“I think I can I think I can”…

“Life has no limitations, except the ones you make” – Les Brown

“Argue for your limitations, and sure enough they’re yours” -Richard Bach

“Mind is consciousness which has put on limitations.  You are originally unlimited and perfect.  Later you take on limitations and become the mind.”  -Ramana Maharshi

Limits, like fear, is often an illusion” -Michael Jordan

We live in a world where Hollywood and overall culture teaches us consistently that there are no such thing as limits.  Think about the books that we’ve read as children.  Between movies of the average person or even the hero breaking through fears, overcoming all odds, to defeat the situation or bad guy, to the quotes we see above, to even the books we read as a child such as “The Little Engine That Could”… the life lesson has constantly been that the limits we have in life are only those we impose upon ourselves.  It’s a great lesson in learning to apply your best efforts, but in many ways, the lesson does a disservice to good process based decision making.  And the more that I think about it, the more I believe that it’s this mindset that is the downfall of many small businesses…

We recently had an opportunity to bring our trailer and our pizzas to the gay pride parade in Chicago to serve up under another restaurant’s name.  While the arrangements in terms of payment weren’t clear (we make, sell to the restaurant to resell, or we would just sell them direct and the restaurant would take a portion of the profits for us renting their space), and we weren’t sure about the paperwork/policies we needed in place to execute on such a thing (public health approvals?), there was one part of the request that stuck out like a sore thumb to me…. The restaurant wanted a minimum order of 500 pizzas.

I’d be lying to you if I didn’t tell you that the first thing that came to mind was what the net profit margin would be.  An order of 500 pizzas is huge, and even if they were the basic traditional pizzas (which we currently charge $7 a piece), we would be in a great position to really generate some excellent cash flow for Za Pi.  Hell, we’d be nearly break even within our first year!  But as the realist in me began to really take a look at this idea… all the screw started to come loose.

In our current process to ensure great quality pizza, our team isn’t comfortable with more than two pi’s in the oven at once.  In theory, we could get up to three in there, but we haven’t practiced it enough for any of our forninos (oven tender) to be comfortable with it.  When the oven is churning at optimal temps, we can get a pie done in 90 seconds.  So for the current math, 500 pi’s, 2 at a time, 90 seconds per set, 6.25 hours of continuous pizza making.  Doable.

Now we take in the reality that since the oven isn’t continuous gas, and the fire needs to be re-stoked and the oven given time to gain back some heat after a certain numbers of pi’s.  For sake of ease of calculation, let’s say 15 minutes to reabsorb some good heat into the oven walls every 1 hr.  We’ve now added about 1.5 hours (rounded down).  7.75 hours.  Still potentially doable.

Now we also need to keep in mind the oven takes two hours to heat up before we begin… it needs time to absorb all that heat into the walls, floors, etc. so that it can stabilize and hit an optimal temp.  9.75 hours.  Still reasonable, just a long work day.

Let’s add the 1 hr commute into the city and back.  11.75 hours.  Sure, why not.

Now, prepping all the ingredients and doughs… at current, we can get 100 doughs ready in about 2 hours, along with ingredients.  While there are some economies of scale, we’ve pretty much maxed it (use the full size of the mixing basin) and with our pi’s, there is always a portion of balling each dough ball by hand, which is the rate limiting step for our process typically.  So just for prep time alone, we’re talking about 10 hours of work to get the dough/ingredients ready. Again, not horrible, but these hours are getting tougher…

Now I’m a stats/benchmarking kind of guy (which is why I work in the field I currently do) so I’ve been making sure that we record all sorts of stats around our customer’s orders, time in/time out, pizzas per hour, etc.  Some may say all this information is excessive, but I see this information as ways to continuously improve.  In our 500 pizza scenario, it also provides a basis of reality.  The reality of the situation is that at our best pace at any market yet, we’ve put out is 25 pi’s per hour.  (We’re far from a perfect system yet, the oven needs re-stoking to heat back up, etc.)  If we’re performing at our benchmarked optimum based on past performance, we would have to work 20 hours in order to churn out 500 pi’s.  20 hours, in one day, to churn our 500 pizzas.  If it isn’t obvious yet, we were not ready to do this.

