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Jeff Varasano on Baking, Branding, and the Business of Pizza (Part 1)
Jeff Varasano used to be a name that popped up on pretty much every Google search you did for "pizza" in the mid-2000's (it's still there if you enter either "NY pizza recipe" or "Neapolitan pizza recipe"). Probably the most famous of the recent crop of engineers who focused their razor-sharp attention to detail on pizza, Varasano became a viral sensation with his massive, meticulous recipe/essay on creating the perfect pie and his exhaustive search to find the best pizza in the country. Then he traded in his career in software to go pro.
Varasano's opened in Atlanta with fanfare in 2009, made the top eight of what I consider the finest best-of list of the last ten years, and then...went under the radar. Daniel Zemans gave it glowing marks here in 2010 and Varasano's continues to get good reviews locally, but in the last three years it's dropped off the national scene. After three trips there in the last couple of years, I can assure you that it isn't because of the pizza.
At first glance, Varasano's pizza looks vaguely Neapolitan, but in reality it's something much more unique; it's like he hacked the old-school pies he grew up with and upgraded them with modern flavors. Thin and airy, the crust is crisp enough to make silverware unnecessary, while maintaining a silky, pillowy crumb. More impressive is the flavor—the near perfect tang surprises me every time (as in I literally shake my head). I don't think I've ever had such a formidable sourdough that was simultaneously so delicate.
Then there's the sophisticated yet accessible toppings. In addition to all the high-quality ingredients like soppresata and bufala you'll find at your favorite pie shops, there are exciting pizzas like the Nucci, which is made with Emmentaler cheese. Varasano might have written 50,000 words or so on bread, but as you'll soon learn, he thinks his true gift is flavor profiles and combinations. I'm certainly not arguing.
What I'm getting at is this: Varasano's is special pizza that can hold its own on the national stage. It's got all the right moves for someone looking for a Friday night pie with pepperoni, but enough complexity to inspire pizza nerds to go down the rabbit hole trying to replicate it. I guess you're probably asking yourself...if it's so good, then where's all the buzz? I've got theories, but if you're like me you'd rather hear it from the source.
So we sat down with Varsano for a nice long chat. Lucky for us, he was pretty candid everything: victories, setbacks, his big plans coming down the pipe, and his surprise new location (the Atlanta airport!). We talked the science of pizza itself, but there's even more about the industry and why it's not as simple as bread, tomato, and cheese. If you've ever thought about throwing your hat into the ring and opening your own pizzeria, this is a must-read.
So you just opened at the airport. I bet it's been a crazy few months.
Yeah, since early August it's been sort of a whirlwind at the airport. It's been great, and I definitely learned a ton. We had our best week recently and we've been hitting numbers that blow away anything we were doing at our Peachtree location. It's definitely going good. And to be honest with you—and this is going to surprise you—I think the quality there is better than it is at the Peachtree store.
How is that possible? And what's different?
What's different is that we've cut the menu back to what we had originally. When I first opened the restaurant, I launched with a very limited menu, but because of the location and the neighborhood, I ended up adding chicken and pasta, a brunch menu, and a lot of other things. And it sort of had us stretched thin. The airport is back to the original menu, which is just pizzas. We've got a couple salads, but we're not doing desserts or anything. It's just simpler. And having the experience of opening the first restaurant under my belt is just making it better.
I was really against this at first, but we're also doing smaller pies that are 11 inches as opposed to 13 1/2. They had to talk me into it, because I thought the the dough wouldn't stretch correctly and the pizzas would turn into little pucks, but that hasn't been the case at all. Quite frankly, it's easier to get it right. They bake perfectly top to bottom and the smaller size doesn't make them any thicker.
Also, people are eating it faster and fresher. At our original location, there's always been a quality issue with how people eat the pizza. Southerners eat slowly. If it's a group of 10 people, each person will wait till all 10 pizzas are out. They also tend to eat with a knife and fork, which slows them down a lot. It's not unusual to walk by a table 10 minutes after the food has been served and see that nothing has been touched. All of that's pretty much eliminated at the airport. People are flying in small groups and they're getting all their food to eat on the spot—it's not going to get cold and they're more likely to pick it up with their hands. I mean, I still see the occasional customer try to cut the pizza with a plastic spork, but generally speaking, they're eating it fresher, hotter, and just plain better. I'm very happy with the quality.
Any preemptive response to the guy who's going to complain about you selling out by opening up at an airport?
I can't think of anything that's different beyond the size. The pizza's solid and I get texts and emails weekly from my old regulars who confirm that. We pop in and do check-ups every couple of weeks and really haven't encountered any major problems.
This one's a franchise. How much power did you have over the key decisions?
I designed the kitchen and selected all of the equipment. Every ingredient is identical to our original store, which wasn't easy because many of our food distributors weren't licensed to get through airport security. We also had a guy training for seven weeks beforehand, learning to make the dough at our original location on Peachtree Street. And best of all, the kitchen manager at the airport worked for me for two years on Peachtree. So he's really the keeper of the brand.
