Portland pizzeria becomes rock star of the Northwest
What happens when a couple of metal heads decide to open a pizzeria in a suspect neighborhood once known for heroin and prostitutes?
Sizzle Pie happens.
A major revitalization of a downtrodden area happens. Four stores closing in on $8 million in sales in 2015 happen. Two new locations — one up the road in Seattle, another planned soon for Brooklyn (yep, as in New York) — happen.
An Independent Pizzeria of the Year award happens.
There’s so much happening with Sizzle Pie, in fact, that one barely knows where to begin. But when you’re taking an inside look at the 2016 Independent of the Year, you have to start at the beginning, because it’s just so darn interesting.
Founders Mikey McKennedy and Matt Jacobson were like-minded souls with a taste for heavy metal music, nightlife, food and drink. They loved pizza as much as the next guy and figured they’d try their hands at it. And with their early ideas, what could go wrong?
“We didn’t have the exact idea of what we wanted to do, so we were probably being a little extreme in the beginning,” confides Jacobson. “I don’t know if I should even say this, but our very first plan was to be nachos, waffles and pizza! I think it was kind of like we were thinking, ‘What would be the perfect thing for the typical stoner?’ But it has panned out. We’re really happy with the focus that we ended up with here.”
They quickly nixed the waffles and nachos and dialed in to something a little more traditional. And then they did what any successful business owner is forced to do — they rolled with the punches and adapted.
“We also had the idea of doing grinders and East Coast-style sandwiches and so on, but once we finally got enough money to pay for the oven, which was the last thing, we were like ‘Okay, we have salads and pizza. Let’s just open and we can add the other stuff later,’ ”Jacobson says. “Well, it turned out that we got really busy, which is a good problem to have. We got so busy really quickly and ultimately haven’t added other stuff because we were too busy to keep up with just salads and pizza.”
Though not the original intent, the super-streamlined pizza and salad approach has contributed to efficient operations and, ultimately, higher profits.
“We were so broke and so tired by the time we opened that we decided to not try to overdo it,” explains McKennedy. “It was very organic. We did write a business plan, which is pretty funny to look at now.”
Once they honed in their focus, things literally fell into place. They were wildly busy from the start.
“We wanted to do by-the-slice in particular. There are some slice shops here, but not that many,” Jacobson says. “Most of the better pizza shops here are sit-down and kind of that bigger commitment, but we really loved that vibe of doing slices.”
Adds McKennedy: “The landscape in Portland has always been really competitive. There were and are some really great pizza spots that we’re huge fans of, but we definitely felt like there was room for another pizza joint. And some of the things that we liked about what ended up being Sizzle Pie, some of our ideas, were that we didn’t see enough late-night action going on.”
At this point, it seems pretty necessary to interject one little fact: both Jacobson and McKennedy were pretty successful entrepreneurs before Sizzle Pie opened. In 1990, Jacobson launched an independent record label when he was still a teenager. That label — Relapse Records — is still going strong to this day and is a haven for metal musicians.
McKennedy, meanwhile, owned a popular bar and was making waves early on by offering vegan foods. He had the foresight to project growth within the vegan industry, and he knew that if he could somehow get non-vegans to enjoy vegan fare that he’d steal the show.
To be clear, Sizzle Pie is not a vegan concept. It sells as many pepperoni pizzas — more, actually — than the average pizzeria. But it’s got a vegan menu lineup that turns heads as well.
“I owned a bar downtown, and Matt and I were a much bigger part of the nightlife back then,” McKennedy says. “We did a lot of vegan food out of there and I knew that you could have a sustainable business selling vegan food. So I just kind of wanted to do late-night pizza. We were huge fans of the East Coast traditions, so that’s what we wanted to do.”
So the plan evolved a little further: offer traditional East-Coast slices along with vegan fare. Be open late to capture a market segment no one else was really going after. Go the extra mile to keep quality high (“We’re really proud of our salad dressings — they’re vegan and done in house,” says McKennedy). And put together a beer lineup that enthusiasts will approve.
“That was the other big component,” Jacobson says. “I was super excited when we first opened that we had 35 beers to choose from. That was a flag I wanted to fly. Mikey said, ‘I want to make vegan food that meat-eaters love.’ I said, ‘I want a rad beer list.’ So taking those things along with being able to be open late, that’s really what we wanted to achieve.”
There was a little matter of location, though. Operating on a modest budget meant crossing a bridge over to East Burnside, a crime-ridden neighborhood that was anything but desirable.
“We love this neighborhood, but the changes were massive,” says Jacobson. “This was a really bad neighborhood not that long ago.”
That’s quite the understatement, adds McKennedy: “The area used to be called ‘Heroin Alley.’ It was such a gnarly neighborhood.”
