Building a Brick-Oven Dream in Seattle
If you're a serious foodie, you know the name Molly Wizenberg. She's a Seattle-based food writer who is perhaps best known for her blog, Orangette, where she takes a friendly, conversational approach to cooking and exploring food. The Times of London named the site the world's best food blog in 2009. The past couple years have been incredibly, well, fruitful for the Oklahoma City native, who writes a regular column in Bon Appetit, has penned a New York Times bestseller (A Homemade Life: Stories and Recipes from My Kitchen Table), and owns a popular pizzeria in Seattle with her husband, Brandon Pettit. Wizenberg recently spoke with Inc.'s Tamara Schweitzer about the highs and lows of starting a restaurant, the entrepreneurial food scene in Seattle, and working alongside her husband.
What first brought you to Seattle?
I moved here almost eight years ago to go to graduate school at the University of Washington. I was studying cultural anthropology and my focus was actually on the French social security system.
But you ended up pursuing a career as a food writer. What was it like switching gears and starting a restaurant?
I never wanted to open a restaurant - it was really my husband's dream. I just sort of helped him midwife it. He's been working in restaurants since he was 15. He's worked both front-of-the-house and back-of-the-house. And for the first two-and-a-half or three years that he was here in Seattle, he worked at a local restaurant called Boat Street Café.
What has it been like working with your husband?
From the very beginning it's been his baby, and I never even planned to work there, because writing is my full-time gig. So really in the beginning I was just sort of a support person to him and as we got closer to opening the place, I realized that he really needed someone who shared his vision to be in there with him. He's very much a perfectionist when it comes to food and design as well, so the whole feel of the restaurant and the quality of the food was something that we have felt very particular about. So about two months before, I jumped on board and I worked in the kitchen for the first four months we were open. But, I'm not a restaurant person so it was never a long-term solution.
Right now, the division of labor is he is in there working the kitchen every day (we're only open five days a week). We've never been open without him being there and I don't think we will be for quite some time. I do a lot of the behind-the-scenes stuff that makes a restaurant or a business run smoothly, but that you never really notice. So, I'm making sure that the proper signs are posted for our employees, putting out fires with our employees, I do all the scheduling, I do payroll.
Why a pizza restaurant?
Brandon is originally from northern New Jersey, which is about 20 minutes outside of Manhattan, so he grew up having access to really great pizza. When I met him, he was living on the Upper West Side and going to Brooklyn College and eating a lot of pizza out there. He was pretty obsessed with pizza when he was living in New York, and really he'd been very interested in pizza since he was a kid. He used to put flyers on windshields advertising the local pizza joint where he lived in exchange for getting to sit around and talk to the owners about their pizza and taste their sauces.
When he moved to Seattle there wasn't any pizza here like what he had access to in New York. There's a lot of Neapolitan-style pizza style here now – a huge amount of the pizza places in the city do that style – but there were really only two places that advertised themselves as doing New York-style pies and neither were what Brandon wanted or was familiar with in terms of quality. He had been playing around with making his own pizza for a long time and he finally started doing it. Pizza was always the point, and he wanted to open a restaurant where he could serve the kind of pizza that he wanted to eat.
Ballard, the neighborhood in Northwest Seattle where Delancey is located, could be considered an unconventional choice for opening a new restaurant.
When I first moved here eight years ago, people talked about Ballard like it was the middle of nowhere. I lived in Seattle for six full months before I ever came to Ballard, but when I did, I really liked it. Brandon and I moved to Ballard in June 2006. It's a neighborhood that's part industrial and very residential. It's on the water so there's a lot of the fishing and boating industry and ship repair in the area. But it's also an old Scandinavian neighborhood. So people used to talk about it just being filled with old Scandinavian people.
These days, it's increasingly made up of young families. There are a lot of bungalows; there's a really cute street called Ballard Avenue, where there's a lot of boutique-y shops, and that's where the farmers market is year round. We looked at spaces pretty much all over the city for the restaurant. We had pretty specific criteria in that we needed it to be a single story building otherwise the ventilation for the chimney for the pizza oven would have been too expensive. We had a couple of spaces that Brandon was pretty serious about. Ultimately, we found the space that we are in, which is a mile from our apartment, because a friend of ours lived half a block from there and when he was going to visit our friend, he noticed the For Lease sign outside of the building.
