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Jeff Varasano on Baking, Branding, and the Business of Pizza (Part 2)

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Jeff Varasano at his pizzeria in Atlanta. [Photograph: Lance Roberts]

Last time, internet pizza legend (and creator of the most famous pizza recipe in the world) Jeff Varasano talked about the challenges of opening a pizzeria and why he's stayed out of the spotlight the last few years. Today, he goes in depth on the power of a brand like Chic-Fil-A, the challenge of finding great employees, and why having great pizza doesn't always matter. Oh, and he's got some pretty frank (and entertaining) opinions about pizza nerds and self-professed foodies.

Bonus: I get a little bit more out of him about his new concept and why he thinks it could revolutionize pizza.

Why do you think airport food has been so sh*tty for so long?

I think the whole concept of a concession is that there's a captive audience. Where are they gonna go, so why put in the effort?

But over time, things get upgraded. You see it with a lot of premium brands. You know, everyone wants to be the Starbucks of pizza or the Chipotle of pizza. It sounds trite, but there's something to that. The interesting thing about Starbucks is that it wasn't just about the coffee. There were a lot of people in the country who made better coffee but the concept was put together so well—how the stores were designed, how they did their logo, the message they put forward about who they were—it's a lifestyle brand. Like, "I'm the kind of person who goes to Starbucks." You can get into almost maddening minutia when you start thinking about this, but ultimately, the coffee and the brand are two totally different things.

For instance, Brett and I made this list about pubs. What is a pub, what is a brewpub, a bar, a dive bar, a microbrewery, a tavern, a gastropub, a club, a lounge, a mega lounge, an ultra lounge, a fast food restaurant, a fancy restaurant...and there were something like forty variations of places you can go to get a drink and some food. Family-style, a chain, quick serve, full serve...it's crazy. But people instinctively have a feeling—it's not like they can articulate it—in that one second they're standing at the airport and see those brand names at the top, everything about that is condensed into that half a second where they're making that decision. It's all right there, it just comes out in a second. And everything is encapsulated in a brand when you're in that sort of environment. Chif-Fil-A, Qdoba, or whatever.

People come off the escalator and look up at the brands and they don't know our name because we're obviously not a household name. 95% of people are not going to come over to say, "What kind of pizza do you have?" or get close enough to look at the pictures we have up. They just glance at us and if they're in the mood for a pizza, they come closer. But most people go for a brand they know. So it's fascinating watching people think and seeing how they perceive these restaurants. There are few airport restaurants that are famous in Atlanta, but not known by travelers: "[James Beard-award winning] Ecco...or White Castle? White Castle!"

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The famous crust with a dash of salami and olives. [Photograph: Lance Roberts]

You almost have to think about your two locations as you would about a Starbucks if you want to be a success.

You do. If you put up a Starbucks a few doors down from a no-name coffee house with better coffee, who do you think would do better?

Starbucks would murder.

It wouldn't even be close, they'd kill 'em 5 to one. The brand name is the shortcut. "I don't know if I like Brand X, but I know I like Starbucks." It's not even a question, it's all about recognition. Now, how do you get to be that point? That's the question. How do you solve whatever problems Starbucks has solved. That's why we're retrenching. We knew we made mistakes in that area and that there were solutions out there for it.

One thing you're very sure about is flavor combinations. How do you balance what the customer wants with what you know tastes good?

We have great red pies and great specialty pies. In the restaurant, people have 5 minutes to read the menu and grasp everything. At the airport, they are looking up at a sign for 1 minute, so they tend to pick the simplest thing. We are selling a lot more "Margherita with Pepperoni" and lot less "Caramelized Onion, Emmenthaler and Capicola." I suspect it's similar at an assembly line pizzeria.

Of course, I would like people to try the specialty pies. I think that's a real strength. Despite the fact that I'm known for all of my work on the crust and the sauce, I think over time I've come to believe that my combinations are unique and some of the best out there. But I'm happy if customers get a red pie, too. Most of these travelers have really never had a great red pie. Someone traveling from Omaha to Miami, connecting through Atlanta, will probably never have the chance to take the subway out to DiFara's. So if they get a Nana's Pizza (my Brooklyn-style pizza, which outsells my Margherita), I'm thrilled.