In fact, says Jacobson, “Burnside used to be a two-way street with a 40 mile-per-hour speed limit. The streetcar was not here yet. It was dangerous to cross the street. There were no cross walks. This part of town has really gone through a transformation. But we could feel it coming.”
That intuition paid off. Realizing the trend in cities like New York and Charlotte and Chicago in recent years had been artist-driven — the musicians and sculptors and painters and poets picked up apartments in cheap areas and worked to bring a vibe worthy of revitalization — the duo took a gamble.
“It’s been nice to be a part of it and see what the area has become and is still becoming,” Jacobson says.
While identifying an area with up-and-coming potential and jumping on it early turned out to be a very good idea, perhaps the wisest move McKennedy and Jacobson made centered on the marketing plan. Staying true to their roots, they decided take a visual approach inspired by their love of music.
“In the very early days we were like, ‘Let’s market this like a rock band,’” Jacobson says.
And they’ve done just that. Sizzle Pie tour posters, t-shirts and other materials look not like restaurant advertising, but like show announcements. And it’s all done with artwork that would make Iron Maiden’s promotional team proud.
“People have asked us how we’ve created the Sizzle Pie aesthetic,” says McKennedy. “But a lot of it is just the culmination of stuff that we’ve always been doing. Over time we’ve just refined it and the art ties and music ties play in well, obviously. It wasn’t like we sat down and had a list of thing we were going to do (to create a culture). It just came intuitively.”
Sizzle Pie has brought numerous artists in over the years to contribute. From murals to logos to a unique pizza box series, it’s always innovative and fresh.
“And that just made me realize that the more people we brought in to contribute, the better it was for the business,” McKennedy says. “No other restaurant our size really has an art department who just does graphics. We’re really proud of that. But early on it was just a few of us huddled around a computer. It’s grown organically like everything else.”
Sizzle Pie’s slogan, “Death to False Pizza,” caught on big-time and adorns t-shirts and murals alike.
“We get a lot of play off of that,” Jacobson says. “It has a ring to it.”
Still, there’s something else that rings true: good marketing will get a customer in the door once. It’s the food and service that will determine whether they come back. At Sizzle Pie, they return in droves.
“We played around with the recipes a lot,” says McKennedy. “There was a lot of trial and error, a lot of experimentation. Like we said earlier, it was important to me that we could offer some vegan food that meat-lovers would want to eat.
“Sometimes people eat one of our vegan pizzas and don’t know it’s vegan. They order the slice because it looks good. When they find out it’s vegan, they can’t believe it and can’t believe they like it!”
Display cases in the front of the house highlight each day’s slice offerings. There isn’t a set lineup for the Sizzle Pie stores to adhere to. Instead, location managers select the pizzas they want to serve on a daily basis.
“That keeps it interesting and allows for different pizzas at each store,” says McKennedy.
The menu offers meat pies, seasonal pies and vegan pies. The “South of Heaven,” for example, features pepperoni, fresh jalapenos and fresh mushrooms. The “Spiral Tap”, by contrast, is a vegan pizza topped with creamy caramelized onion spread, red sauce and a light dusting of nutritional yeast. It’s one of the pizzas unsuspecting customers often pick up because it looks good, only later finding out they just enjoyed a vegan lunch.
“I had worked in a couple of pizza places early on,” says McKennedy. “But neither Matt nor I had really been in a restaurant making pizza for 20 years. I knew enough to kind of just fall into it, I guess. We had the spirit of what we wanted to do. We just figured out how to do the things we didn’t know how to do, and obviously it worked.
“Matt and I are alike in that we don’t really say, ‘We can’t afford to do that.’ Or ‘We don’t know how to do that.’ We say, ‘How much is that going to cost? What is it going to take? Let’s figure out how to do that.’ So with pizza, my strong suit was in the vegan stuff. We just kind of figured out the rest.”
And now the pair is moving forward with expansion plans. The Seattle store opened in early spring and a New York City location will follow, most likely in 2017. The landlord of the building is currently working through the process to change the zoning of the location from industrial to commercial. That will likely take six months.
Jumping from Portland to NYC? That’s a bold and major move.
“We’re ambitious, we love the East Coast and we have friends out there,” says Jacobson. “There’s a Brooklyn-Portland connection. A lot of people in the creative, design and coffee worlds kind of tend to go back and forth between here and there.
So we just signed our lease for that location. We have a great spot in the Bushwick neighborhood in Brooklyn. We went out there and surveyed the landscape and there’s really no one out there doing what we’re doing. It’s exciting. It will have its challenges for sure, but we’re going into it with our eyes wide open.”
Why Bushwick? Because it’s an up-and-coming area and the Sizzle Pie founders likes its feel and where it’s going.
“It has a certain grittiness to it and we really like its energy,” Jacobson says. “It’s full of artists and it’s the kind of neighborhood we can do well in. It’s a good opportunity for us to test ourselves.”
Jeremy White is editor-in-chief of Pizza Today.