Heritage Radio Network’s studio is located in the backyard of Roberta’s Pizza, which is turning 10 years old this year! What first started out as a small eatery in a far corner of Bushwick has now spawned a tiki bar, an adjacent take-out location, the two-Michelin-starred Blanca, a thriving frozen pizza business, and spin-offs in cities like Miami and LA. Sarah Strong, HRN’s Julia Child Fellow, recently sat down with Brandon Hoy, one of the owners of Roberta’s, to talk about their frozen pizzas and what’s next in that endeavor.
Sarah Strong: How did you as a restaurant group decide frozen foods was something you wanted to move into?
Brandon Hoy: I think ultimately at some point there was a goal of trying to feed as many people Roberta’s pizza as possible. In the early days, the idea of trying to open a bunch of Roberta’s Pizzas seemed more daunting than going into the manufacturing business. And quite honestly, we had this relationship with Whole Foods that kind of forced us into it.
We had been dabbling: we had done the R&D, we had done the frozen pizza, we were selling in small places like Brooklyn Kitchen and Provisions. Originally, we didn’t even have a distributor, we were just self distributing. We were making the frozen pizzas here [at Roberta’s] and we had a van and were delivering on our own to small locations. Then, Whole Foods wanted it when they opened in Gowanus and that was kind of the impetus for the larger production.
I think in the beginning it was kind of just, I don’t want to say a hobby or a novelty, but it was kind of just, why not? We were all thinking, “Why wouldn’t we try to do this thing?” There were a few different things that we were close to being in production for; we were thinking about doing a sauce and we were thinking about bottling our chili oil. We had all of these things that we were trying to put together as a brand package for more ways to experience Roberta’s and ultimately pizza was the one. It’s what we do. All of these little things don’t really capture the essence of what it is we were trying to do, and really what we needed to do was get pizza to people, so that’s kind of how we got to the frozen pizza.
What was the recipe development process for a frozen product like?
The good thing was we had just opened Blanca, so we had a lot of really technical, high quality equipment. The most important thing was that we had this blast chiller, so it gave us the opportunity, that in itself kind of pushed us to it, because we had this piece of equipment that we wanted to utilize.
Did you get it for something in particular?
They were using it in Blanca for all types of things. Almost all of the desserts were coming out of the blast chiller for Blanca, so it had a specific reason and this was not it, but we thought, we have this awesome machine but it’s kind of underutilized, what other things can we do?
That was kind of the beginning of frozen for us; let’s utilize this piece of equipment and let’s make a frozen pizza. I think what happened was we surprised ourselves with the quality of the frozen pizza and I think if we hadn’t made such a high quality product we probably would have just scrapped it and said it just doesn’t work, we can’t translate what we do here into a grocery product.
I think right away, even the first three or four prototypes of the frozen pizza were good. It got significantly better over time when we started adding higher hydration and understanding what the freezer was going to do to all of the things, but even just kind of the preliminary stuff, which was just taking what we have and putting it in the blast chiller, came out pretty well.
How much of the original recipe did you have to change for a commercial product? What changes did you expect and which were unexpected?
We had to change everything. I think we expected that we were going to have to change a lot. I mean, we knew what the freezing process was going to do, scientifically, so we knew what to expect. We knew we were going to have to play with some things. How was the cheese going to react? I think one of the crucial elements was capturing the freshness of the tomato. That was probably the hardest part and also the most important for us, that was what we were trying to capture. We wanted a product that tasted like it was fresh.
How did you decide what flavors you wanted to sell frozen?
It was kind of just obvious to go with Margherita. And then the fact that we weren’t USDA certified eliminated a number of things so we really could only do vegetable stuff. And then it kind of came down to a few things: freezing, what things could you freeze that would maintain their integrity and was what things looked best in a cryovac bag.
Your packaging looks very different from most of the frozen pizza packaging.
Right, there was no packaging like that at the time. There is now, you see it more often, but philosophically we didn’t want to take a picture of what the pizza would look like in an alternate universe and put it on a box and falsely be showing you what the product is. Our goal was to say, here’s the product transparently for you to see, you be the judge of whether or not you think this looks good because in our mind even the product frozen looks better than any frozen pizza we’ve ever seen. To us, this is a better marketing tool than taking a picture of it cooked with the cheese stretched out and all this bullshit that everyone else is doing. We just felt it was real, it was raw, it was authentic.