I was worried that people would go for crazier combinations, and we've added chicken to the menu, which I was initially opposed to, but generally people don't tend to order bad combinations. Every once in a while a guy will get six toppings on a red pie and complain his slice is flopping over, but for the most part, it's lots of pepperoni and sausage and garlic. I train the cashiers and servers to steer people away from odd things and usually they listen. It's not as big of a problem as I thought it would be.

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Fontina and mushroom. [Photograph: David Rams]

The "best pizza" list on your site hasn't been updated for a while.

No. Because I've been stuck working.

What does your top-three look like right now?

I haven't had a compelling reason to change them, which makes sense because they've been in business for a long time. I still love Johnny's, and that's a controversial pick because some people are like, "Why did you send me there?" I still think it's awesome, but not every person who went there agreed. I still love Modern, in New Haven. I do think Luzzo's quality has declined, so I'd say Patsy's third. Louie and Ernie's comes to my mind a lot, too, as does DiFara's, of course. My last trip to New York was this past fall. I had about 8 or 9 pizzas and, honestly, I was supremely disappointed. The flavor profile of these new Neapolitan purists' pizzas is not as good as some of the old-school New York and New Haven places.

Why do you think we had that Neapolitan boom, then? And do you think it will continue? I feel like the bubble burst a couple years ago and there's something else coming.

I think it happened because of the internet. The internet discovered pizzamaking.com, my site, and, of course, Slice. We got enamored with it, pushed it...and it happened. I definitely think Neapolitan got pushed because it was the original. There's something about it being more authentic. And there's something extreme about it that everyone likes, too. Everyone is attracted to it. "Oh, you bake in two minutes? I bake in one minute." "Oh, you bake in one minute? I bake in 45 seconds." "You bake at 900 degrees? I bake at 1000." There was definitely a "boys and their toys" attitude about getting ovens hotter and getting pizza more authentic, more leopard spotting, all that. It wasn't necessarily about just tasting better, it was just getting it more authentic.

First it was, "I'm getting my water from New York," and then it became, "I'm getting my sea salt from some little old lady in Capri who smuggles it in her bra," you know what I mean? It became a way to be competitive. "You're not VPN certified? Oh, I am, I'm authentic." It just became a competitive quest for a lot of things that could be compared online...but at the end of the day, you can't taste over the internet.

If we all rolled up our ovens and had a taste-off, which we can't do because we're so spread out, then the competition might be on a different plane. I can compare ingredients, equipment, temperature, time...all these things that can't be tasted. And those things became the fascination.

Don't get me started on VPN...

I know and you know that if we see a place called VPN-certified or Neapolitan pizza, it doesn't mean there's good pizza. It guarantees there's a foodie inside or some wannabe foodie, and that's sort of it. I don't know if the pizza's going to be awesome.

Honestly, if I see VPN now, I know I'm not going to get a special pie. I know people learn technique, but it feels more like a club where you get a participation certificate to put on the wall.

I saw the same thing on pizzamaking.com. I like it but some of people there are the same ones you'd see on World of Warcraft. They've moved on to become foodies. They're obsessed about certain things; of course, I was too, but I was obsessed about the flavor. I wasn't really obsessed about doing it for the sake of checking the box or being more extreme than the next guy.

When I did ninety-nine percent of this stuff, I wasn't in communication with a single person. I didn't start going online until after I had finished, I was really just doing it for flavor and the food, not to compare RPMs on mixers.

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Jeff Varasano and his food operations manager Willie Medina. [Photograph: Lance Roberts]

You aren't making a ton of pizzas these days, mostly because you're so comfortable with your staff. What do you look for when you're hiring someone?

The bottom line for employees? I'm looking for people who want to grow with the brand. It really is that simple. People want to be part of something that's quality. I want people who really want to do good work and who take pride in what they do. Every one of my managers started off at a base level. My current kitchen manager who's running both of these units, he started off on the line. You're looking for people who want to have a leadership role and can do more.

Someone pointed this out to me. You hire people based on their resume. "Oh, you have skills doing this and that." But you never fire people because they didn't live up to their resume or because they can't do some task they said they'd be able to do before you trained them. You only fire people because of their attitude. Either they're not paying attention, they don't care, they're sloppy, moody, they're on their phone, they're late...that's why you fire people. So you might as well hire for that. Do it based on attitude. Pizza training is not complex. But it's exacting to do it right all the time. And you can teach that.

