In part two of his multi-part series on Detroit-style pizza, Jeff Smokevitch takes a look at turning from pizza fanatic to pizza purveyor
Like many new college graduates, I didn’t know what I would do as a career. Life was coming at me fast and my confusion seemed to grow exponentially daily.
Wanting to push away the realities of impending adulthood, a week after graduating I went to visit a friend in Telluride, Colorado. The visit was scheduled for two weeks, but those two weeks turned into a winter, which has now turned into nearly 20 years and counting.
My first winter in Telluride I worked as a ski boot fitter, a server at a local restaurant and a camp counselor. The love for pizza remained, but even with three jobs I couldn’t afford it.
To make up for my lack of funds and desire to eat pizza, I got a job at the local pizzeria, Pacific Street Pizza. I made approximately $9 an hour, but that was okay because I got free pizza.
Everyone at Pacific Street Pizza knew I loved pizza, but they conspired against me in an effort to not let me actually make pizza.
Following a year of working the grill, fryer and dishwasher, the ultimatum came: “get a real job or move back home.” My parents knew that I was having a blast in Telluride, but they didn’t want me to become stagnant in life.
Within a week of my parent’s ultimatum, one of the owners of Pacific Street Pizza announced that he was leaving. While in the kitchen doing dishes, the other jokingly asked if I would like to join him as a part owner of the restaurant. To his surprise, I said yes.
After becoming an owner, “my staff” finally let me make pizza! Not too many years removed from college, the pizza we made reminded me of the pizza I had during my undergraduate career. It was decent — it was good and fast. However, as owner with equity and skin in the game, I knew this was not going to be good enough.
I began to travel across the country to try different pizzerias, and I was shocked by the high-quality pizzas out there. These taste tests were bittersweet. On one hand, I knew our pizza was not great, which made us vulnerable to being upended by any other person who wanted to make pizza. Yet I was also thrilled by the opportunity to improve our product.
After several months of traveling the country, I began looking for ways to educate myself. Eventually, at International Pizza Expo, I found the International School of Pizza run by Tony Gemignani. Within a week I enrolled. Shortly thereafter I attended the class.
Little did I know at the time, but attending Pizza Expo and Tony’s school would not only transform my restaurant’s pizza, but also my life. For the first time, I learned the nuances of making pizza. I couldn’t wait to return back to my pizzeria and refine our product.
Our pizza quickly got much better and customers began to notice. It was at that moment that I realized that the pizza business is like any other profession: great pizzerias hold on to what is sacred about their products and operations, but they are still not afraid to be leaders in innovation. Educating myself to know what was going on beyond my bubble was the best thing I could have ever done in advancing my pizza journey.
I later returned to the school, this time as an assistant to Tony. As luck would have it, while there for my second time I met two brothers who also grew up in Detroit. These two wanted to make Detroit-style pizza. I had wanted to make this style of pizza for a long time myself, because it reminded me of home. And, quite frankly, I knew that it was missing in the market.
Although I was the teacher’s assistant while they were the students, I learned more from them than I ever taught them. During the initial few weeks of our relationship they, and Tony, helped me develop my recipe and understand the five principles of making great Detroit-style pizza. (Each of the five principles will be discussed in length in part three of this series).
Those five principles are as follows:
1. The pan
2. Hydration of the dough
3. Choice and temperature of the oven
4. Sauce on top
5. Caramelized cheese
I couldn’t wait to get back to my pizzeria and share what I learned and start making Detroit-style pizza.
While this sounded like the best concept I had ever developed, my friends and family thought this was a mistake. First, very few people knew of Detroit-style pizza. Secondly, at that time, the city of Detroit was filing for bankruptcy. My friends and family thought our customers would have negative associations with the style.
Avoiding everyone’s advice, I added it to the menu. That first day was akin to the day when I learned the location of my local neighborhood pizzeria in Detroit — it was like Christmas again. Unfortunately, the day did not end so well: we sold only one pizza.
Needless to say, I was dejected. That night I asked myself so many questions. Were my family and friends right about the name? Why did this fail so horribly? Should we stick with one style of pizza? Eventually, I decided that we needed more time to educate our customers about the style.
In addition to developing a promotional plan, I began taking part in pizza competitions. I figured the competitions would help me hone my pizza-making skills, as well as further advertise Detroit-style to people not as familiar with this pizza type.
In my second International Pizza Challenge at Pizza Expo, nearly six months after I added the Detroit-style pizza to my menu, we won the championship! I finally felt validated for adding that item to the menu. Following that win, our Detroit-style pizza sales rocketed.
I continue to do competitions for fun and to force myself to think continuously about pizza innovation.
When I look back at my journey to Detroit-style pizza, I have learned so many valuable lessons. More importantly, I hope my restaurants can be that pizzeria that inspired the eight-year-old me.
Next month, in the Pizza Expo show issue, I’ll give you details about the five aforementioned Detroit-style pizza principles. Lastly, don’t forget to attend my demo on Detroit-style pizza at International Pizza Expo 2019 in Las Vegas. The demo is from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on Wednesday, March 6.
Jeff Smokevitch co-founded and currently operates Brown Dog Pizza and Blue Pan Pizza in Denver, Colorado.