Then what's been the biggest obstacle?
We didn't hire enough people. And every time you want to hire somebody at the airport there's a two-to-four week security check before they can get the job. I hired somebody today and it's two weeks before they can show up and then two weeks to train so it's not the kind of place you want to start short-handed. Everybody's been doing 60-hour weeks.
I've made more pizzas on the line myself at the airport than I ever did on Peachtree Street. By far. I've worked full shifts.
It sounds like you got thrown back into the fire.
Just getting back into the kitchen and working the line helped me tighten up everything. I trained everyone to make the dough, but when I got into the kitchen at the airport I actually had to re-learn some of the things I had originally taught everyone else. There were some processes that the crew had sort of drifted on, so I had to re-make some decisions. And some of the changes have actually improved how we operate back at the Peachtree store.
Here's an example. Years ago, I told my staff to re-organize the line—just change where the ingredients fit on the line to make the pizzas come out faster. But they always resisted. I would move something and they'd move it back. People get set in their ways, you know? At the airport I actually worked the line with newbies who had no preference for where things went. After a few days of frustration following the order of the Peachtree line, I spent some time and re-organized the whole thing. Previously, we couldn't fit everything on the line so we had to keep stuff below. Something you needed was always out of reach. So I separated red and white stations, I put every ingredient on the line in smaller containers so they all fit, and I designed it so that two people could work the line easily. The next day the staff was like, holy sh*t, this is so much easier.
And the next place you're going to open, is that another franchise or is that a second branch that you're going to own?
The next few units will be mine.
Any word on location?
Well, I can't talk too much. They've got the gag order on me. I'm hoping to announce in the next month. The airport is a concept that was designed years ago, so it doesn't really contain any of our latest ideas about what we want to do. But let me say this: My business development guy, Brett, and I have spent years—literally years—in conversation about the design and concept of future stores.
What's the conversation about?
What makes someone choose to go to a place? What do they like about a restaurant? When they turn to their left and they see this, does it make them feel more comfortable? When they look up, do they want to see a TV? Do they want to see a piece of art? Do they want to see a beautiful waitress? What do they want to see? And we have micro-analyzed everything—every single thing that we thought was a complaint about our current location, every single problem—and I think we've come up with a solution to all of them.
But you're not going to tell me anything...
Not yet. The great thing about being in a food court, like the airport, is that people make their decision in about four seconds. Sometimes it's a half a second. They look left and right and then they walk toward the one they want. And the speed in which they make that decision really makes you wonder, what the hell? What do you have to do to be the winner of that decision? And they all choose the same thing in the airport, which is Chic-Fil-A. It's like this machine. I don't even understand it. I mean, we're at a much higher price point so our revenue is higher than the head count, but in terms of sheer numbers it's just, "Oh, Chic-Fil-A, okay I'll go there." It's been fascinating figuring it out.
We've also built a great infrastructure to expand. Having just gone through this training process at the airport, I now have a training video for everything. If an employee does something wrong, I can have them go back and watch every step. At this point, we have much better production schedules and we've been able to test different pieces of equipment to really iron things out.
So you're really gearing up to expand. Why haven't I heard much about it?
We have done virtually nothing over the last couple years to put our name out there. And the reason is, we didn't really have the concept ready, so why brand it?
But your pizza is where you want it?
The pizza is definitely where I want it.
So that's how important the concept is for a pizzeria? Is it more than 50 percent in terms of importance?
It's way more than half, which is obviously sad because I thought it was all about the pizza and I still wish it were all about the pizza. And it is so not [laughs], it is so not. The vibe of a place, the comfort, the price, the feeling, the decor, the neighborhood it targets, the parking, and of course the location...these elements all have to sync. Unfortunately all that stuff is far, far, far more important than the food. But once we address the non-food issues—price, speed, having fun, there's like 25 different things.
Plenty of guys have gone from amateur to pizza pro, but nobody else had a 90(ish)-page recipe go viral on the internet before they sold their first pie. Did you feel any pressure when you opened considering you were the most famous home pizzaiolo in the country?
There was a ton of pressure. I had a lot of articles written about me before I opened. I even got one-star Yelp reviews. I'm not kidding, I had at least three one-star reviews before we opened. People were pissed off about the hype. And my very, very first customer was one of the biggest food critics in town. I was opening at 5:30 and he was there at 5:25. It was crazy, I remember two days after I opened I got a text from somebody who said, "You gotta get out there, you've got to start tweeting, you're losing the momentum." And I'm like, "I'm just worried about making dough, I just opened the restaurant two days ago, I'm not thinking about my social media."
Those first couple of months, some of the food was amazing and some of it was terrible. It was hit and miss, and I don't think it could ever have been otherwise, no matter how much I prepared. It just takes a while to get the process down and to translate it from home cooking into a commercial product. Having said that, now it's very consistent. Not one-hundred percent, but it's pretty darn consistent.