You're the third straight former IT guy turned pizza savant that I've interviewed. Is it that pizza is kind of a science that process-oriented guys just excel in?

I agree with that. Pizza is very much an experiment in progress. You're always trying something different and you have to know what the things are to try. There are a lot of people who can follow a recipe but could really never change a process, and if you're not process-driven you can't improve...a perfect example is that thing I did with the prep line. I've been asking people for years to reset the line, and nobody wanted to think it through. And then I worked the line for a few days and got to see all of the fixes. It changed everything.

What's been harder? Learning how to make great pizza or learning how to run a business? And would you recommend it to other amateurs with a passion?

People were telling me for years I should open up a pizzeria, long before the website went viral. But I would never, ever, ever, ever have launched a business if the website hadn't gone viral. I had already kind of built the brand and I was getting fan mail from all over the world before I even thought of doing it. If I hadn't had that? If it was just my friends telling me I make great pizza, I would never have opened the business. And I wouldn't recommend that anyone does. I really wouldn't. It's difficult. It's a tough business.

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Ben Kessman, Oscar Trapala, Willie Medina, Saul Robles Soto, and Rosemary McBride at the Peachtree location. [Photograph: Lance Roberts]

So business was exponentially harder?

I would say so. We opened right as the economy was at its worst and we've seen tons of places go out of business around us. I don't know what your experience has been with pizza shops, but I know in general so many restaurants come and go. Do you see a lot of pizzerias disappearing?

In Los Angeles there have only been a couple of note, but nationally there have been some closings I've been surprised by. Actually, there was this one place in LA, Urbano, which had this swanky place downtown. They were definitely one of the better pizzas in the city, and they lasted about a year and a half.

Wow.

There are a bunch of places opening up out here that I can see having trouble, and then there's all the fast-casual openings. Speaking of which...we've talked a little about that before, is that anything you want to touch?

I don't want to talk about fast-casual. I do want to say that once we open our new concept, everyone's going to copy us.

I'm really not happy with all the teasing.

[laughs] Patience...

People come up with a list of things they don't like about a place, and it only takes one or two objections before they're out forever. If you can eliminate all the reasons a person wouldn't want to go to a place, all their objections, and then make the place fun on top of it and add in great food...then you've got something. So we're combining my pizza with fun and all these other elements, and at the end of it, I really think we'll have a place people are going to want to go to all the time.

You know what's frustrating? When I ask people why they go someplace regularly and they can't define it but they use the exact same words. "Why do you go to Chic-Fil-A?" "What do you mean? It's Chic-Fil-A." "Yeah, but why do you go specifically?" "It's Chic-Fil-A." That doesn't mean anything! You go through concept after concept and people say, "Of course you're going to go there, it's Brand X." Okay, that's not really telling me anything. Why does a Cheesecake Factory do five times the sales of a lot of restaurants with great food?

But if you examine it long enough, if you dig down deep enough, there is a reason. And then all of a sudden, you have something.

When it opens I think you'll be like, "I've seen this before, and this before" and you'll be right, but never really all packaged together. And that's the difference between, "I like this but it has this one issue" and being completely packed. A lot of times these things take off because the concept is good, but there's also all these other elements to it. I mean, of course 800 Degrees is packed, it's in a college area. If they had transported it in the same condition to a good, but not great spot, would they have created that buzz?

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The Nucci (Garlic, Olives & Emmenthaler finished with Arugula, Capicola & Herbs). [Photograph: Mia Liquori]

I think there would have been at the start, because everyone wanted to see what Adam Fleischman (of Umami Burger fame) was doing next, but that alone definitely wouldn't have sustained its success.

Or take Shake Shack. If they had opened here in Atlanta, they'd kill. But if they opened without the whole Shake Shack name—everything else the same—Shake Shed instead and Shake Shack... it wouldn't be noticed. The question is, how do you get it to that level where you have widespread brand recognition?

That's funny, the chef at 800 Degrees, Anthony Carron actually partnered up and opened a Roast Beef place Top Round that's basically a slightly more expensive and better version of Arby's, but there's not that much buzz around it. He opened it right around the corner from where the first Umami Burger was and it may be doing okay, but it's not the same thing. At all.

