Interview: Brian Spangler of Apizza Scholls
Note from Peter: I first met Brian Spangler about 18 years ago, when he owned a small mountain top artisan bread bakery outside of Portland, Oregon. He was hosting a meeting of the Board of Directors for the Bread Bakers Guild of America, and told me he someday hoped to open a place where he could also serve barbecue and pizza. Then, a couple of years later I saw him again was when I was taken to a new restaurant called the Scholls Public House by a reporter who wanted my opinion on the pizza there. I had no idea it was Brian’s place until he came out of the kitchen and told me he had decided to go for it. We stayed in touch and, as you will see below, I followed his journey from Scholls to Portland’s Southeast side where Apizza Scholls has become legendary and appears on most of the top ten pizzeria lists. He recounts his journey from artisan bread baker to killer pizza maker below but, before he does I want to add one observation, which we will discuss further with him and Nancy Silverton at Pizza Expo on March 21st in Las Vegas: I believe that the key to the success of Brian’s pizzas, and what sets them apart from the pack, is his understanding of dough fermentation (and this is also true for Nancy’s pizzas at Pizzeria Mozza, in Los Angeles, as she too was a founding member of the Bread Baker’s Guild of America before she ever started making pizzas). Many pizza operators have since begun using the techniques of the artisan bread community to improve their dough, and it was obvious from the first time I tasted Brian’s pizza (see below) that there was a level of bread craft at work that elevated his pizzas to an uncommon level. I hope you can come to our session at Expo where we’ll explore this but, even if you can’t, I’ll post about it here when I get back. For now, enjoy my conversation with Brian Spangler and, if you haven’t been to Apizza Scholls, put it on your bucket list. (Note: Brian is arranging to send me some more photos, so I’ll add them as I receive them.)
Peter (PQ): Brian, when we first met, you had a small artisan bread bakery out of your home on a mountain outside of Portland, Oregon. You told me then that you hoped to one day open a pizzeria and/or a barbecue pit. The next time I saw you was just after you opened Scholls Public House in the town of Scholls, Oregon, and then, when I saw you again a couple years later, you had moved into Southeast Portland and opened Apizza Scholls. Can you tell us more about your journey, both from your pre-bakery days up to the current moment?
Brian: Sure. Since you asked, here it is, so hang in there as I lay it out. My journey with baking started back in 1987 when I got a job at the Plaza Bakery in Santa Cruz, California, and somehow silver-tongued my way into the head baking position, straight out of high school. I rocked that position until the Loma Prieta earthquake took it out in ’89. Then, after those two intensive years, there was a long stretch of really no baking at all. I did spend a lot of time in the service industry – making beer, working for small breweries that were starting to pop up in the late ’80s, working as a server, cook, bartender, etc., but it wasn’t until meeting and marrying my wife, Kim, in ’98 that we both decided to leave the Bay Area and look toward establishing a business of our own. I did originally want to open up a barbecue restaurant – that was my passion at the time, but Kim would have nothing to do with that. She was concerned with waste and, well, beer consumption….
But, right around that time, certain seeds were planted: a friend I’d worked with in a number of San Francisco restaurants bought me a bench knife and some books on baking and started pushing me in the direction of baking again, and I’d also become friends with Steve Sullivan, of Acme Bread, and then, just months before we moved to Oregon, I read this article about some guy out in Point Reyes Station, deep in Marin County, who’d been baking in an old pottery barn – just a shed wherehe’d built this massive brick oven out of the side, and he’s out there with no mixer and an oven where he has to chop the wood and fire it himself, everything done by hand, and it just sounded like the raddest thing in the world. And this guy – Chad Robertson – would take that bread to the Berkeley Farmers Market and he’d post a sign-up sheet for people to pre-claim their loaf, and that bread would sell out before he even got there. That was just so intriguing – that’s really what got me into baking again.
So, we moved up here, to Portland, took some time, getting to know the area, figuring out local needs and demands, then Kim devised a pitch for us to open a bakery – that’s what she wanted us to do – and she made a really good case: how there were only one or two good bakeries in the entire metro area, and still no one was doing the types of breads that I was interested in doing. So I kind of just jumped off the cliff. Those seeds had been planted, and they were taking root, so when Kim made the call I just went for it. And it turned out to be a great decision because I learned a lot during the process. We didn’t have a lot of money, so none of the ancillaries and the people you would normally pay to do stuff – I had to learn how to do it all myself. We had sixty thousand dollars to our name and we spent it all on materials. I had to physically build the oven and physically build the bakery, and about a year later after plugging away every single day we were accepted by the Portland Farmers Market, and we were off and running.
