Building a Pizzeria: Feeding the Dream

Editor's note: Some of you Slice'rs probably remember Caleb Schiff, AKA Flagstaff Forno. But did you know that he's going pro? In this series, we'll follow Caleb as he builds his pizzeria in Flagstaff, Arizona.

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Sharing the love. [Photographs: Caleb Schiff]

Since my last post, I've made a lot of progress toward the opening of Pizzicletta. My L.L.C. status was approved, my liquor license was submitted, my business account was set up, more lenders have come on board, the asbestos testing was completed, and my floor plan is almost complete. Whew.

Today I want to go into a bit more detail about how I got to this point and those in my community who have fed the dream. It has been a bit like those first few minutes of a roller-coaster ride. Although I didn't know it at the time, building my home oven was like clicking down the restraining device. Once constructed, the oven lit something inside of me that I couldn't stop. Opening a pizzeria was not in the plans. I just wanted to make great pizza and bread for my girlfriend and I. That seemed pretty simple.

I worked in bakeries in high school and college, but I'd never done any baking in a wood-fired oven. Not surprisingly, the first pies out of the oven were a disgrace. But I was full of pride and tired from the construction and we ate every last bite. Kaiser (my dog) even got in on the action. Of course, it helps that even bad pizza is good. That first night of pizzas was fun and all, but I knew I wanted to replicate what I'd had in Italy and so my obsessiveness began and the roller coaster started down the track.

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Kaiser is always near by to retrieve any dropped pies.

Like many of the readers on Slice, I did a lot of research about dough and oven management. The scientist in me took over a bit and I started a spreadsheet with all my trials and notes. I used different flours, water, and fermenting times. I made a proofing box out of a cooler and lamp. Pizza took hold of me. The pies got better, and we started having people over to share the experience. My friends and family knew I'd been spending all summer working on the oven, so they were eager to taste the fruits of my labor.

After a few of the parties, word got around and there was soon a sort of cult following for the pizza. Around town, I was often asked, "Aren't you the pizza guy?" The next question from folks was, "Are you going to open your own place?" We certainly have nothing like Neapolitan pizza in Flagstaff so the second question got the wheels turning. I decided to find a second job at a restaurant to test the waters. The dream was in full development at this point. I realized that I wanted to provide something unique, traditional, and good for my community. The coaster started clicking its way up the first climb.

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With time and lots of trial and error, the pizzas improved.

Perhaps as a sign of things to come, the home oven landed me the job I was looking for. Part of the resume required for a job at diablo burger was an essay stating my connection to food. I wrote about the oven and my time in Italy. They hired me on the spot and the next night I had the owner to the house for pizza. It probably didn't hurt that he grew up in New York City and loves good pizza. I think he approves of my pizza because he now rents the extra room in my house. I'm considering raising the rent now that I am going pro. And for those of you interested, you can still find me at diablo burger. I'll be there until mid-May when work for Pizzicletta reaches the level of needing my full attention.

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Guests love to see the oven cranking away at + 900 F.

The work at diablo burger was good for me in lots of ways. I worked in the kitchen at first and saw how a small space (the entire restaurant is 650 sq ft) can be transformed into a unique and efficiently run business. I moved up to a manager and learned what made customers happy: good food, a fun environment, the feeling of community, and a story behind their food. The job was a big change from my full-time work as a research scientist at the university. Rather than look at spreadsheets and science articles all day, I was able to be social and interact with my community. Finally, I learned a bit more about what it took to open a restaurant: a vision, a plan, and of course, investors.

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Feeding my community.

Back at the house, the pizza parties continued and I got more serious about writing a business plan. After my 9-5 at the university and my part-time work at diablo burger, I would spend the nights writing. I couldn't get the pizzeria off my mind, and I made a point to do one thing everyday towards my dream. Maybe my daily task was to write down a concept, reach out to an investor, or simply research other pizzerias. Often this work led to no tangible addition to my business plan. But, it kept my mind active and focused on the dream. Eventually, I shared my plan with some folks. After lots of feedback, I threw away my first draft and rewrote it. I gave the new draft to the Small Business Development Center. It got better, as did the pizzas.

Now when I had pizza parties and folks asked, "Are you going to open your own place?" I started saying that I was really working on it. Often, a second question was "Are you looking for investors?" Contrary to what many people think when I discuss my plans to import an oven from Italy, I am no trust-fund baby. My decision to study climate change with my geology degree rather than go into the oil business didn't exactly make me independently wealthy either. But those guests to the home oven saw what I was trying to create, believed in the concept, and loved the pizza.

So my answer: "Yes, I am."

As I've mentioned previously, this is a community supported business. I have no bank loans nor inheritance to get off the ground. I am creating something unique, good, and a place that Flagstaff will be proud of.

And after nearly three years of feeding my community the best pizza in town, they are feeding the dream. We are all excited and busy. I meet with one of my investors nearly everyday. I take them bread I am working on, invite them for pizza, or just go and have a beer with one of them and bring them up to speed. It makes for a busy schedule but its importance cannot be understated. These friends and community members have a strong belief in me and the business. They are pushing me up the final click-click-click of the track. Now, every time our meetings are over, I look at them with excitement, just like the final glance you give your friend as the coaster reaches the top of that first climb.

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