Nine Hundred Degrees of Fire and Spice

Can Firepie’s app and wood-fired oven disrupt the broken model of pizza delivery?

(Peter Lawrence Kane)

CORRECTION: An original version of this story used the wrong surname for Firepie’s founder. He is Rick Richman, not Richards. We apologize for the error.

Rick Richman, founder of Mission-centric pizza company Firepie, likes Pizzeria Delfina’s crust but believes it’s not the kind of thing that works well for delivery.

“It gets soggy in three minutes,” he says. “You have to eat it right out of the oven.”

He’s also a fan of Little Star, calling their version more of a tomato-cheese casserole, and of A16. But a discrepancy plagued him: between upscale, sit-down pizzas and the kind that arrive with those white, dollhouse-kitchen-table plastic pieces to prevent the soggy cardboard box from caving in. He’d been selling routing-logistics software for Fortune 1000 companies in Silicon Valley until he decided he couldn’t take it another day, and an afternoon of couch-cushion daydreaming gave him an idea for what to do next: Develop a crust that’s chewier than the standard delivery pizza and stays crisper for longer, while also getting it to customers much faster than Domino’s can.

Leveraging everything he had, Richman started Firepie in June 2016, cooking out of a wood-fired oven in an (air-conditioned) trailer on Valencia and Cesar Chavez streets. By December, sales were up by almost 500 percent, with half of them walk-ups, half pre-orders, and plenty of regulars. But this it wasn’t some reckless, run-away-and-join-the-circus epiphany, as Richman had worked for California Pizza Kitchen straight out of college and later started a chain of pizzerias in the South Bay, Willow Street Food Fired Pizzas. (“I didn’t own 50 percent of the business, and the hours were brutal,” he says of his eventual decision to abandon pizza for tech. “It wasn’t worth my time.”)

But with advances in software in the years since, Richman figured out that “with a 900-degree, Italian wood-burning oven, if I could cook the pies for 90 seconds, I could actually do a delivery in 15 minutes — and people would actually get the pizza hot.”

His fix for a broken system involved a simplified menu, a forthcoming integrated customer-ordering app, and a distribution model that will rely on smartly spaced-out trailers radiating from a central commissary. But more importantly, it meant rethinking the sauce and the crust, each of which took a long time to get right.

“If [a pizza comes] from 55 percent of the mom-and-pop chains or these large chains, it’s made with crappy institutional ingredients,” he says of the prevailing ethos. “But the margins on pizza are really high. At the average pizza place, the food cost is probably 17 percent. We’re three points higher, and I’m fine with that. I’d rather provide a higher quality product — so I’m a little obsessive about this.”

He won’t reveal what revelations he learned through trial-and-error, except to divulge that his dough is a blend that includes a “really high-quality ‘00’ flour” sourced from a small Italian importer.

Emphasizing convenience, Richman didn’t want hungry customers anguishing over an excessive number of choices. So Firepie makes only three varieties — three-cheese ($11), vegetarian ($12) and pepperoni ($13) — in 10-inch sizes. Apart from its centralized commissary, he liked the now-defunct SpoonRocket’s business model, so he adapted it to rely on “distributed kitchens,” of which at present there is only this one. Firepie’s delivers within a two-mile radius, meaning chiefly Noe Valley, Bernal Heights, and the Mission, but the five-year growth plan calls for further S.F. locations, followed by Palo Alto and other densely populated Peninsula cities, then L.A., Seattle, and the East Coast. It’s got to be fast, Richman says, so that the major players don’t notice him until it’s too late.

The vegetarian pie (Peter Lawrence Kane)

A Burner of sorts, he also admits to a fascination with fire, getting into the nitty-gritty about cherrywood sawdust and the mix of oak and almond wood that creates a hot, long-burning flame. He spreads cornmeal under the dough, comparing the granules to ball bearings. Although he’s a bit more practiced than a reporter who attempted to rotate a pie with a long-handled, wooden pallino al forno via a mere flick of the wrist, it’s impossible not to catch the bug that infects nearly everyone who ditches corporate America for a culinary endeavor. (That it’s a damp January day and the oven warms the trailer doesn’t hurt, either.)

Since we’re in the lull between lunch and dinner service, the fire is only about 750 degrees, so searing a pizza takes a bit more than 90 seconds. But the vegetarian pie comes with red onion, crimini mushrooms, and asparagus, an unusual flourish meant to signal Firepie’s dedication to using quality ingredients. (It’s finished off with basil.)

Breathing on our slices to cool them off, we agree that reheating cold pizza in the microwave is a crime against good taste — maybe it’s not as bad as nuking a steak, but it’s close — and that you should resurrect it in an iron skillet with just a little bit of olive oil. When it’s time to try the pepperoni, we also concur that subpar pepperoni is a major drawback to a solid slice.

It’s important to be “spicy but not overly spicy,” he says, going on to poo-poo the kind that “cups and gets filled in with a bowl of oil” as it cooks, looking like the greasy equivalent of those scoop-shaped Tostitos, filled with a reservoir of salsa.

This being a venture capital-free enterprise nonetheless borne of Silicon Valley, Firepie does betray some feel-good quirks, like the thank-you letter addressed to customers that goes out with the pizzas. Richman works in close quarters with a small staff and in his office, I notice a set of colored pins, attached to the wall in no discernible order. They’re an elaborate system of rewards and recognition for mastering the various skills required of the Firepie team.

“We don’t believe in perfection here,” Richman says. “It’s toxic. We believe in excellence, though.”

He walks me through the hierarchy of which color pin his employees earn and for demonstrating what level of achievement. Then he comes to a black one, the exact nature of which has not yet been defined in this young company.

“This,” he says, “is the ultimate pin. I won’t even be able to earn this pin.”

Firepie3498 Cesar Chavez St., 415-213-2300 or firepie.com

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