneurial bloodline compelled me to leave a well paying corporate career and jump into the turbulent and uncertain, but ever challenging and rewarding business world. In 2003, investing our life savings I purchased a failing family run automotive repair facility under a national franchise. Much to my dismay, I soon learned that the franchisor had one of the highest franchisee failure rates in the entire nation. The franchisor’s lack of support and inability to add any value to my business operations greatly disappointed me with the franchise system. I also discovered that as an individual franchisee, I could do very little to fight back due to the iron clad contractual agreement. The only option was to focus on succeeding on my own even when I was paying thousands of dollars in franchise fees every month. My biggest challenge was to stay positive as I felt my situation was extremely unfair.
Regardless of the grim reality, it was a great opportunity for me to make mistakes, learn lessons, manage my own employees and clients, and also build trusted relationships with vendors and other strategic partners. Due to my lack of knowledge in the automotive industry, I relied on competent, skilled technicians and managers. With sound counsel, I was able to build a profitable business which carried the highest ranks when it came to reliability and trust. I owned and operated this business for 10 years and was very fortunate to sell my first business, with multiple returns to my initial investment, a few days shy of the 10 year anniversary.
Once the sale was final, I took a year and half sabbatical to gather my thoughts and reflect on key elements that resonate with my core values for my next business. My core belief is that the concept of “success” is be defined by each individual for their own journey which is meaningful to them. I also wanted a business (something that was not a franchise) that provided support to its clients (community), something that I never had.
Ultimately, what sold me on FireWithin was the core philosophy on which it was built. Our credo is: “We are not just in the business of selling a wood-fired oven trailer; we provide you a “Life Style” and “Freedom,” empowering you to find success as it is meaningful to you.
PQ: How do you teach your oven owners to create successful businesses? What are some of the keys to success that you impart, and how do you support them once they get out there on their own?
Ajith: In the 10+ years we have been in business, we now have over 750 success stories from all walks of life, in all 50 states and overseas. We have created a large community which we draw upon to support new entrepreneurs to create a meaningful curriculum for our Wood-Fired University.
We believe that the best way to support and provide assurance to new oven owners is through sharing real success stories. We do that by hosting FireWithin Oven Owner Forums that allow our community to interact and benefit through synergies of shared thinking. I am believer in the “Wisdom of the Crowds.” An example is Wiki technology, such as Wikipedia, where collaboration of multiple individuals give birth to a better product. The Forum allows our community to openly communicate various topics, including the sharing of recipes to discussions of best practices in the mobile wood-fired catering business. It’s very rewarding to see how our ovens owners share their own mistakes, victories, and going out of their way to help others.
Wood-Fired University is large part of our identity. To put it simply, FireWithin wouldn’t be what it is without this educational component. The 2 1/2 day course is comprehensive, as we share the wealth of knowledge that we have gained over the last 10+ years from our community.
During our Wood-Fired University, we try to accomplish one goal: Give each attendee the confidence to return home and feel ready to do their first catering event. We do this by teaching the following:
- Thoroughly familiarize attendees with the “Five Foundation Pillars” of owning and running a successful Wood-Fired Catering Enterprise.
- One of our goals is to ensure that our new oven owners understand what it takes to own and operate a successful wood-fired catering enterprise. We do everything possible, before selling an oven, to communicate the effort that goes into being successful. In return, we hope to add them as a new contributing community member.
- Provide all necessary hands-on experience, from dough making to fire management.
- Clearly communicating their identity with this venture; how a FireWithin oven owner is different from any other caterer or pizza maker out in the industry. In return, they should expect a premium price for their service and product.
- Conduct a series of role play exercises that gives them the confidence to negotiate catering contracts, event set ups and tear downs, and even communicating with the health department.
- How to create an event calendar which allows them to achieve the lifestyle they desire.
- Finally, provide them with an actual catering event to implement everything they have learned. This event is to feed charity volunteers, chosen by us, before graduation.
We continue to update our course material and hand book, which is in addition to the Rolling In The Dough business plan book, with real industry knowledge that comes from our oven owner community and our research.
This year we proudly added the first Master Wood-Fired Cookery and Bread Baking Series to our Wood-Fired University curriculum. The master class was launched a few weeks ago. We had a very successful class — as you should know, Peter, since you were one of our two guest instructors — and we will continue to offer it every year.
In addition to the printed material, we also now have video content of all the course work, including “Dough Making” and “Fire Management,” that our attendees can view at their leisure.
So, in this sense we have created all the benefits of a franchise system, and more, without all the fees and regulations. The best aspect of this model is the creative freedom it allows our oven owners to operate and succeed. Unlike a franchise, our community decides their own venues, the amount of effort that fits their lifestyle, design their own menu and products that they wish to provide, and create their own brand. We have purposefully designed all of our open dome trailer models to fit in a standard garage.
We also believe that the Forum must be free of charge for our oven owners for life. For me, this is most attractive aspect of FireWithin’s value proposition.
PQ: Well, that explains the business side of this but this is clearly more than just a business for you. There seems to be a desire to empower people, whether through providing them with tools for success or helping them set up a business of their own, or simply inviting them into your larger community of kindred spirits. What is the fire burning within you that fuels your vision of FireWithin?