How many flavors are you up to?
We have three. We have an exclusive [with Fresh Direct], the Colonel Corn, which is a corn pizza, which is probably a better looking pizza than we think a tasting pizza. It’s good but it’s not our favorite pizza. We’ll probably move back to just the two SKUs (Stock Keeping Unit) which is the Baby Sinclair and the Margherita until we find a third SKU.
The other one, is that on your menu here?
The Baby Sinclair? During season, yeah. It’s dinosaur kale, so when the kale is in season we have that. We have over two hundred pizzas and sometimes it comes back.
But it wasn’t developed to be frozen?
No, it was an original pizza here first.
How has the response been?
The initial response was slow. When we were in the smaller things like Brooklyn Kitchen it was good, people liked it. It’s just that it was only reaching a market that we were already in. We weren’t doing what we set out to do, which was feed more people Roberta’s pizza, we were just selling within the same market we were already in.
When it went into Gowanus, it was the number one total frozen food item for months. I think for 9 months straight it was the number one frozen food item and then it was still one of the number one selling frozen pizzas. So it was really good. It was good enough that Whole Foods said, we want you in all 52 stores in the Atlantic and now we’re in the mid-Atlantic as well. And probably we’ll go to the North Atlantic as well, but manufacturing at this point, we just couldn’t keep up.
Where are you manufacturing?
How has that been?
Manufacturing it is tough, it’s getting better. There’s still a lot, we still have to understand how to automate to a point that we’re still producing a handmade product, but you can’t have 500 people, $70 of labor into a case of pizza. It’s difficult, the margins are so slim. All of it is incredibly meticulous fine tuning.
In the beginning, Pfizer was probably a really good place for us to be. There were a lot of other people doing food manufacturing, so there were a lot of brains, a lot of people there you could ask questions once you started getting into distributing and who your distributor is and wrapping and marketing and design and all that stuff. It’s not really the case these days, a lot of those people are gone.
What year did you start making the frozen pizza?
I think we started making it in 2012. By 2013 we were distributing. We work with Rainforest who does all our distribution for us now.
Are you looking to expand either the line of frozen food or into a larger market?
Market. We are looking to expand product. What we would like to do is get rid of the Colonel Corn and rotate that third SKU until we find one that we really like. Again, it’s a little bit difficult because without the USDA stuff you don’t have the full range, so just trying to find the vegetable pizza.
Why don’t you have the USDA?
It’s just a cost. You have to hire a USDA agent, you have to build them an office, you have to pay them a salary. At some point, the growth equation will pan out whether we’re selling enough of it for us to take that on. Right now it’s a fiscal problem.
I feel like your pizzas are a lot more elevated than the usual frozen pizza you can cook in the microwave. How do you recommend cooking it and do you think it’s meant for a different occasion than drunk late night pizza?
I think it’s great drunk late night frozen pizza. I think like Roberta’s itself, it was an opportunity to cast a large net and not just generally be like this is the type of person who eats frozen pizza, which is the 17-27 year old drunk person. Yes we want that person, too, but I think where we’ve noticed our large market is in parents. I think we’re probably the mom’s choice when it comes to a frozen pizza because you know what it is. It doesn’t have to say organic on it for you to know it’s a quality pizza. I think it was an opportunity for us to cast a large net. It could be your total stoner pizza or the healthy choice for a kids’ dinner
What are the cooking instructions?
Oven, as hot as you can get and on the open rack for about five minutes, depending on how good your oven is and if you have convection.
Anything else we should know about it?
It’s delicious. And it’s still all the same processes. The mozzarella is still fresh. Besides playing with hydration, which is the one variable that you need to adjust. I mean obviously there is some flavor stuff, like the way you salt it and how much oil, but for the most part, the ingredients are the same, just the distribution of them is slightly changed to make sure it freezes correctly.
Same kind of partners for the ingredients?
Yup. same vendors, same curd makes the mozzarella same tomato makes the sauce same flour makes the dough same water.
You can purchase Roberta’s frozen pizzas at Whole Foods, Dean & DeLuca, Babeth’s Feast, Forager’s Market, Brooklyn Kitchen and Murray’s Cheese in New York or online through Fresh Direct, Goldbely, Food Kick and Dean and DeLuca.