Has the pizza changed from your home recipe?
It drifted from my home recipe in a number of ways for practical reasons. The push, if anything, has been to get it back to that original point. I don't think there's anything I'd say I learned—which is shocking after so many years of this—but now I know more about how to get it back to where it started. A commercial environment is so different, there's a tremendous amount of pressure to cut corners.
You know, earlier this year, Scott Weiner came to visit me and his trip got me thinking about quality changes that we'd made over the years. So I started to make this list and suddenly thought to myself, holy sh*t. This list of minor compromises we made was growing over time. Everyone always thinks I'm so anal, but even I got talked into all these little changes. I listed out every single change I made, no matter how small, and it came to over 50 changes.
Since then, we've really worked hard to address them. I'm not saying we can reverse every single change; some of them, you just can't. In a commercial setting, it's simply not possible to pick herbs from my front garden 10 minutes before each pizza is made. But we definitely took that time to improve quality control and we've been on that kick ever since. The pies are better than ever—the pies that you tried were all right off the line, with no VIP treatment.
But, surprisingly, I really don't think there's tons that I learned to improve the actual product, other than how to make pizza commercially that matched the pizza I made at home.
What's an example of a commercial problem that doesn't pop up at home?
Let's say that my normal process calls for taking dough out of the fridge 4 hours before it's used. Well, the new airport location opens at 7:30am. That's a definitely a timing problem we had to figure out.
You were the first I know of to hack your home oven to burn at ridiculous, possibly even unsafe temperatures, and now you've got an oven I don't see often. Are you good talking about it?
Yeah, it's just being released in the States right now. I use a PizzaMaster, which I think a lot of people have figured out. It's a great oven!
I'm a little surprised that more people haven't started using it. It's funny, just this morning I was at the airport and a guy came up and said he read my website and because of it he built a brick oven in his back yard. And I'm like, "Did I say anything about building a brick oven in your back yard?" No! But I get that a ton. Honestly, I'm not a fan of small brick ovens; they look good, but they don't bake all that well.
I think this oven is the best oven there is. Period. And this newer model is even better. I can definitely tell the difference. Whatever tweaks they've made to it over the last four years have definitely been the right ones.
Okay. What's one thing that it does better than others?
Without a doubt, it provides a more even balance on the pie. Top, bottom, front or back. And the new one's even better than the old one.
I haven't had a pizza like yours from anyone else. It's got this distinctive tang, but it's so much more delicate than you'd expect from a sourdough. What's something you've figured out with dough that you think most people don't have a handle on?
I think for most doughs there's a trade-off between flavor and texture. Everyone gets caught up with sogginess, but that's really dictated by the heat that you use. Neapolitan pies are obviously going to be softer and wetter than other pies. I have to apologize to some people that it's not wet enough and that it's not really Neapolitan, and I have to apologize to others who think it's soggy, and I'm sort of over that. I actually have less of that with the smaller pies at the airport, so that's great.
There's a trade-off between getting the most flavor you can get out of a crust while still keeping it light. The longer you age a sourdough culture, the more flavor you're going to have but the worst the texture gets. It just degrades. Finding a way to have both is the big difference.
You mean you have to find the exact middle point in the fermentation process?
No, I'm saying there's a trick to get both. I'm not gonna say what it is, but it's out there. We don't sacrifice. We get a full-flavored crust with a good texture.
You've been open for four years now, so your hindsight is going to be better than 20/20. What would you have done differently with your restaurant? And what are the biggest lessons you've learned?
It's not one thing. Obviously everyone's gonna say location, location, location. And there's no question—that was a our biggest mistake.
Also, it's the concept and not the food. If you're a home cook, you may not really understand what that means. And I'll be honest, I'm four and a half years into this and I still struggle with why this is. Why is it that the concept—the combination of the decor, the music, the overall vibe, the uniforms, and the lights, the design and typeface of the menu—all more important than the food? But it is.
I've had bizarre conversations with people about this. I had a marketing guy who used to help me a little bit, and he told me, "People might try your place because they think they might like the food, but they're not going to come back just because they like the food. They come back for the service." And that makes no sense to me whatsoever. So I go to a restaurant and I don't like the food but I like the service and you think I'm going to go back there? He says, "Yeah, of course, you should know that." I honestly don't get it, but I've also polled a lot of people in little focus groups, and here in Atlanta that's the absolute truth. I've had people tell me that exact same thing. "I wouldn't go to a place just because I like the food...I go to tons of places where I don't like the food." Why do they go? They like the service. It doesn't make any sense.
It's super depressing, but it's common here. And I don't want to make it seem like I'm making an excuse in some way. I'm just trying to learn what people want.
Come back on Thursday to hear what Varasano thinks caused the Neapolitan boom, his advice to those who want to open their own pizzeria, and why there's so many engineers kicking out amazing pies.
About the author: Lance Roberts is a writer in Los Angeles.