Interview with Chef & Founder Isaiah Ruffin and Director of Administration Colleen Constant of Project Pizza. Be sure to follow Project Pizza on Instagram & Facebook to know where the yellow bus is headed next.
Editor’s Note: The phrasing and word choice in this interview have been edited for clarity but maintain meaning.
Can you introduce yourself to the community? What is Project Pizza and why did you start it?
My name is Isaiah, I’m a chef originally from Washington D.C. Project Pizza was an idea birthed at a previous job. I used to work at a local brewery in town and I was opening a restaurant for them. I mentioned that we should do a mobile pizza option to help fund charitable causes that the company wanted to support. When I left the company, I kept the idea and brought it to fruition, and Project Pizza was born.
How would you like the community to celebrate Black History Month? And why is it important to celebrate it?
That’s a tough one in terms of how people celebrate Black History Month. Black History is still being made every day, so a way to celebrate is to support black champions out there so as they make history it’s celebrated again next year. To why we celebrate it, so often black history is overlooked, overshadowed, or unrecorded and to take 1 out of 12 months to incorporate and remember it hopefully it trickles through so we don’t repeat any mistakes.
Do you see your experience as a business owner and member of the Black community as special or different from business owners who are not part of the Black community?
No and yes. No as in a normal small business because we all deal with all the same supply issues, labor issues, bureaucracy issues. Yes, in that it does stand out a little bit more when you see a black guy making pizza on a woodfired oven it’s just variety that comes with that – a lot of people are surprised. When I talk about my experience people are like “Wow, I had no idea you knew so much” and I know it’s not because I’m a chef but because they haven’t experienced being around black chefs before. Black chefs with a variety of experience are actually low – for example, every Denver restaurant that has a black owner is under three genres Caribbean, African, or Soul food. So to see black chefs that are doing something outside of that does stand out a little bit more.
What are Learning Garden Grants and how is Project Pizza involved?
The charitable cause that Project Pizza was birthed under was funding food literacy efforts and one of the biggest ways is food gardens. We put that in our mission statement: “Why a bus? Project Pizza is more than a business cranking out delicious wood-fire pizzas. We have dreams of this operation supporting food literacy education in young minds. We plan to use sales to support school gardens and other activities that educate the youth on how food is grown, processed, distributed, consumed, and managed as waste. A school bus fits the aesthetic better than any other vehicle.”
Project Pizza is in the first phase of its life and hopefully, in the next phase, it will transform into a full nonprofit, where its goal is to fund school gardens. That’s down the line but in the meantime, we set a portion of every pizza ($1 per pizza) and that goes to funding grants that we will give out to people and organizations that apply for it to start their own gardens.
Learn more about the Learning Garden Grants Program.
Can you tell us about the new book you wrote?
Up With a Scoop is a children’s book for 3-5-year-olds in a rhyming fashion that talks about the food system cycle. It starts on the farm, then through the processing, to the grocery store, to the house, to the composting bin, and all the way back to the farm.
What’s something thing that would surprise people about your business?
We don’t use any gas, heat, like generators or anything like that. The only thing gas is the engine for the bus. Every other food truck in town would use propane heaters or stuff like that. I don’t want gas anywhere near it. We do for the taste. People legitimately are shocked when we tell them we only use wood to cook pizza.
We also don’t take tips. A lot of people are stunned by that. Some people don’t even like it. I don’t really find it a very socially responsible practice. And I want the business to be a reflection of that. I don’t feel like it’s the customer’s job to pay people’s salaries. We pay them [staff] starting at $25 an hour. We provide benefits, PTO, and even gym and movie perks. Social responsibility is an important thing to us, there’s no sacrifice in that.
The speed at which we crank pizzas out can surprise people. The oven gets up to about 900 degrees. We can do 100 pizzas an hour, but comfortably we can do 60 pizzas in 60 minutes. It’s nice because when people seek us out for catering or private events our capacity is great.
What’s your favorite pizza on the menu?
I really enjoy having a simplified menu. We offer around five items and that’s it. We rotate the menu every 2-3 weeks but we always keep “The Pep” pepperoni pizza and the “Jane” which is either a “Jazzy Jane” in the colder months (pureed basil) or a “Plain Jane” in the summer months (fresh basil).
My favorite is the Native Hill, it’s kale and charred onion. The kale is great, sourced from Native Hill Farms. I marinate it with vinegar, chilis, lots of salt and pepper. It’s super great.
Not a lot of our pizzas are a red sauce because red sauce doesn’t pair well with beer and we’re always at breweries and so I find there is to add to the list of surprises. People really like when there’s a red sauce. Whenever you try to create a dish in the culinary world you always want to balance your acid, your bitter, your sweet, salty, umami flavors. So if you’re drinking a really acidic beer, having a tomato-based pizza is not going to be your best bet.
Any special projects you want to share with the community?
This April, we’re launching our next venture, called The Black Rabbit. It is an old horse trailer that we’re converting into a mobile boozy ice cream shop. We’re in the R&D process and working with two local breweries. We’re going to have Stodgy’s Imperial Stout and we’re thinking about doing a Mexican chocolate stout and calling it Sweet Stodgy. Then Sparge Brewing has their Crushable Cream, which is their number one seller. We’ll have chocolate and sweet cream along with six boozy ones – two wine-based, two liquor-based, and two beer-based.