Yes, today is my birthday, and it is also the birthday of Fist of Flour Pizza Co. 14 years ago today I cooked my first wood fired pizzas (18 if I recall) for friends and family in my original hand-made backyard pizza oven in East Oakland. I also got exceptionally drunk that night, and boy were those some ugly pies. But we ate and drank and had a darn good time.
Soon after that night, I began weekly pickups for folks who lived nearby. I had a handful of email addresses, and got on to some of the neighborhood email list serves. Call me, text, me, email me and get your pizzas, and much to my surprise, people came! I had the name, the web domains all set. I'd spend the next several months doing this, and hosting the B.Y.O. on the down low parties on weekends. $20 all you can eat slices for anyone who'd come through. I was raising the money to buy a trailer suitable to hold a pizza oven, and by the summer of 2010 I started making the first mobile oven with the help of several friends on the driveway.
When it was ready I drove it down to the True Mosaic Studios in Jingletown (Where I took the class on how to make this style of oven several months earlier) and set up shop for their 5th anniversary party. I sold a bunch of pies that day and well, the rest is history.
Just three years into doing street festivals, house parties, and all kinds of different events, I had two trailers and a team of staff who circled the Bay Area with me all the time. In late October of 2013, I had an opportunity to takeover a sad sad pizza place in the Laurel District for a ridiculously low price. I signed the 4 year lease and began the process of turning a sow's ear into a silk purse. On this day, January 11, 2014, the Doughjo was born. We had sign off from the health department after a furious 2 month non stop workathon, and we gathered a small group of friends and family to do a test run and get ready for Opening Day on January 15th, and what a rocky start we had!
Day one went swimmingly, the neighborhood and fans of the mobile operation showed up for us. We practically had a line out the door the whole night. We opened at 5pm and ran till 9, cash only. No register, just the old trusty cash box from the gigs. Money coming in and pizzas going out! I'll admit the opening menu was too ambitious. We had calzones, meatball subs, and probably a couple other things that proved too difficult to make consistently, but both 18" and 14" pizzas were flying out of those two little ovens. Day two, same scenario, we were cranking them out.
Day three, oh day three. At some point, someone accidentally closed the air gap in the gas line of the top pizza oven. This air gap is necessary for proper gas flow, and was something I knew NOTHING about resolving. The oven was turning black with soot, and all the food was coming out zombie-fied, gray colored and unappealing. We tried wiping it down every few minutes, but nothing was going to help. In the midst of Friday night (which has always been the busiest night), we had to drop down to one oven. People were now waiting 2 hours for their orders, Someone ordered a vegan calzone in the midst of all this and caused three re-fires because cheese kept being added. I went full Gordon Ramsay at that point and lost it. Somehow we got through the night, some folks were refunded, some waited. I can't forget looking out at the front of the shop, seeing 20+ people crammed in there hoping to somehow get their orders. I was having a melt down.
Day four, Saturday. Realizing nobody in the oven repair world was working and there was no way we were going to get that deck working by 4pm, I decided fuck it, the mobile oven was still hot from our weekly gig at Drake's Brewing in San Leandro. I parked it right outside the back door, and got it fired up. We decided to run all the pizzas out the back door, and cook them on the sidewalk. I killed the 18" pies and we focused on just the 14"s which we were well accustomed to. If I recall, we popped out 94 pizzas that night, maybe only dropping one or two raw pies on the way to the oven. A near perfect service was had. I then decided I'd not open for Sunday as we had just gotten our asses kicked for the last 16 hours of service.
Good thing I made that decision. I came in Sunday morning to assess everything, and smelled this all to familiar smell of something "electrical" in the air. Mind you, we'd been in there for just over 2 months, and the place was in pretty bad shape when we took over. The previous owner had the place for over 17 years, and by the time I came around, he just wanted out of the business, and you could see that he didn't care any more, or hadn't cared for some time. The power worked so I just assumed everything would be fine. Most of the work we did was largely cosmetic and didn't have my electrician check anything out before we opened.
So, I started walking toward the back of the shop, and the smell was getting stronger. As I approached the electrical panel, I could feel the heat coming off of it, and sure enough it was a little too hot to the touch. Shit was melting in there, maybe in the walls, I dunno. This place hadn't seen any sort of heavy activity in a long time, and we damn near blew the place up. I called my electrician and begged him to come and scope it out. Sure enough, we needed a whole new panel, and he spent all day Monday trying to undo the shoddy electrical work from the previous tenants. We got very lucky, and he was able to get us back up and running for week two! I also had a chance to get the oven guys out, and they showed me how to adjust the gas flow and air mixes, so we were good to go!
Those first four days were wild. I don't remember how many pizzas we sold, but I do know that I had $6K in my hands, which sure helped buy the new electrical supplies and pay the repair guys, plus of course running payroll, buying the foods etc. I had just dumped my life savings (just shy of $50K) into this place and was pretty much broke as fuck. We were off and running and ready for anything. I had to move forward.
I can't believe that a decade has gone by at the Doughjo, I really can't. I had all the confidence and determination of a newbie business owner, I would not let myself fail no matter how hard running this shit show would be. I didn't come from a restaurant background, nor have I ever really even worked in one. The closest I ever got to food service was my high school job working in the mall at Morrow's nut house. I sold nuts and candy gift baskets among other things for three years. Heck I wasn't even a very good cook until I was well into my thirties, but I LOVED making pizzas, and thought, how hard could it be? LOL. right, straight idiot.
I've learned a lot over the years out of necessity, and have had a great deal of success, and failures, it's a constant learning process every day. I'm not rich by any means, but somehow I have supported myself for 14 years, and have maintained a little neighborhood take away pizza joint for the last ten years. In a world where most restaurants fail in their first years, and in a town where the list of recent restaurant closures is frighteningly long, where the pandemic has ravaged friends' businesses, somehow we press on. We do this by remaining true to our roots, never allowing the rising costs of ingredients and supplies to compromise our commitment to quality. I could cut corners and make a few more dollars, or I could try to expand into a larger space and spread my resources even thinner, but that would undoubtedly show itself to the ones that matter most, our loyal customers. The ones that call us every week, or use their apps to get food delivered, the ones that call us to tell us they'll be on vacation and won't be making their weekly Bacon pizza order and not to worry (true story BTW).
As we start year 10/14 here at Fist of Flour Pizza Co. I promise not to do any of those things that would weaken our relationship with the Laurel district and surrounding neighborhoods. I'll be honest, we didn't have a great year in 2023, and while i am still crunching end of year numbers, I can see we had the lowest sales in our history, but I am not worried. I also have no investors, nobody to answer to but myself, my staff, and our customers which makes the decision process a little easier.
I can see all around me that everybody is feeling the pinch. Money is tight, and eating out isn't always an option for some, at least not as often as they may have been inclined to do in the past. Despite rising costs across the boards, I have decided we are not going to raise prices like so many other places and we'll suck it up for as long as we can.
I do ask that each and every one of you who comes in and are satisfied with what we do to turn around and tell everyone you know that they have to try this place. If we can get 10 new customers a week, and move more pizzas out that door, we'll be able to keep those doors open for another ten years and keep our prices at an attainable level for more people to enjoy.
With that I say hello to the next decade, and I say bring it on. We're not going anywhere but up my friends.