Mobile Oven Selection and Next Steps for Registering Your Business

So let’s talk ovens.  When we first decided to make this a mobile business (so that we could go to Farmers Markets, move the oven into storage when we’re not using it for long periods, and delve into catering), I started researching into both into turn key operations (the oven arrives mounted and built already) as well as self build option.  For those who do a topical search for mobile ovens, the first oven’s you’ll likely see are the Forno Bravo ovens.  I’m not sure if this is because they’ve marketed well, if they have a dominant share of the market, or some combination of the two, but it’s easily the first thing that comes up in any search engine.  I’m probably not the first to tell you that if you plan to do serious research, Google really only lets you scratch the surface when you don’t fully understand what your searching for.  My initial search resulted in 4-5 ovens options, which gave us a lot of pause in pursuing the mobile since the set ups were running $12-20K.  I even called a few places, and they told me that a mobile oven set up would easily be $15K and up.

As I continued to dig deeper, check out forums focused on making great pizza, and mobile catering forums, I found that there were faaaaar more ovens than what my initial Google search turned up.  At the end of my searches, here’s what I turned up:

Round Boy Oven
Breadstone Ovens (FGM)
Los Angeles Oven Works
Raul’s Ovens
Bel Forno Pizza Ovens
Wildwood
Maine Wood Heat (Le Panyol)
Forno Classico
Outdoor Pizza Oven (Batali 750)
Earthstone Model 90 PA or 90 PAGW
Rocky Mountain Woodfired Oven (with Trailer)
FornoBravo Tailgater
Woodstone Portables – Trailered Oven
Solo Pizza Cart
Mugnaini Mobile Oven
Marra Forni Oven

And these are just the ones that could potentially be mobile!  So after talking to all these vendors, looking into their websites for UL and NSF certification, and reviewing oven designs, we started to narrow it down as a balance between cost and focus of the oven.  If anyone is ever looking for an oven, mobile or not, and would like to talk more about what I learned from each of these places, drop a note!  I’d be happy to share more info!

Here’s the thing:  Ovens aren’t designed equally.  Wood fired ovens (WFOs) can be build with larger openings for ease of putting in larger objects (whole turkeys!), have higher ceilings to hang stuff off of (smoking sausage, standing up turkeys to roast or even suckling pigs!), and are made of different materials (piece by piece bricks, cast cement, copper, etc.)  So what were we looking for?

Here’s what helped us simplify the list – We needed the oven to be cast, as with the travel we were going to do over roads, highways, etc. having a bunch of smaller brick pieces would result in many small pieces that would be vibrating creating potential for the oven to break apart more easily.  Our oven was going to be focused 90% of the time solely on making a great pizza, so we wanted a low dome (to keep the high heat close to the top of the pizza) for a more balanced cook.  We also wanted a smaller opening in general so that less heat would escape from the front of the oven, which would be open pretty regularly since we would be operating at the farmers market over 4-6 hours of time.  It needed to have UL/NSF certification so that it would pass health inspection.  We also wanted someone with great customer service pre-purchase as well as post-purchase, since this was new territory for us.  And, we wanted to keep the price low enough that we could afford to invest in it ourselves, so that mobilizing, permits, equipment, etc. could be covered mostly by the kickstarter.

Ultimately, we chose the Four Grand Mere (FGM), a French company that has expanded into the US and renamed Breadstone Ovens.  It met the requirements we were looking for, the owner was very active on forums, and they had great reputation from previous purchasers.  And that’s the new toy that’s been in my garage since last Tuesday!

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Note the low dome, small entry way, and cast pieces instead of brick.

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Let me tell you, the oven did not come so prettily arranged… it took my wife and I about 2.5 hours to unpack, and then move the pieces into place for this shot.  The oven is 700 lbs, and while it’s spread across 5 pieces (3 dome, 2 floor), the awkwardness of attempting to grip the pieces in a small space between the two of us was VERY challenging.  But for now, it’s set up and sitting in my garage, getting initial stages of curing thanks to a halogen lamp, until we can mount it and start some real fires.  Rest assured, you’ll see more pics as we build out the oven, whether you want to or not.  =)

So for those that are looking to this blog to learn more about setting up your business, even if it’s not food related, we’ve taken you through the process of becoming an S-Corp or LLC for your new venture.  The next step now is to establish your federal employer identification number (FEIN) so that you’re registered at the federal level.

