A Q&A with Odie O’Connor, owner of Boxcar Pizza, Portland, Oregon
The concept for Boxcar was created in the early summer of 2020. I had temporarily closed my first business, Baby Blue Pizza, due to the pandemic. So with the extra time I had on my hands I began experimenting making vegan Detroit style pizzas. After a lot of trial and error (and a ton of help from Marc of Square Pie Guys) I came up with a dough that I was really proud of. A second generation pizza spot became available so I decided to take the leap and open up Boxcar in August of 2020. The goal has always been to make really good pizza that just happens to be vegan. I never wanted the selling point to be that it was vegan.
Pizza Style & Dough:
Our Detroit style pizzas are a 70-percent hydration sourdough that we par-bake every morning. We use Small’s Family Bread Flour who are located here in the Pacific Northwest. Doing sourdough Detroit style pizza was challenging because the rise is such an important part of the style. I learned that timing the first mix and the feeding of the starter perfectly is vital. We do an overnight autolyse with the leaven and half the flour and water for the batch (most dough savvy people would say this is not a real autolyse). Allowing the dough to autolyse with the leaven in really develops the flavor, dough strength, and gets a head start on the first rise. When I first opened Boxcar we were not par-baking the doughs, but we couldn’t get the consistency that I was looking for. Since deciding to par bake every morning we can assure that we’re getting the dough at the perfect spot in the fermentation process, and we get a much more springy crust because the initial bake isn’t weighted down with ingredients. Par-baking also makes for a lighter, fluffy inside and a very crispy bottom and edges.
Tell us what went into finding/creating your vegan products? What was your R&D process?
When developing the vegan recipes I always consider taste, smell, allergens, and food cost. Our meats are typically made from either vital wheat gluten or textured vegetable protein. Once I decide what the base will be, I begin adding spices and liquids that I think will best represent umami flavors and also bake how I want them to on the pizzas. It really is just research, trial, error and then repeat.
Detroit Style and Vegan, that is unique. How have you been able to find your market in Portland?
The food scene is Portland is incredible. There always seems to be a new pop-up, restaurant, or event happening and Portlanders really show up for our community. It’s definitely risky to open a 100 percent vegan restaurant. Luckily there is a very big vegan community in Portland and we’ve been able to create a returning customer base through friendly customer service, consistency in the pizza, and always looking for ways to improve. We have loyal customers who are vegan and also loyal customers who are omnivores. The selling point has always been this is good pizza, not “you should buy this because it’s vegan”.
What did you learn from your first restaurant that helped you in Boxcar?
I learned a lot from my first pizza business, Baby Blue Pizza. The main points would be: BE CONSISTENT, there are so many good food options out there, one bad experience can turn a customer off for good. HIRE WELL, if you hire someone out of pure necessity and not because you think they would be a great addition to the shop, you will end up firing them 100 percent of the time, and they will add a ton of stress to your life until you do fire them. CREATE A RELATABLE BRAND. Customers want to know there is a human behind the business, the day of the cookie-cutter, cliche social media post is over-show that you are a human. CARE ABOUT YOUR EMPLOYEES. Take time to learn about who your employees are, and recognize that people work so they can live their lives, never the other way around. No one will ever care about your business as much as you do, and that is fine — it’s the way it’s supposed to be.