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Ovens, small business, and being up against the wall

Updated: Apr 9, 2022

After reading my last post from September 2015, I find it funny to be starting out the blog about ovens again. Here we are over a year later, and the story continues.

We’ve been open at the Doughjo for just over three years, and we are now happily cooking with our 7th and hopefully final pizza oven. That’s right, I said 7 ovens.

The two most important pieces of equipment in a pizza shop are the dough mixer, and the pizza oven, and for the last three years we’ve had nothing but problems with the ovens. Those of you who have been regular customers have seen us go through situations that would make any sane business person close the doors. Not us. Though I got pretty close last May.

A brief history for you. I purchased the shop’s contents in October 2013, and among the relics and rubble, there were two very old 36″ deck ovens with steel floors, and tons of wear and tear. I had them serviced just before opening day, and everything was looking pretty good. They cooked pizzas just fine, but they were a little on the small side for our anticipated volume. Replacements were already on my mind, but after spending all the money on opening, this would have to wait for a little while. Those first four days nearly killed those decks. They hadn’t seen that kind of action in a long time. On day three, one oven started malfunctioning and severely compromised dinner service. To those who were there, we apologize for the 2 hour wait times. On day four we said Fuck it, and ran all the pizzas out the back door to the wood fired mobile unit. We had a near perfect service and produced 94 pizzas in roughly 4 hours.

We limped along with the original decks for a couple months, but by late February I had saved up enough cash, and called a broker. Fred Phillips found me two 56″ stone decks, again quite old, well used, for $8000. These units run upwards of $16K new per oven, so it sounded like a good deal. As all “good deals” usually go, we got them installed and both were working great, at first. We really started hitting our stride by summer of 2014, bigger ovens meant cooking more pizzas at once and the orders kept coming. By May of 2015, we were down to one working oven, and the struggle was getting real. Another call to Fred Phillips, and a set of “better” “used” ovens were in the works. For that chunk of the story, see my last post: It’s been a long time, hello, internet. The blog returns…

Fast forward to Summer 2016. The replacement ovens in the shop had been humming along since January. By May everything was great again, we were selling lots of pizzas, and our customer base was increasing. I was feeling like it was time to buy a new trailer. Summer was fast approaching and the original mobile oven was showing its age of six years, the four year old beast was also showing wear, so I figured it was time to get another production oven built, and committed to spending $19K to do so. The next day (no joke), our new bottom oven went out inside the shop, AGAIN, after not even 6 months in use, and would not turn on (the same oven that fell off the truck the first time). Days later the top deck decided it was also time to take a smoke break, and it went out. Wouldn’t light again.

I called our service company, and they came out to replace the malfunctioning parts. First visits’ repairs lasted 2-3 days. Second visit lasted 1 day, and on the third visit by our repair company, A.J. leans over to me and says this is the last time I’m going to do this for you because I do not like spending your money (they were kind enough to send me a bill for almost $2k for all three visits). In short, the ovens were too big and poorly insulated for our tiny space, and we lacked adequate ventilation for such large ovens. We had tried everything we could, I replaced the hood fan, replaced the make up air, and nothing was working. So what is a pizza place without an oven? Screwed, for the moment.

The third set of replacement ovens we bought for $16K (through financing) and waited several months for were removed from the Doughjo July 18th, 2016. R.I.P. both Y-600 decks. Their spent carcasses were hauled away by the same Fred Phillips and were sent back to L.A. where they were “repaired” and sold to another person. I got $3000 back from that sale, and as of today (02/02/17) I still owe $3400 on the initial purchase.

We had been here before. Day four 2014 taught us all we needed to know to get through this. The day the ovens officially died, I parked the Beast out back in our parking space, fired it up, and got it up to temp for regular service, but this time the mobile oven wasn’t going anywhere. I told my staff all pizzas would be cooked outside until I could figure out my next steps. It’s either this or we shut down the storefront and just focus on catering, and we had plenty of that going on. This was early June, and we were in full swing with trailers going out every weekend through October.

Begrudgingly everyone agreed that continuing any way we could was a better idea, and we adapted. We built pizzas inside the shop, cooked them outside, we hustled, and we got away with what could conceivably be a major health violation for three months. To that I mean it’s kind of a gray area here, we cook outside at events all year round, so really what’s the difference? Not much but a piece of paper and a hefty fee for cooking out doors. I figured it would be fine, so I rolled the dice. That new trailer I ordered back in early May wasn’t going to be ready for 10-12 weeks, so some nights the Doughjo had to shut down, and we lost untold amounts of neighborhood sales as a result. Meanwhile I’m still making a monthly payment for the ovens I no longer have in addition to keeping the lights on. Waaa. This is hard work.

We sold the pizzas renegade style out of the back of the Doughjo for three months, and a band-aid was put on a situation that needed a real solution. To the internets I went in search of the next oven. I was looking for my “Neo” now because the storefront business needed to be saved. Cash strapped and determined to succeed, I weighed my options. Took some loans, did some research. Woodstone makes an amazing pizza oven that would fit our space and costs about $28K, I felt it was too expensive and too small for our needs, not to mention another $4K to rip apart the storefront and actually install it. I was like, there must be another solution.

I called my trailer guy Pete Rostritto, and said I need a 48″ Forno Bravo dome oven for my store that can run on gas. This is the exact same model we just commissioned him to put on the new trailer, but it runs on gas and/or wood. It can be assembled in the store, through the back door, piece by piece, and cost about 1/3 of the Woodstone model. I placed the order. By August 1 2016, the what we hope is our last major oven purchase, was installed and ready to serve by August 5th. This oven is a 48″ diameter circle of cooking space, as opposed to the 3.5 by 3 square feet per deck we had in previous years. Naturally with severely reduced cooking space, the 18″ large pizzas we used to offer were the first to be cut from the menu. Yes we can still make slice pies at 18-20″ but with the volume of orders we get from 6-7:30 pm every night, there was no way we would be able to keep up. This new oven can cook three 14″ pizzas in 3+ minutes at a time, as opposed to the 6-8 minute cook times we had in the decks, but bigger pies in volume just can’t happen anymore. For those of you wondering why we stopped making the large pies, there you go. Real estate.

Looking back, the last six months have been quite a ride. It’s now February 2017 and things seem to be leveling off. Business at the Doughjo has stabilized, and may well be on the rise. We signed up with Caviar in October, and the online delivery is picking up. Catering quotes are coming in at a good pace, and our Summer catering season is filling up. Year 7 at Fist of Flour has started, and after six years of rough roads, we’re still here making great pizzas all over the place, and right here at home in the Laurel District. We have no plans of leaving anytime soon.

Until the next…

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