Early 2010: With former ironworker Ethan Welt at the helm, Pizza Depokos opens in an old garage on the corner of North Greeley and Killingsworth. Featuring a wood-fired oven and excellent pies—including a few rare Greek-themed options—the pizzeria anchors the young North Station food cart pod.
Flash-forward to 2011: Welt decides to cut his ties to Depokos, and longtime Slice reader, pizzaiolo at vegan restaurant Portobello, and certified Pizza Obsessive Will Fain is there to pick up the reins. He spends the next year learning the idiosyncracies of Welt's oven, dialing in his dough recipe, and experiencing firsthand the ins and outs of owning and operating a business singlehandedly.
Now, with winter's grasp upon us, Fain has finally introduced the world to what those who know him say was a long time coming: Handsome Pizza. Offering wood-fired New York–Neapolitan pies, a selection of salads with seasonal vegetables, and Scoop Handmade Ice Cream, Fain's endeavor shines a light of culinary hope on a neighborhood not especially known for quality pizza.
For anyone with thoughts of opening their own pizzeria at some point in the future, be sure to read the interview with Fain below for his insights on the process, as well as his philosophy on pizza itself.
When did the idea for making pizza for a living first pop into your head?
It first showed up around 2009 or 2010 when food carts really started to pick up some buzz, and I saw Pyro Pizza set up in SE Portland with their WFO, and then Wy'east opened. They proved that it's a feasible business.
My initial thought when I was first considering opening a cart was to keep it really, really simple. Do one thing and do it well. With the expectation that there would be a lot of time required to run a business, I was hoping focus on making really high-quality food rather than a lot of menu items. That's not exactly what happened, and in the process of acquiring a business instead of starting my own, I had a customer base that already had certain expectations regarding the menu. So my menu and prep list are longer than I'd like, but the benefit is that I think I was able to keep a good portion of the existing customers.
What adjustments did you have to make going from making pizza at home to making it professionally?
The quantity of food, the pace of the kitchen, and pressure of cooking for paying customers were all markedly greater. I had to learn how to scale up everything, how to prep faster, how to make pizzas faster. There's an extra level or organization required in a restaurant kitchen. At home it doesn't much matter if you run out of a topping, but at work it means lost sales, disappointed customers, or delayed orders. An off night can mean bad Yelp reviews or bad word-of-mouth. A good night can mean positive press. None of that came into effect when I was doing it at home. At home the only person I needed to please was me.
The other thing is that I would only make pizza at home when I really felt like doing it. The business doesn't give me much of a choice. There are definitely days when it's just a job. I'd rather spend my summer Saturdays at the park with friends than roasting onions or washing dishes.
What were some of the unforeseeable obstacles you've had to deal with in your first year in business?
Everything takes three-times longer than you think it will. I upgraded the interior of the garage a little bit—repainted, reworked my service kitchen space, built some tables. The original plan called for about six weeks. It took closer to four or five months to finish it all.
What have been your greatest challenges in owning and operating a pizzeria?
On a day-to-day basis, the thing I fret most about is the customer service. Because I'm the sole person there, I have to both provide customer service and make the food. If I'm taking an order, I'm not making food, and if I'm making food, I am not fully engaging a customer. So, especially during peak eating times, I find myself occasionally alternately apologizing and thanking people profusely for—in my own little time-warped subjective reality—interminable waits for taking their order or serving their pizza. It may really only be about five minutes that someone's waiting to get their order in, but again, in my anxiety-ridden noggin, that seems to be an eternity and feels unforgivable. My hope is that customers don't notice me quietly panicking while I'm serving them. One day I'll have an employee and hopefully this problem will be solved.
The other customer service thing I struggle with is word choice. How do I answer customer questions in an amiable and clear fashion? It's not always obvious. Sometimes I have little epiphanies about how to refine my language after months of saying something in a roundabout or less appealing way. It seems that even minor changes in syntax, tone, or diction can make a major difference in my ability to make a sale, or make a customer feel welcome or comfortable.
On a grander scale, the greatest challenges are maintaining a healthy work-life balance and making sure I don't get too high when things are good or too low when things are slow or I make mistakes. Keeping a level head will make for better decision-making. My work-life balance isn't quite there yet, but the longer I do this, hopefully the better that will be.
What pizza or pizzas are your customers' favorites?
The Margherita. Tied for second are the Pepperoni and the Sausage y Fromage.
In what ways do you want to differentiate Handsome Pizza from the other great pizzerias in Portland? In what ways do you want to emulate them?
The establishment I'd maybe most like to emulate would be Wy'east. [Owners] Red & Squish make stellar pizza and do it while being possibly the nicest people I've met in the food cart world. They have a loyal following and really just seem to love what they do. I can't say for sure if they have major business ambitions, but as a customer you just don't get the sense that it's about the money at all for them (though it is a business and they are trying to support themselves). Handsome Pizza exists because I want to make pizza. Hopefully I can grow the business, but still keep that perspective.
Has working in food service changed the way you act as a customer?
Absolutely. I hope I've always been a pretty courteous customer, but there are things that drive me a little batty at work that's changed my behavior a little bit. I've noticed people don't read signs or menus very carefully, always clean-up after themselves, or put things back where they found them. So I try to be more aware of those things as a customer.
What does pizza mean to you?
It comprises everything. It's food—it keeps me alive. It's my business, my livelihood. It's memories of my youth, eating a half pepperoni, half plain at Jerry's Subs and Pizza with my brother and my dad, sipping on birch beer. It's my dad reminiscing about eating at Yala's in Lorain, Ohio, about the great New York slice. It represents good times with friends, regional accents and history, ontological debates about what it is and what is good. It is arts and crafts. Its circularity, when it is circular, is inclusive, egalitarian—there's pizza of all types for all people: gold-leafed for millionaires, 20-minute delivery for the 99%, and everything in between. It's the neighborhood hangout and the far-off destination. Pizza is perfectly attainable for virtually everyone, but perfect pizza is scarce, subjective, and ephemeral.
Be sure to check out the slideshow for more Handsome Pizza photos!