Pizza Today’s Most Notable Pizzeria

Just before opening time, the Pitfire Pizza crew is seen finalizing the preparations before opening hour by washing the windows and manning the oven. Generating almost $25 million in sales, the Pizza Today’s 2013 Independent Pizzeria of the Year recipient has stamped its mark in the city of L.A. and to the pizza industry.

Wanting to start out a new business, owner Paul Hibler and business partner David Sanfield had been bombarded with ideas of conceptualizing a fast-food type of service with a high-quality food in pizza which serves as the inspiration of starting out Pitfire in 1998. Before that came in, the partners used to own one of the best movie catering companies and has traveled around the world partnering with high budgeted films.

Working on serving pizzas in a blistering pace, they quickly learned that it doesn’t work to serve pizzas at a fast rate. They ditched the idea of fast food style pizzas and in 2003 took the artisan approach in making and serving pizzas.

Making more improvements, the partners took a step back and had gone to the basics. The menu was simple, porcelain, glasses and silverwares are being used and service was more efficient by retaining the counter inside the restaurant.

The counter is retained to get orders immediately while being assisted by their waiters as if the guests have a personal server. This saves time and service is addressed especially to the families that are avid customers at the restaurant.

Food quality is the top priority at Pitfire with pizza accounting for 60 percent of sales. The dough is being made at a commissary only by two people and fermented for two days. For the Costa Mesa location though, a dough room is constructed so the dough could be made at the store since the commissary is too far from Costa Mesa.

Local farmers are providers of several ingredients at the restaurant and the management calls it a social responsibility to pick local produce from local farmers. From these ingredients, up to six daily specials are made everyday depending on the availability of ingredients.

Wood-fired ovens bake pizzas at 625 degrees Fahrenheit and cooks at about two to three minutes recording a high of 1027 orders in a day. The pace was exceeding the capacity of the wood-fired oven and the Pitfire management is trying a hybrid of gas and wood at the new store in Costa Mesa to fuel the ovens in order to keep up with the demand but not decreasing the quality of the pizza.

The staff in Pitcrew is highly trained to provide the quality the restaurant assures of its customers. It takes a year to train to be able to cook a perfectly baked pizza. Hibler is proud to say that he has not seen his staff change work as he pays good money with the delivery of quality food they provide. Around four people manage the kitchen during peak times one kneading the dough, 2 are topping the kneaded dough and another one manning the oven.

With a small menu, Pitfire is focused on not putting in too much offerings to maintain quality and freshness for every order. According to Hibler, by not putting too many items on the menu raised their pizza orders to 50 percent and the confidence in his products are highly regarded in what the menu could offer.

The menu offers nine pizzas with The Burrata, a succulent blend of burrata cheese, tomato sauce, wild arugula, caramelized onion, hazelnut and pesto drizzle, and the Classic Margherita as best sellers. Customers could also create their own pizzas at the restaurant. However, there are specialty pizzas that are usually available at a particular season like the artichoke pizza in spring time and the pumpkin pizza during fall. Though it’s tempting to put it on the menu to be regularly available, the unique offerings would not be as exciting when the time of the season comes.

Health and nutrition is also being considered by Pitfire as they develop a dough made out of whole-milled flour.Aside from the dough they also are developing a type of yeast to compliment the dough.

Acquiring its first liquor license in the Costa Mesa store, they focused on partnering beer and wine with their pizzas. Such focus was put on beers as they made visual attractions available at the Culver City store. An open-glass beer fridge and a keg system in front of the store increases people’s want to order beer from them as compared when the beers are just displayed at the bar counter behind the bartender. Around 15 -19 percent of the total sales are being generated from beers and wine.

Every location of Pitfire Pizza is built in connection to the area it is involved. The store also takes over existing establishments rather than developing a new property. The Volkswagen-inspired Costa Mesa store is the former Marie Callender’s Restaurant and Bakery.

Families with kids are the usual guest at Pitfire which makes the stores a family oriented restaurant. Though being hit with a bad rep by an online food review site, Hibler would retain his guests. The restaurant was also touted as a place “where foodies bring their kids” by a National Public Radio associate.

Romantic settings aren’t left out though as the ambience shifts after 8 p.m. as a DJ provides music to guests. Investors are more likely to put their money with the pizza company getting customers of different genres.

The culture inside Pitfire and its management is so unique. They don’t call themselves a team; instead they call themselves “tribe members” with the management team being called “tribal elders”.

Creativity among tribe members is encouraged that contests on customizing their uniforms brings extra money to their employees. Their website proves their creativity with photos showing their employees in action. With their significant pay, Pitfire employees can support themselves individually without relying heavily on government subsidies.

Pitfire’s success didn’t come easily as they committed some mistakes going towards their popularity at present. One deal at a trendy shopping mall and a licensed deal at Universal Studios, where they spent 7 years inside the entertainment district, failed due to their lack of recognizing their targeted customers. Hibler admitted to their mistakes and attests that they made a lot of small mistakes but takes those mistakes as lessons learned along the way to get to where they are now.

Expanding their reach among customers by commercializing the brand is not the top priority of the Pitfire management. The culture behind an environment that promotes helping the community first before personal gains is what Hibler incorporates inside Pitfire.

With seven stores in operations and an eight one to open at Pasadena, California, Hibler would not not want Pitfire to be labeled as a pizza chain.  The excruciating work he has put to make every Pitfire a store of its own negates the idea of labeling Pitfire as a pizza chain.

With the growth of the company seemingly going forward at a fast rate, Hibler wants to make sure that their company would not lose their identity in the long run. He still goes to stores and make pizzas to show people that he is hands on with the business.

Pitfire opened three stores last year with the addition of a different concept in Supurba Snack Bar and four more under construction more than doubled the size of the company. Hibler narrates how difficult it is on being integrated to a community every time they are building a new store. By supporting community work and services such as school fundraisers and parties, help in marketing their product in the area.

Marketing the old fashioned way puts more value for their kind of food and the quality they put in every item on the menu. They do not put traditional advertisements on billboards, taxi cabs and they also don’t provide coupons.

An experiment is also being conducted in the Costa Mesa store as it is being planned to be a regional supplier to supply to other stores. A couple of investors funded the project and mapped out growing in California first and hired Carlos Bernal as CEO to further oversee the expansion plans.

In his 15 years in the pizza industry, Hibler has made making great pizzas the most important thing and selling them with the highest quality propelled Pitfire Pizza being recognized and awarded with distinction.

Posted by Diane Araga, on September 14, 2013 at 10:00 AM