The part of Ballard that we're in is very residential, but there is this one block of single-story commercial buildings and that's where we are located. It's been really wonderful. There's this old dive bar across the street. Next to us on one side is an umbrella shop owned by a woman who designs her own umbrellas and carries beautiful designer umbrellas. On the other side is a young baker, and diagonally across the street is a young woman who owns a little café that's doing entirely local food. So it's been a great neighborhood because we're all sort of young business owners and we can help each other out, and sometimes we will receive deliveries for each other, or if we need a dozen eggs, we can run across the street and get them.
Really everything that brought us here to live here is what made us want to open a business here. It's very much its own community; people in Seattle really like to support the independent businesses. We've really loved getting to know the neighborhood through the process of building out the restaurant and now getting to cook dinner for all those people. One thing that was amazing to me was the generosity of the people here. We were just about to open and were over at the restaurant late one night, and this guy sticks his head in the door and it was the owner of the other wood fired pizzeria in Ballard, and he was bringing us a bottle of wine. We all tend to feel that the more small businesses the better, so we all want to support each other even when we're in the same line of work.
Is there a lot of competition when it comes to pizza in Seattle?
Among the pizza places that people talk about in the same sentence as ours, there's a place called Serious Pie, which is owned by Tom Douglas and he has a restaurant empire that includes five other Seattle restaurants. Their style is different; the dough has a very pronounced olive oil flavor. In terms of the Neapolitan places, there's Veraci, which is very popular in Ballard. They have a mobile pizza oven that they take around to farmer's markets. But in general, we have been really lucky that's we haven't had to do a lot of work to differentiate ourselves. Our product is very different from what everybody else is doing here. It's more a Brooklyn style pie (as opposed to a New York style pie), and it's really influenced by Di Fara's, with the thin crust, but it's not cracker-y.
While the concept for Delancey is very New York-centric, how have you aligned your cooking practices with the Seattle culinary scene?
We buy as much of our ingredients as we can from local farmers. A lot of the farmers at the farmer's market distribute through one of the produce vendors we use. So we are able to get big cases of all the stuff we buy at the farmer's market directly through one of our produce vendors. We make our own sauce using a brand of tomatoes from California called Alta Cucina. We have very few things that we use in the restaurant that are not domestically produced. It's been really important to us where possible use domestic, and even better west coast products. So our mozzarella comes from Los Angeles, we get it Fed-Exed in twice a week. And our olive oil comes from California, and our flour is from Washington State.
That's something that's really important to people in Seattle. The people here are in general very well educated and very informed and pretty liberal in their feelings about environmentalism and sustainability. So it's really important to us and also really important to our community that we choose not only food that's delicious, but food that we can feel really confident serving because it comes from farms that are doing things the right way.
How did you finance the whole operation?
We did it on a major budget and we pulled money from a number of different sources. We had a small loan to cover the cost of the oven, which was about $12,000. We had a $15,000 line of credit through our bank, we borrowed small amounts of money from our parents, and I put in a chunk of money that I had in savings, and basically that was it. It limited our options quite a bit in what we could do. It was difficult; we had very little spending money ourselves. But it was totally worth it. We paid back the majority of our loans in three months and I think we paid everything off in six months, so it's doing well now.
I think we were very lucky in that we did it on such a budget, and our designers who designed both the dining room and whole kitchen area worked for free. We also had a plumber work with us on a trade (He worked in return for pizza!). My former boss taught us how to install tile, so we tiled a lot of the pizza oven ourselves. We had probably tens of thousands of dollars of free labor from good-hearted people.
What has been the most challenging part of owning a restaurant?
The most challenging part is probably employee turnover. I think when you start any business you probably make a lot of mistakes in hiring, and we certainly learned the hard way that it's really important to call people's references. We have been open for just shy of a year and we only have one employee with us who we've had the whole time, so that is really hard.
What's been the most rewarding part?
I would say there's a lot of great things about it, but probably getting to serve people food that we love to eat ourselves. Also, getting to run this business our own way, and getting to know regular customers. That is really wonderful. There is no greater compliment than seeing a regular walk in the door, that's an amazing feeling, and to me, that's what it's all about.