PizzaHacker: The Art Of Engineering a Pizza
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Pictured above: PizzaHacker owner and entrepreneur Jeff Krupman sets up shop on the street in San Francisco
While in Italy, Jeff Krupman stopped at the pizzeria shown in the movie Eat Pray Love: L’Antica da Michele. “It changed my perspective on pizza,” Jeff said. “It brought you to your knees.” All they did — and still do — was three pizzas: the Marinara, the Margherita, and the Bianca. “It was so good, so simple,” Jeff said. “This place didn’t have anything going on except for these pizzas. They’ve been doing it for 100 years.” Jeff found out that the secret at L’Antica da Michele was the high temperature of the ovens.
Now the owner of a pizzeria himself, Jeff has used a lifetime of pizza-eating experience to engineer the best pizza he can make.
“Pizza was my favorite food growing up. And bagels,” Jeff said. “I was a big carb-loader now that I look back at my childhood.” His earliest memory of food was the pepperoni pizza from Rubino’s, the highly-rated old-school pizzeria in Columbus he would visit as many as three times a week. When Jeff moved to San Francisco after college to pursue the software and start-up scenes, he decided to supplement the city’s subpar pizza and bagel scene with creations from his own kitchen.
In 2009, Jeff was in between start-ups in San Francisco, and with a bit more time on his hands, he got “heavy into the pizza-making.” The oven in the Mission apartment where he was living at the time was frustratingly modern — too many safety controls to allow him to crank up the oven as hot as it needed to be to cook a pizza the L’Antica da Michele way.
Jeff took the matter into his own hands and took up the study of oven-making. He came across the concept of a “rocket oven,” an outdoor, fuel-efficient, wood-burning contraption. Jeff decided to adapt it for pizza. The “Franken-Weber” was born. “I allowed my hobby to get a little out of control,” Jeff said.
Once the Franken-Weber had come to life, Jeff did “what everyone did” in the Bay Area and created the @pizzahacker Twitter handle. “It caught some tech blogs’ attention. I was wedded to the name at that point,” Jeff said.
At first, building the Franken-Weber was Jeff “procrastinating, rather than working on a business plan” for his next start up. “But timing-wise it came together,” Jeff said. The street food movement was gaining momentum in San Francisco, and one of his neighbors was “a marketing guy.” Jeff’s neighbor prodded him to take his Franken-Weber to the streets and join the street food movement.
“My intention was always to learn the burrito game in San Francisco and bring it back east,” Jeff said. As much as Jeff wanted to pursue this idea for culinary cross-pollination, once he was settled into the Bay Area start up scene, there was no way he was going to leave. Instead of bringing burritos back east, Jeff stayed out west and introduced the pizza and bagels that he felt were missing to the city he had fallen in love with.
PizzaHacker started out as a mobile pizza operation – not a food truck, but a pizza tailgate set-up. Jeff still does catering for events on occasion, such as an annual Fourth of July party in Bolinas for a high-profile family whose name he could not disclose or a Democratic National Convention fundraiser hosted by the CEO of DropBox that Obama attended. As Obama was arriving, Jeff and his catering crew were on their way out and got to shake the president’s hand. Jeff is not sure whether Obama tried his pizza. He unfortunately may have pre-eaten on the plane.
Although he started out mobile, Jeff’s main business these days is the brick and mortar PizzaHacker location he opened in Bernal Heights in 2013. He is also in the process of opening a second restaurant in Marin County which will be called “The Junction” – a joint venture with a beer garden to serve revelers his pizza.
Jeff admits there was one good pizza place in San Francisco when he opened up shop: Pizzeria Delfina. “I was trying to do something different and better than what was state of the art in San Francisco – Delfina,” he said.
Jeff had tried the pizza at a Portland, Oregon pizzeria called Apizza Scholls. “That pizza tasted like Tartine bread,” Jeff said. His taste buds were correct. The owner of Pizzeria Portland had worked with Chad Robertson, the pastry chef who invented “the Tartine way” – a bread-making technique to achieve maximum gluten elasticity and dough hydration using only water, flour, starter, and salt. Tartine Bakery in San Francisco was in the process of compiling a recipe book. Jeff, hoping to reverse engineer the bread, became a recipe tester and got early access to the recipe.