I heard an interview with a guy who wrote a book about why things go viral. He tells the story of some restaurant that opened up and had a big line, but the food was just ok. So why it's packed? There's a restaurant two blocks away that's serving very similar food but it's empty.

Then he gives another example. The SAME OWNERS opened up a place across the street with the same menu and it's empty. Because you can change one stupid little thing and the mojo is gone. It's not the menu, unfortunately.

It is what it is, I guess.

Yes, you have to accept it and get past it, then you can start to really fire on all cylinders. I got to watch this Chic-Fil-A opening because they're right by us at the airport, and it was shocking. You ever have it?

Yeah, I'm not a fan. I don't get it.

I happened to be there all night working on a construction issue, so I got to see their grand opening, which was scheduled for 7 a.m. They had just revealed their sign, so for the first time, passersby knew it was Chick-Fil-A. They opened an hour late, so they put up a rope line to block people from coming. But customers were having none of it. Two of us were standing there behind a closed rope line blocking it off and telling everyone it was closed. But people were like zombies. They ignored us, crawling over and around the line to get a chicken biscuit for breakfast. We had to add two more blockers. That is the degree to which people wanted to go to Chic-Fil-A.

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Another look at a serious Salumi pizza. [Photograph: Broderick Smylie]

You must have asked like 500 people what they liked about Chic-Fil-A, did you ever get a real answer?

Here's how it goes:

Customer: There's no Chic-Fil-A where I live in Michigan so when I come here I have to pack it in.
Jeff: Okay, but what do you like about it?
Customer: I don't know, it's just Chic-Fil-A.
Jeff: Is it the best chicken sandwich you ever had?
Customer: No, but there's none near my house.
Jeff: Do you like it?
Customer: It's okay.

I'm not exaggerating, it's infuriating. Nobody ever gives specifics.

Sooooo depressing.

Yeah, but on one hand you have that, and on the other hand you have the foodies who are equally infuriating. They can be so judgmental and pretentious.

I want to get to the place where people are like, "Oh, it's Varasano's, I want to go there." And there is a pathway to getting there, and that's what I'm on the hunt for. As long as I can keep the pizza quality high, I'd like to make Varasano's as ubiquitous as possible. Everything about the airport made me super confident that we can make great pies en masse.

The one question I ask everybody is what they think the most important part of the pizza process is, the one aspect that has to be perfect if they want good pizza. And I'm sure you're going to say dough, so what's the most important element of dough for you?

I've said this before and people lose their minds when I do, but I think flour is the least important of all the ingredients. I can use use several supermarket brands and make it taste exactly like my pizza now. I could get White Lilly or Gold Medal, and it would be very close. Same with Caputo and all that stuff, I just don't think it's important. Or, more accurately, I think many of these flours are pretty good, as long as you stay away from the ones with additives. What's important is the timing. How long does it mix and how long are you waiting? How's it look, how's the temperature, did you move it in and out in time, is it keeping it's moisture, was it balled properly? Almost anything can screw it up. The other day we had to have some newbies ball the dough and even though everything else was done right, two days later it was a disaster.

But the most important thing is your timing. It's staging, your rest, and your temperature. You have to know what temperature the dough should be at and when it's going to be manipulated and when it's going to rest. After you ball it, do you let it sit out on the counter for two hours, then put it in the fridge, then let it rise for four hours when it comes out? Or do you let it sit out for six hours before it goes into fridge and when it comes out it only needs an hour to rise? These kind of decisions, in the end, are what really affect the quality of the dough.

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A fitting end. [Photograph: Sharon Nord]

You were the Rubik's Cube world record holder at age 14, but one of the most impressive things I've ever seen in my life was seeing you match a clean cube to one that was randomly mixed up. In mere seconds. Do you have to practice and keep your game up or is it like riding a bike?

I don't have to keep my game up because I've been doing it for so long. The first time someone suggested I try it, I think I did it in five or six minutes, but now I'm down to a minute-fifteen, minute-thirty. A layoff may affect the time but it doesn't affect my understanding of the whole thing. It's like second nature at this point.

About the author: Lance Roberts is a writer in Los Angeles.

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