Pop-up No. 1: The question of formatting

I’ve been wrestling a lot lately with the proper way to format Phase 3 of the Margot’s Pizza project — the actual public-facing pop-up. It’s clear from the Phase 2 private tastings that, yes, we can make a pizza we’re proud of but that our turnaround time is slower than we’d like. I will present my constraints first, since that may answer some questions or at least give a clear picture why I can’t “just do X” or “just do Y.”

I have a 2-hour window at lunchtime on the occasional Saturday to do this pop-up. From noon to 2pm for service. The pizzeria I’m doing this in (EMILY) opens at 5, but we have to be cleaned up by 2:30 so the actual staff can do its job for the day.

It takes about 15 minutes per round of pizzas. From saucing and topping through to cooking, plating, and cutting. A round of pizzas (for now) is four (4), the number we can fit and deal with comfortably in the oven. (We can actually fit more (up to 6), but it introduces some variables with different cook times and complicates the process. Not insurmountable, but more than I want to attempt in the first pop-up.)

So, the most we could do in that window is ~32 pizzas. I still need to run some scenarios, but my estimate is 32 comfortably, and that’s not taking into account screw-ups. So let’s drop that number to 24 just to be safe. (I’m working in multiples of 4 because that’s how many we can fit in the oven at a time, see above.)

That’s assuming 4 pizzas every 15 minutes, but for the first pop-up, we’ll probably want to drop that number down JUST TO BE SURE we don’t screw up. I’m thinking more like 4 pizzas every 20 minutes, which puts us at 24 tops and maybe 20 if we give ourselves a safety valve.

Now, considering we have ~280 people on the M’sP email list, given even a 10% turnout, it’s likely the pizzas will sell out.

The way I see it, I have these options:

Walk-ups only

Word gets out, people come to Clinton Hill—maybe from all over the boroughs. The 24 people who get there at noon get a pizza—at some point. Anyone after them gets told to go home. Persons 13–24 get a 1-hour wait guaranteed; Persons 21–24 get a 2-hour wait. On top of whatever time they may have already incurred traveling.

To me, this just seems like a recipe for pissing off potential customers. As Nick Kokonas mentions in his recent data dump, it’s a quick way to tell a lot of people No — and to make even those who manage a Yes stand around hungry.

I don’t like lines or long wait times, and I don’t want to subject my customers to them. Not if there’s some way it can be avoided…

Pre-orders

My first thought was of Keith Freilich of Emilia’s Pizzeria in Berkeley. He’s running what would be the closest to what we’d be doing at Margot’s — and with even lighter personnel: JUST HIM. He makes one pizza at a time, taking most of his orders for the evening in advance, by phone, between 4 and 5pm, when he opens. If he doesn’t fill his dance card completely by his 5pm open time, he tweets out pizza times:

It’s first-call, first-choice on pizza times. So if you’re first to call in, you can specify exactly when you want to pick up your pizza. THIS is why it would be closest to what I’m doing.

Because I envision pizzas coming out in waves (see above) — the noon wave, the 12:20 wave, 12:40, etc. — because of that, not only are the actual pizzas going to be scarce, the time slots are, too. I can’t make all 24 pizzas at once.

When I thought of taking orders either by phone or email, my next logical leap was to…

Ticketed sales

If I’m already going to be taking orders ahead of time, why do it inefficiently via email or by phone? It just so happened that reservation-access apps (à la Resy) were in the news while I was thinking of this, and they turned my mind toward ticketed seatings (à la Next, The Aviary, Alinea, etc.).

After running this idea by EMILY co-owner Matt Hyland and my R&D guy, Tim Nguyen, who could see no real objections, I settled into it. Not only is it good for customers — giving them a clear picture as to when their pizza will be ready — it’s great for us as pizzamakers. We’ll have a “set list” to play from, our work cut out, in that we’ll know exactly what to prep for and in what order to make everything.

The way I see it working is this…

…and do keep in mind that this update is ME THINKING OUT LOUD and that all this is subject to change in the next days and weeks:

We open ticket sales to the public and offer X-many time slots with ~4 pizza lunches in each.

  • Lunches will be prix fixe and include one pizza of choice and either a side (likely one of EMILY’s signature salads) OR one beer or soft drink
  • We’ll alert you to the pizza options beforehand, and our online ticketing will include a field for you to specify your desired pizza and whether you want beer/drink OR salad

On the day of, you arrive at or (ideally) shortly before your designated meal pick-up time, whereby our host or bartender asks your name and hands you your pizza and choice of salad or drink.

  • You’re free to grab a table or take your lunch to go (salad/soft drink only; alcohol can’t leave premises, sorry!)
  • In my ideal world, you would grab a table and eat there, because I think bar pies (or any pizza, for that matter) is best eaten hot.* But if you take it to go, no skin off my nose, I’m not going to berate you like some joints do
    * Except for Rose & Joe’s in Astoria, where it’s best at this magical temperature that’s somewhere about 10°F degrees above room temperature and where I never ask for a reheat because I’d rather take my chances and hope it’s just lukewarm and perfect

In a way, this would be sort of like the Shake Shack system (order + get-a-number + grab a non-assigned table system), except customers would have ordered online instead of at the register. You do like Shake Shack, don’t you?!?

Pros and cons

There are obviously pros and cons to this system. I’ve outlined the pros — no excessive wait times for customers, work cut out for M’sP — but the cons …

The cons are the fact that this system does not easily accommodate walk-ups, and also the fact that many people don’t like the idea of making a meal into a ticketed event like a concert or a movie.

I don’t know how to get around that. I’ve thought about holding back some pizzas for walk-ups — but then that throws a variable into the system, and we’d have to prep ingredients for what would then be wildcard orders.

As far as turning it into something that resembles a concert, I’m personally not bothered by that, but I do understand that some people are. I think it may have to do with the notion that it turns food into merely an entertainment event. Is that it? I don’t know. I’m still trying to get at why this unsettles some people as much as it does.

For me, this whole thing is a all about learning and adapting. All through Phases 1 and 2 of this project, we’ve viewed it as a process that can and should be iterated upon after feedback from our guests. We are listening, and we are acting upon your suggestions. So this, Phase 3, will be no different. We’ll see how this first one goes, poll you, and make adjustments from there.

As they say, ONWARD AND UPWARD! aka EXCELSIOR!