Saturday, March 21, 2009

Have Pizza, Will Travel: The Big Green Pizza Truck

The Big Green Pizza Truck

Imagine not having to go out for pizza. I don't mean just having pizza delivered, I mean having entire pizzeria come to your door.

I kept hearing stories, about the big green pizza truck, a mobile pizzeria, with a full on, wood fired pizza oven, in the back. I knew I had to track down the truck. I finally found Douglas Coffin, the owner and operator.

He not only agreed to do the interview but he was very forthcoming about the Pizza Business and his pizza truck.

The interview follows:

Albert: Hi Douglas. How did you get started with the pizza truck: What came first the pizza or the truck? What is your pizza background and how did
you get interested in pizza? Because I feel, to make you pizza, you need to have a passion for it.

Douglas: I am sorry to disappoint the pizza fanatics - I am not a pizza
nut. I am a caterer and the truck grew out of my catering background, not a
passion for pizza.

For many years I have felt that the best food is that which is freshly prepared and eaten right away. In my catering I frequently found the major effort was in creating a kitchen where none existed; once you had everything in place that you needed, the cooking was easy.

I have always loved making bread as part of my catering and at one point became fascinated by wood burning ovens. At one event I built a bread oven in someone's driveway and baked bread there for the event. The crowd loved it.

In response to that reaction I began to create a portable wood fired bread oven. The plan was that I would do bread for other caterers large events. I would build the oven, bake of some bread to serve with cheese as appetizers, and when the guests arrived, have a fire going in the oven, bread rising , and then right in front of them, bake off a loaf for each table
for the main meal.

Because I am cheap, I bought an old pickup (1942 GMC 1/2 ton), to pull the oven with. I thought it had real style.

The bread idea was not a success, but two things happened which turned me towards pizza. One, a neighbor kept insisting that I do a pizza party for
her. I did and it was a lot of fun. Then, another chef I was working with overheard me talking to a client turning down yet another request for a pizza party.

My line at the time was the oven was poorly suited for pizza and I was more skilled in breads than pizza. The chef told me that when he was in school the instructors had said "if you want to see your name in pretty magazines, open a fancy restaurant; if you want to make money open a pizzeria" His advice was to get rid of bread and get into pizza as quick
as I could.

The more I thought about it the more sense it made for catering. With
pizza you could make any variety of pizzas to accommodate practically any
diet or preference.

Pizza was an easy item to sell - easily understood and loved by practically everyone. Making it in a wood fired oven had a real visual and romantic appeal. It also was something that you could make only as much as you needed for that particular event, pack up all the extra toppings and dough and use them for the next event.

In fact you could do most of your prep for the whole weekend on Thursday and Friday
and then just go party to party turning it out. Everything would be
fresh, you could make as much as people wanted, but there would not be a ton of

Finally for the hostess it was easy - no hassle figuring out the menu, no need to be really accurate in a count - we have a package for 50 people and under, and then go up in 25 person increments after that.

Since we are never certain how much any one person will eat, I feel no need to worry about whether we have 40 or 50 people - the amount of ingredients used is minimal compared to the amount of work setting up the whole rig.

Finally, if we could make it so we had everything we needed on the truck, we would be able to just go from gig to gig, eliminating all the packing and unpacking that you have when you go from different catering gigs - one day a lobster bake for 200, the next a cold salad buffet for 50.

The truck had been such a strong visual component of the previous operation that it seemed like a natural to think of the whole thing as built on the back of a different, somewhat larger truck from the same era.

My wife was suspicious. She thought it was all an excuse to buy another truck.

I was extremely fortunate in that a friend suggested a gentleman by the
name of Kevin Spooner to start as our first pizza maker. He had
had a pizza place of his own "Spooner's Pizza" which he had sold a few
years back, but not before he had won a CT Magazine best pizza award.

He is passionate about pizza and loved the idea of getting back into
it on a part time basis. He only question was weather I was serious
about pizza. I assured him I was and he joined on.

The rig is wonderful and it's a great way to do a party but we would never have been as successful if we didn't have a pizza guy who cared as much about making great pies.

Since that first year we have added another pizza guy, Christian Chippo, who has worked both at Bar and Pepe's, (both located in New Haven, Connecticut) and shares Kevin's devotion to pizza.

I began to get some idea of how much of a minefield I was stepping into
making pizza in New Haven, when I invited the mother of another of my
chefs over to sample some of the pizza we were making.

She asked me how I was making my sauce, I told her and she said that won't do. She
asked what I was using for toppings, I told her and she said : "don't you
think you should add some yellow peppers for sweetness.

I said, why don't you just come and try the pie since we would need to make a fair number to get a feel for the oven and we didn't want to just throw them out.
She said, yes but she would have to tell me what she thought. I assured her
that she didn't need to do that - she could just come and have a good
time but that in any case she was welcome. My god I thought, what am I getting into with this!

I must confess I have little patience for those who insist
pizza can only be made a certain way. For me the things that make pizza great
are, the oven, the dough, the care put into assembling and baking the
pie, and the quality of the ingredients. No one thing makes or breaks the
pie, and conversely if they are not all there, the pie fails.