With the recipe in hand, Jeff worked on making a version of Tartine dough – a less sour version of traditional sourdough that is still packed with flavor and character. The dough was Jeff’s way to differentiate PizzaHacker and elevate the Bay Area “pizza game.”
That and his tomato sauce. Jeff buys dry-farmed “early girl tomatoes” from farmer Andy Griffin of Mariquita Farms, sauces, and cans them during summertime for year-round use. “Not many people have noticed that,” he said. His mozzarella is made in-house from local curd that he purchases from Roberto Ferrante of the cheese company Fromaggi de Ferrante.
Jeff thought so much about hacking the tomato sauce that he almost abandoned his idea for a pizza business to pursue a tomato sauce enterprise. He considered starting a business where he would treat tomato sauces like wines – bottling sauces from different vintages and different farms, and using different methods of cultivation (i.e. dry-farming). Jeff has so many innovative ideas that some, much to his dismay, have been tabled. (Jeff considered going into the oven business, too. He talked to William Sonoma early on but never found the right partner. Although he is not sure, Jeff wonders whether his design has been monetized, since some of the ovens on the market have an uncanny resemblance to the Franken-Weber.)
The pandemic has allowed Jeff to see some progress on the innovation front. PizzaHacker does not participate in most delivery partner programs. On the whole, Jeff considers them to be “predatory” toward small businesses. He has recently been using Postmates’ delivery service, which allows the restaurant to maintain control and employs a straightforward $8 fee per delivery. Historically though, Jeff has relied more heavily on curbside delivery than delivery.
For years, Jeff has been frustrated by the options for curbside delivery. Years ago, a software engineer approached Jeff with a prototype for a curbside delivery app, but soon afterwards the developer was whisked away by an alluring job offer from Google. The app was discontinued. Jeff arranged to keep the prototype running on a server, but he couldn’t adjust the prices. After five years of inflation, continuing to use the app became untenable.
The pandemic exposed the need for a curbside delivery system. Jeff implored Square to implement a feature. They responded by creating a button that allows customers to call the restaurant when they arrive. Although the feature was a step in the right direction, Jeff said the technology Square built was “archaic.” His beloved old system was a text saying order is ready. Customers would click a link, at which point the restaurant would be notified and an employee would run the order out. “It was simple and fool proof,” Jeff said. Jeff is hopeful that Square’s curbside solution will, through iteration, morph into an app like the one he used to use.
Jeff’s most recent innovation is cladding the customer service counter in the new PizzaHacker location with copper because, unlike on glass or stainless steel where the novel coronavirus can survive for days, on copper the virus dies within hours.
During the pandemic, Jeff applied for and received a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan. The loan allows and in a way requires him to keep more staff on board than he needs. Although he is not profiting off of the extra help, it is allowing him to experiment more. His “WPA project,” as he calls it, is making bagels again. Making bagels in addition to pizza is a lot of work, Jeff realized early on, and bagels are not all that profitable. For these reasons, PizzaHacker is usually just pizza. His customers like bagels though, and with the extra help Jeff is able to provide.
Jeff said he was grateful for the loan he received but thought it was illogical that the existing PizzaHacker could receive financial support but the soon-to-be PizzaHacker could not. “The dark joke I came up with early on is only thing immune to coronavirus is pizza. It’s comforting, baked, and safe as you can be.” If not for the existing PizzaHacker, the new PizzaHacker, which is not yet serving any pizza, could have been in jeopardy.
As the name on the box suggests, pizza from PizzaHacker is the product of evolution. It is the baby of a parent who cannot stop editing its genome. “Any pizza can now be squared,” reads a recent PizzaHacker Instagram post.
Yet, one of the best edits Jeff made was an edit that brought his pizza closer to its roots. For years, when Jeff visited Ohio, he would snoop around Rubino’s and try to figure out what brand of pepperoni his childhood pizzeria was using. He never figured it out. Then, on Instagram one day, he was browsing and saw the signature “cup and char” look of little grease-filled saucers from his childhood. Ezzo’s, he finally discovered.
Although Jeff does not source Ezzo’s, he sources similar pepperoni that are also good at performing their “cup and char” duties. You can find them on “The Ohio:” Tomato Sauce, Pepperoni, Pepperoncini, Provolone, Fresh Mozz, Grana Padano, Oregano.
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