We were this little two person bakery. I did all the baking and Kim did all the delivery. I would be up from seven in the morning till one o’clock in the morning. Kim would get up and deliver bread from three in the morning till about ten AM – two ships passing in the night. Sunday was our one day off, to explore the area and try new restaurants. Oddly enough, we had a craving for pizza, so we tried everyone’s recommendations, but none of them scratched the itch. After I don’t know how many failed attempts at getting a good pizza in this town – and I had never made a pizza in my life – Sunday became our pizza day, where we’d make our own pizza out of the brick oven. There was a standing invitation to all the people we had met through the Farmer’s Market, and all the restaurants, and wineries, and what have you, that “If you happen to be out in Hillsboro, Washington County, bring a six-pack, ’cause we’ll be making pizza.” So, for about a year we kept experimenting and trying everything – trying, trying, trying: shredded cheese, sliced cheese, no sugar in the sauce, sugar in the sauce, cooking the sauce, not cooking the sauce, etc. and after that one year, of experimenting every weekend, we started to get really fucking good at it. So good at it that what had been our casual day off from the bakery, suddenly turned into people showing up wanting to pick up five pies, and I’m making sixty, seventy pizzas on my day off.
The bakery was doing well, but it’s a hard living running a bakery by yourself – if you wake up ill, there’s no one to back you up and the income stops coming in – it’s a shit-ton of work for a couple dollars per loaf of profit. But, when we saw the demand for this pizza, when we were getting emails on Tuesday reserving five or six pizzas for next Sunday, I just looked at Kim and was like, “If we can find a space where we can serve some salads and some booze with this pizza, we could have some normal sort of semblance of a life.” Then, one of only three commercial properties in Scholls came on the market. We had absolutely no money, so we went to the bank; we went to friends – a little loan here, a little loan there, and withinsix weeks we secured the property and just went for it. And that is when the shit hit the fan….
We opened up The Scholls Public House – we didn’t call it a pizzeria – and started making pizza. I was making, like, three or four pizzas a night – no one was coming – cars driving by, a lot of cars, people from Nike on their way home from work, but I think people were so used to being served crap out there in the middle of nowhere, that they wouldn’t believe it could be any good. It was real slow. We were bleeding money. It was “What the fuck did we do?” But, you know, we kept plugging away, and it started to pick up – we were at about thirty pizzas a night. We were making money, but not making real money. We couldn’t take a draw, but we could chip away at the loans.
Then, we got a call from the Oregonian. And little did I know that Peter Reinhart would show up in a car with this Oregonian writer and we’d do this interview and we’d make some pies, and everyone would go away and I’d get a call a couple weeks later from the Oregonian letting me know that we were gonna be on the cover of Food Day, on a a specific date, and to “make sure I was ready.” Well, that day comes, and I don’t know what I’m supposed to do to get ready, and it’s the entire cover of the supplement, with a banner on the front page of the Oregonian telling you to go to Food Day, and then the phone did not stop ringing. People showed up in the parking lot at one o’clock, and we didn’t open till five. People lined up and waited out front for four hours. By the time we opened the front doors every pizza had been claimed by that line.
And then a new problem started immediately. You see, rural/commercial rulings stipulated that you can operate as normal so long as you do not impede on your neighbors – and that can be anything from sound pollution, to odors, to litter — but it’s rural, so you have to play nice with your neighbors or they’ll start complaining. And with the amount of traffic we were bringing in, and the parking and the litter, and then traffic accidents, our neighbors submitted a formal complaint, and we started receiving letters from Washington county informing us that if we didn’t resolve our issues we would be fined in upwards of ten thousand dollars per day. We hired the best land use lawyer in the state, and we tried to fight it, but after two months of fighting we realized no one was gonna budge, and that our only option was to leave Scholls. Our last day in Scholls was December 30th, 2004, and we opened Apizza Scholls here in Southeast Portland on January 24th, 2005 – nonstop good times!
PQ: Wow, that’s an amazing story — I had no idea my visit there came at such a critical time, or any of this backstory, or that you’d get penalized for being too successful!. But, there’s something inspiring about watching someone take an idea, and successfully manifest that idea. What, and who, guided you through these various transitions?