First off, unlike registered your company with state, setting up an FEIN is FREE.  If you’re using a service or a website that is charging you for setting up the FEIN, you’re getting ripped off.  It’s an easy process, and you can do it online in just a few minutes here:

https://sa2.www4.irs.gov/modiein/individual/index.jsp

The site is only available from 7 AM to 10 PM EST, Mon-Fri (odd since it’s a website) so don’t plan on doing this over a weekend.  Since you’ve completed your S-Corp/LLC registration, the FEIN is actually breezy compared to what you had to do before… you’ve got your name in place, you’ve decided on your owners, picked an address, etc.  Just click through and fill out the info!  The only hiccup I noticed between the state of Illinois and federal level was that I was able to use any characters easily producible by the keyboard with State of Illinois, while at the Federal site doesn’t allow you to use non-letter/number characters.  So I can’t use commas, periods, dashes, etc.

Trust me, even with the hiccup, this was a fairly easy process.

Once you receive your FEIN, the next step in Illinois for our business was to register our business.  Confusing at first, as we’ve already registered our LLC, right?  Technically, the LLC/S-Corp is just the structure of your controllers for your business.  It basically tells the state you’ve set up a group of folks or have the intent to do business.  Now you actually have to REGISTER your business for the purposes of understanding what type of business you’re doing, and what type of tax they should be collecting from you.  I’m guessing this is true of all other states as well.

Here’s the website you need for registering your business in Illinois:  https://mytax.illinois.gov/_/#1

Again, a fairly simple process where they ask for your FEIN, LLC/S-Corp name, officer names and addresses, etc.  Then they have a string of very business specific questions (do you sell tires?  vending machine sales?  cigarettes?  are you renting a vehicle or hotel room for the business? etc.)  Our process was simple, yours may be less so depending on what your business is.

So as a recap, here’s what you’ve done to start your business:

1.  Set up your LLC/S-Corp with officers, paperwork, etc.

2.  Apply for your FEIN.

3.  After receiving your FEIN, register your business with the state.

There will be a few more steps for a food retailer that we’ll cover later, but for now, most generic businesses are set for a bit!  Congrats on being registered to do business in your state!

Alright, I’m off to the city for some meetings, to do some ingredient and equipment shopping, and then back home.  Tonight, I”ll be teaching one of my partners (Gambit) the intricacies of opening the dough, and then having him create 10 pizzas for practice so that we’ll have multiple folks that are capable of opening the dough!  Looking forward to a great pizza night!

The Origins of a name… and some surprises!

So why Za Pi?  Well, the “Za” part is pretty simple… It’s really become the ubiquitous phrase shorthand for pizza.  Some may argue that “za” is strictly an East Coast/New York concept, but the term has carried far from New York thanks to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (TMNT).

Those ridiculously cool (and now making a comeback in toys supposedly) green ninjas with a half shell were one of the toy/cartoon crazes of my generation.  And while I can’t find an exact episode where Michaelangelo’s boldly states wanting some “za”, the image of me running around the house with nunchucks asking my parents if we could have “Za” for dinner was inspired by one of those episodes.

So now that we have half the name, why Pi (or 3.14)?  This really symbolizes quite a few things…

1.  It expresses the geek in me, as well as my teammates.  The three of us that are pursuing this journey together all met in high school (Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy) where we were endlessly teased by other schools at sporting events.  (Seriously, some schools were creative enough to dress up as a TI-85 calculator to “insult” us…)

2.  It’s expresses our approach to making great quality Neapolitan pizza.  We research the topic endlessly, run test trials on dough formulas, sauces, flavor combinations, heat temps, etc.  We firmly believe there’s a “scientific” approach to making great pizza and we want to find it to make it part of our culture.

3.  It’s Pie!  Pizza Pie!  Pizza Pi!  Za Pi!  It’za Pi! (Say that last one with the ridiculous Italian accent you know you have in you).  Za Pi… flows pretty well, right?

So after much discussion and playing around with 30 some potential names and hearing feedback from family, we settled on Za Pi for our mobile business.

Before we close out for the day, two things:

1.  We did our first set of sauce tests last night… a blind taste test for six key people to determine favorite sauce flavors to serve as the base of all our tomato based pies.  Here’s the five sauces we tested with some simple Italian bread.  Image

Each person was asked to provide 3 points to their first choice, 2 points to their 2nd, and 1 point to their third choice (assuming they had three they liked enough to rank).  Part of this was to determine whether San Marzanos or DOP based tomato sauces were really worth the extra cash for the pizza.  Guess what we found out:

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The 6 in 1 tomato sauce (B) seems to have faired the best out of the taste testers, with the Duomo crushed tomatoes from California (C) in a far second choice.  While the Cento San Marzanos (E) did got some votes, the importaed Flora San Marzano DOPs (D) was left out in the cold in terms of flavor and texture and received no votes at all (not even a third place!).  Make me wonder if pursuing Vera Pizza Napoletana (VPN) is worth it for what we’re trying to do… But that’s a post for another time.