Ajith: As mentioned in the earlier question, my first venture provided the realities of business ownership. In my tenure in the business world, I witnessed numerous business failures resulting in home foreclosures, divorces, ruined partnerships which end up in courts and many other traumatic endings. These catastrophic experiences compelled me to embark on the quest for identifying why some ventures succeed and others fail.
I am passionate about helping others succeed and FireWithin provides me with that opportunity. I looked back at my own journey in order to evaluate the key elements that contributed to my own modest success. I share these elements with other business owners and, via Wood-Fired University, help them succeed.
I distilled what I learned into a handful of what I call the foundation blocks for a successful business venture. They are:
- Posses the mindset of a curious child — continue to learn and adapt to change.
I’ve learned that there is a unique “Pizza Universe” out there, which led me to discover a variety of pizza styles and more! I also recently attended the International Symposium on Bread led by you, Peter. There I discovered that there are even more universes to investigate to help grow my knowledge and my business!
- Surround yourself with many mentors who have plenty more experience than you, and give them permission to provide you with counsel. This allows you to hear and listen to multiple ideas and to finally arrive at your own personal decision on critical matters.
I have a group of close friends with very different backgrounds and we counsel and advise each other. Also, I have found mentors within the industry, such as you, John Arena, Albert Grande, David Bravdica, Thomas Garnick…. I know I am forgetting others….
- Seek out books that are written on subject matter that pertains to your industry and business.
- Build a trusted and empowered team of employees who are willing to challenge you on an issue and have the gumption to change your mind on matters. In return, provide for your team more than they expected.
I have been fortunate to attract and retain a superb team that is willing to change my mind about something everyday. I put up a good fight before I change my mind but they are empowered to push back. At the end we come up with a better decision.
- Make sure you always place your business in a place of trying to reach the next level or goal. Status quo is dangerous and will jeopardize your business. If you feel that your business has reached its max capacity, it probably means you should have exited out of that venture some time ago.
Don’t be afraid to change and try something different or new: whether its a new market segment, new ways of advertising, new processes or a brand new product. After all, the market is ever changing.
PQ: Where do you see this company being in, say, five or ten years? What are your dreams for it?
Ajith: We are working on multiple initiatives that will secure FireWithin as a leader in the industry. Next year, we will be introducing new oven concepts that will expand our business — keep an eye out! Also, we are developing new market segments that will benefit from our products services that will put FireWithin into new places in the industry.
We will continue to add advanced curriculum to our Wood-Fired University. As our oven owner community matures in their ventures, we intend to provide advanced training and techniques which they can immediately put to use to build their businesses.
The 2017 International Symposium on Bread gave me the opportunity to get a glimpse into the bread universe. I was very fortunate to meet well known bread-head leaders. So, in addition to you, Peter, we will be inviting other well known teachers to share their expertise with our community.
Finally, as most of our our oven owners step into brick and mortar restaurants, we intend to expand our products and services to support them.
PQ: How can folks who want to know more about FireWithin, or to even explore the possibilities for themselves, connect with you?
Ajith: Folks who are interested in our concept can reach us in multiple ways:
At the risk of turning this into an infomercial, let me wrap up, especially for those of you who might be interested in exploring this further, by adding the following:
You can explore more about our concept in the following ways:
- Watch the video testimonials that will help interested folks learn about us.
- Purchase the Rolling in the Dough book, which is a complete business manual. The price of the book is refunded if you attend Wood-Fired University or purchase a trailer
- Attend Wood-Fired University
- Visit PizzaQuest.com in which Peter has interviewed one of our oven owners, David Bravdica. Look for the webisodes with David and Brava Pizzeria.
FireWithin is already known as the world leader in manufacturing wood-fired mobile ovens. It is true that we manufacture and sell the most exhaustive line of products than any other company. But, I would like folks to know that we are not just not a manufacturing company, we are providing a “Complete Business,” not simply a trailer. We provide you a support system system free of charge. We do that with the following items:
- We provide you the best piece of equipment in the world.
- Complete and proven business plan – “Rolling In the Dough” — which is dedicated to how to establish a successful wood-fired catering enterprise.
- Wood-Fired University provides you with essential skills so that you are ready to do your first event when you return to your home town.
- Lifetime of support from FireWithin and the FireWithin Oven Owner Community.
- FireWithin supports each one of our clients with navigating their local Health Department requirements.
- FireWithin is committed to provide all necessary information and referrals so that you can make a sound decision on whether this is the right venture for you.
In a nutshell, FireWithin is about a business concept which is extremely rare in the US today. An initial investment, under 30K, which can be paid pack within the first year! We have many success stories around the country to show.
PQ: Thank so much, Ajith, for sharing your story. I’m really excited about all the possibilities for this company and also for you personally. Thanks for your generosity of spirit and for creating opportunity for others. See you at the next Wood-Fired University!
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Pizza Quest Info
Pizza Quest is a site dedicated to the exploration of artisanship in all forms, wherever we find it, but especially through the literal and metaphorical image of pizza. As we share our own quest for the perfect pizza we invite all of you to join us and share your journeys too. We have discovered that you never know what engaging roads and side paths will reveal themselves on this quest, but we do know that there are many kindred spirits out there, passionate artisans, doing all sorts of amazing things. These are the stories we want to discover, and we invite you to jump on the proverbial bus and join us on this, our never ending pizza quest.
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