I remember a quote in a lovely little book, Brother Juniper's Bread Book (by Peter Reinhart)where he quotes someone else saying "revere the reverences of others, not the things they revere". The dedication, the care, the attention to detail the chef brings to all of it is what makes great food, not their sauce recipe or
dough recipe.

I also love the comment in the Joy of Cooking where the cook says " I will gladly give you the recipe by which I make the beaten biscuits only recopies no more make a dish than prayers make a sinner a saint".

Albert: What kinds of things did you have to do to retro-fit the truck? Do you have an actual wood fired pizza stove on the back of the truck? How
long do you have to crank up the fire, before you can put in a pizza?

Douglas: The truck used to be a fire truck. When it was decommissioned one of the fire fighters turned it into a dump body for use in their landscaping business.

When I got it there was a good amount of surface rust but everything was there. We took the thing completely apart and rebuilt everybit of it. I have a picture of it when it was just two frame rails in a garage - no wheels, no engine, no body.

This was a long expensive proposition but the end result was a truck that was just like a brand new one in 1946, except this had a brand new steel bed on it.

I was lucky to have a group of people working with me who liked the
challenge of building a mobile pizzeria. I wanted a wood fired pizza oven
for the romance. I talked to several companies in the US who distribute
pizza ovens; I wanted to make sure that the oven could be carried around
on a truck without damage and that it could be installed safely.

Only one person was interested in the project - that was John Thess at Mugnaini.Everyone else said they would sell me an oven and what I did with it was my problem. John assured me that they take their ovens on trucks all the time without damage and walked me through all the fire safety issues. I
could not be happier with their oven- we all love it!

I knew I wanted a refrigerator on the truck - keeping the excess product
cold and in good enough shape to use on the next job was crucial. I was
fairly sure the health department would require me to have a hand washing
sink, so I put in a sink with hot and cold running water. I use a
commercial dishwasher back at the shop for cleaning up all the topping
containers and food service utensils, but I wanted to be able to have
something functional, not just decorative.

Most of the materials I used for this part came from boat and RV systems. An interesting aspect of the system is that we have a heat exchanger in the hot water heater that can use the engine heat while driving to preheat the water. I can also plug the truck into an outdoor outlet (120v, 15 amps) and run the refrigerator
and water heater overnight so I don't have to empty everything and start from zero the next day.

The Big Green Pizza Truck: Opened up.

If I was to have a refrigerator, it would do me no good if I couldn't run
it while traveling or in places where there was no electrical outlet
handy. This led me to include a generator in my plans. I have a 7,000 watt
one from an RV supplier. It runs beautifully and is very quiet.

Since I would have power, I decided that a cappuccino machine would add elegance
to the operation and would be perhaps a good source of add on sales if I
were to do fairs. I don't do much in fairs and in many cases it is too hot
and people are to full for cappuccinos. Other times - a cool fall day, or
a night when everyone wants Sambucca and espressos, the cappuccino machine
is very busy. Many are pleased to see it even if they end up drinking
other beverages.

I spent quite a bit of time thinking about what to do for dessert. I
wanted to be able to offer something but I didn't have a lot of space in
the fridge for carrying pastries and I was afraid they would get smashed.

I got the idea for ice cream when using a clients Simac Gelato maker. It
was wonderful and I realized I could make the ice cream mix up earlier in
the week, carry it on the truck and just make up as much as people were
interested in. This was a big hit. We did end up doing some fancy metal
work to put the ice cream machines on drawer slides that allow them to be
slid in and out of a slot off the rear of the truck. (rather than put on
the table as shown in the web site.)

Unfortunately, the local ice cream police are not allowing me to make ice cream in this way so we are reconfiguring the system to hold twin serving freezers with the ice cream produced elsewhere.

The idea for the tables came from my older bread oven. I had built that as
a free standing unit on a trailer. The trailer had no sides so I used a
pair of folding tables as sides - I was glad to have work tables to shape
the bread on.

When planning this truck I realized I could make the tables
out of wood and have the truck look like an old wood sided farm truck. I
spent some time developing a proto type of the tables which I then took to
a local wood work worker who told me he could come up with something much
better. I got over my bruised ego quite readily when I saw his ingenious

All of this was talked over with friends and professionals and realized
through the work of a number of skilled crafts people. I attribute the
success of the final product to the fact that for once I did not try to do
most of the work myself but spent the money to hire the talent to do the
job well.

I would also say to anyone who has a similar idea outside of the
mainstream to discuss it with as many people as you can. Most won't give
you the time of day but if you push on you will encounter people who are
intrigued by different approaches and are eager to help someone try to get
an idea of the ground.

My experience also points up another truism of small business. Most fail because of undercapitalization. Especially if you are doing something you haven't done several times before, make sure you have at least three or four times the amount of money you need to see
the project through. Otherwise, when things go wrong, you make mistakes or
you discover things you didn't expect to find, you won't have to give up
on the project and waste all the money you have already put in.

End Part 1

Keep on Truckin', Pizza Truckin,

albert grande

Make Pizza Be Happy

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