2.  Here’s a look at where we hope to take Za Pi’s direction.Image

Our first trial of a BBQ pork with mango pizza.  It was tasty, but will need some refinement.  Looking forward to making some more of the “non-traditional” pizzas I have in mind as we move forward in our testing phase of what to bring to you at the market!

Tools of the Trade and Dough Tests

So now where were we…?  Oh yes.  The crazed light in my eye of from tasting that Neapolitan marinara pizza.  It’s not quite as crazy as Jack Nicholas’ face from “The Shining”, but I won’t tell you it wasn’t close.

The next day after work, I headed to the library and checked out Nathan Myhrvold’s Modernist Cuisine from the library to read up on his scientific thoughts and tests around Neapolitan pizza.  (Did I mention that I’m a technique geek in the kitchen?  I should probably get that out of the way now…)  His strongest recommendation of recreating a somewhat comparable surface to woodfired ovens was to utilize thick 1/4 inch steel in ovens at the highest heat possible.  I started seeking out my tools…

After calling nine different steel companies to get quotes for a 1/4 inch thick steel to be cut that would fit my oven and receiving quotes between $250 to $400+, I was disappointed.  As much as I wanted the right tools to make the pizza, $250 before shipping costs was just ludicrous amount of money to pay for making pizza at home.  While I had used heating the back of a cast iron skillet and broiler method with some success, it wasn’t efficient in making large quantities of pizza.  I figured it may be time to just purchase or build a woodfired oven for the house, until someone tipped me off to Andrew Lagsdin’s Baking Steel…  I missed the Kickstarter opportunity already, but EyeDoc ordered one up for me for Xmas 2012, and it was a FAR more reasonable price than the custom quotes I had sought out.   On the day it arrived, I eagerly opened up the delivered package and hugged my new toy with the glee of kid who just got his first video game system.  (Hugged carefully mind you, as I didn’t want to drop this heavy piece of steel on my toes).  I began making pizzas for EyeDoc only at first, then expanded to family members throughout the holiday parties, and then began inviting friends over to share my new bundle of joy.  And since then, over 200+ pizza have been churned out from our little home oven.

“So when are you going to open your own restaurant?”  – Aunt

At one of our many holiday parties, in the midst of chopping ingredients and opening dough, my aunt looked at me and asked.  I laughed and told her this was just a hobby, and that I could never leave my day job as a project manager.  After all, I was raised a nice, conservative Chinese boy who didn’t take risks, worked hard at the job to make a healthy salary.  What did I know about opening a business?

But that night, I couldn’t get her question out of my head… my Aunt and Uncle had opened up their own business and were doing well for themselves.  Could I possibly turn the hobby I loved into a business?  The next morning, I made my way to a farmer’s market downtown to pick up some fresh ingredients for another pizza night, and it dawned on me… why not bring pizza to a farmer’s market on the weekends?  This way, I could not only share my love of pizza with more people, but I could continue to work as a project manager during the week!  And thus, an Za Pi was born… why Za Pi?  That will be for next time…

Before we cut out, I wanted to share some interesting information with you.  Per my geek technique ways, I’ve been wanting to figure out what the flavor and texture differences were in different flours, so this weekend served as the perfect opportunity for just that.  So I prepared three doughs with three different flours for a few family members, all Margherita for test purposes… here’s the results:

Dough Tests

The first pizza was a Eagle Whole Grain white flour at 70% hydration.  Nice rise, but never quite firmed up and very “soggy” throughout the crust.

The second pizza was a Gold Medal Better for Bread flour with 70% hydration.  While this felt the wettest out of the three doughs while working with it, it firmed up the best around the crust and was voted best texture by family members.  It had a nice formation around the crust, and gave away to a soft interior.

The third pizza was a Caputo Tipo 00 flour at 65% hydration, the standard that Neapolitan pizza is made by.  While the rise seemed slightly smaller and the crust wasn’t as firmly formed as the KA flour, it easily had the best flavor crust.

And to reward my family for subjecting them to three straight margheritas, I made three others to end the night with lots of full bellies:

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Spinach and fresh mozz, topped with prosciutto right as it comes out of the oven.  The fat from the prosciutto slightly melts into the hot pizza, making a tasty flavor.  While normally prosciutto is done with fresh arugula, I’m not a big fan of the bitterness from arugula and decided to try sauteed spinach directly cooked on.  Not bad, but still needs some modification…

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Straight up pepperoni with shredded Sargento mozz.  The crispy edges of the pepperoni are the best bites on this pizza.

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And one of the family favorites, Funghi Formaggio.  Sauteed baby bellas with fresh mozz, goat cheese, and gorgonzola.  This has far become the favorite pizza of EyeDoc and the rest of her family and requested every time I make pizza.

Until next time!