Brian: I think it was just the entire experience of jumping off the cliff – you know? We only had sixty thousand bucks. Failure was not an option. I couldn’t have that hundred-thousand dollar oven all the cool guys in town had – it was like, “So what are you going to do Brian – how are you going to do this?” and it came down to, “Well, I guess I’m going to build one.” Necessity is the mother of invention. Some of the greatest things come out of working with the bare minimum – with what you have on hand. So, desire is the fire that activates all those raw, or hidden, talents. And being hungry, with no idea of how it’s going to play out, but just dancing along with it. Also being blessed with an engineering brain – something I got from my father – loving to take things apart, analyze them, then figuring out how to put them back together.
PQ: The pizza at Apizza Scholls is your version of New York-style. What do you think it is that differentiates yours and has caused it to rise to the top echelon in this category?
Brian: Well, I wouldn’t even classify it anymore as New York-style. Obviously there are inspirations – when Kim and I were starting out we drew off memories of various places we’d been to in New York, but we didn’t adhere to any one particular way it “had to be.” I don’t think there’s anything unique about what I do anymore. But at the time, when we were starting out, we were a complete one-eighty from what anyone else was doing in Portland, Oregon. We didn’t want that slapped-together tan pizza. We wanted to cook pizza like you cook a good steak. We wanted to cook it hot and fast.
PQ: What are some of the challenges you face as a business owner in growing your brand and staying true to your values and vision?
Brian: We’re not really trying to “grow” our brand. But, right now, the biggest challenge I have, along with everyone else in the service industry, has to do with costs. Here in Portland we have the minimum wage increases, which are scheduled through 2022, and we’re really starting to feel the effects – it’s rippling through the entire industry – you know, our purveyors are having to also deal with this, so then all our product costs go up — our sales are up, but our costs are so much higher, so it’s a different sort of balancing act – that’s the biggest challenge. But we’re not trying to grow. We don’t want to open multiple locations. Our focus has only been one thing. People tell me we’ve “mastered” something. We haven’t mastered shit. But we are still trying to do this one thing the best that we possibly can. And, that being said, because we just want to remain a mom and pop, the question is: how do we do this one thing, yet grow with our employees and meet their needs. To provide comprehensive medical insurance, keep them interested and engaged, while our rent, our water – all of our costs — are skyrocketing? So that’s our main focus right now: how do we sell more product from this one location when everything’s already at peak?
PQ: Where do you see yourself and Apizza Scholls in, say, 5 or even 10 years from now?
Brian: Well, in a perfect world, I don’t see myself at Apizza Scholls in five or ten years. I see this being an employee owned and operated business. I have other things I want to do. I love pizza but I don’t want it to define me. I got lucky, in a lot of ways. But I’d like to try my hand at something else, too.
PQ: What do you do to keep yourself fresh, and recharged, and inspired?
Brian: Learning. Trying new things. Experimenting. I don’t sit idle every well. My mind is constantly racing. When I get a bug up my ass about something, I go in one-hundred-and-ten percent. Right now I’ve got all these video games and pinball machines I’m still learning how to refurbish and repair. I’m playing a lot of music, writing new songs. New information is what keeps me sane. And right now I’m doing a lot of hiking and snow shoeing – climbing big fucking mountains and shit.
PQ: So what advice would you give to others who want to get into the pizza game or who are looking for a way to take their existing business to another level?
Brian: Listen to others, but don’t take their word as gold. Listen to yourself. I’ve seen a lot of people handcuffed either by limitations others place on them or limitations they’re placing on themselves. And that stifles the entire world of innovation – when human beings are held back by preconceived limitations. All of my peers, everyone I respect, they all think outside the box. You know, I remember I did this conference with you and Chris Bianco in Denver a number of years ago, and a similar question came up, and his response was, “Man, give me an easy-bake oven and I’ll make you a fuckin’ Pizza.” You know, give me a magnifying glass, whatever – it’s not gonna stop me. That’s just a means to an end. It’s not the end itself.
PQ: Thanks so much, Brian, for sharing your story with us — I love it and am really looking forward to our panel discussion at Pizza Expo with Nancy Silverton on March 21st.
Brian: Thank you, Peter. I’m looking forward to it. See you there!
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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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