And then I started thinking about other things… while we have great pi’s, they really aren’t nearly as good after they’ve gotten colder… Neapolitan pizza is best within those first 10-15 minutes post oven, and tends to lose it’s great airiness/light crisp and start’s becoming slightly “chewey” with time and cooling.  Which means unless we had a continuous line of folks coming up to eat, our reputation would be tarnished because they’d be eating “less than optimal” pi’s.  How would we lug 500 doughs to the city?  How would we prep all those ingredients?  Where would we store all the ingredients for use?  How much new equipment would we have to buy just to execute on this one-time order? Does the parade even last 20 hours?  Etc…

But just as importantly, I sat down with my partners to brainstorm outside the box… could we hire a team to help with prep?  Could we find another woodfired oven pizza crew to split the profits with to help churn pi’s?  Could we “heat” a bunch of a shells in advance, and then top to order and do a final reheat for 30 seconds after an order is put in?  How long would it take to make 500 shells?

Ultimately, all the brainstorming ideas led to less margins or more time invested, which really pointed to the fact that in our current condition, killing ourselves to fulfill an order like this would just be impossible…

As much as the capitalist side of me wanted to take advantage of this big order, it made us realize that we’re not at a point where we can take on a 500 pizza order.  One of the key lessons in catering is that you need to know what size party your capable of catering for, and this helped us examine, explore, and better understand our limitations.

What could have happened if we took on the job?  Bad reputation with folks who tried our pizza due to quality… long wait times due to backlog… severely reduced margins because we couldn’t serve pi’s up fast enough… or we could’ve successfully completed 500 pi’s by pure luck and chance, even though all the evidence pointed otherwise.

A couple hours of pondering and discussion over this 500 pizza order did not go wasted however.  We were able to identify our weak points, think about what we would need in place to really pursue an order this big,and toy with ideas that could eventually help us move towards fulfilling larger scale orders.  Perhaps Albert Einsten said it best…

“Once we accept our limits, we go beyond them.” -Albert Einsten

It takes a clear, methodological thought process to understand what your limits are, and how to address them, before you can surpass your previously identified barriers to success.  Don’t get me wrong, we’re in the world of small business, so it’s always important to dream big.  We’ve got a dream to someday open up a restaurant that can serve 200+ great quality pi’s per day!  But understand that dreaming isn’t enough… you have to find the path and the tools to get there.

Readers, what do you think?  Have I gone too far and broken down the process to much and fallen into the trap of “paralysis by analysis”?  

And finally, speaking of overcoming limitations and self improvement, I’ve been learning to use some pretty basic photo software to help jazz up some of our pictures…

Jun 29th 2013

Double sauce margherita on the left, Kaner Buffalo Chicken on top, and a Pesto Chicken with Sun-Dried Tomatoes on the bottom.  Not bad for toying around with photo software I have no idea how to use yet, right?  Trust me, I realize my weakness here and plan to work with some folks who actually know what they’re doing to get better…


2 thoughts on ““I think I can I think I can”…

  1. Hey Derrick, just found your post on Serious Eats and the pie looks great! I had to check out your blog and wanted to let you know I have started a mobile wood fired pizza trailer business in Columbia MO. I have been doing baked goods like bread, focaccia, cinnamon buns, pitas, and more at local farmers markets with great results and the initial response to the trailer is very encouraging. I would love to chat with you about your experiences and some of the day to day challenges of mobile food. Drop a line to mark@comodough.com or look for me on Facebook at Como Dough Wood Fired Oven. Thanks and bake more pies!

  2. Mark,

    Thanks for the note! I’m not sure how I missed this comment way back in July, but would definitely love to chat sometime! I’ll send you an e-mail shortly.

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