Forget the Headliners: The Real Star of Coachella Is Spicy Pie Pizza
A stoked Spicy Pie customer at Coachella 2017
Every year, Coachella goers passionately debate the quality of the lineup — which artists should have been included, who was placed too low on the poster and who should have been lower or not there at all.
There is one element of the festival audiences always agree on, however, and it is pizza.
Pizza is a cultural touchstone. It is our comfort food. It is our shared cheesy pleasure and the eternally satisfying food item we love to aggressively shove into our mouths at the end of the night when we’re making the long trek back to the parking lot. This is why Spicy Pie is one of the enduring superstars of Coachella.
Setting up shop on the Empire Polo Grounds each year, the beloved pizza stand is staffed by a sprawling collection of musicians, wanderers, family members and old friends. This cross-country network of festival-loving comrades is united under the common goal of delivering pizza to the masses, but the real motivation transcends tomato sauce. In Spicy Pie, many employees have found their core festival crew.
Happiness on a plate
“Spicy Pie does seem to have its own culture,” says Spicy Pie co-founder JJ Parent. “We have waves of different people passing through; some stay, some go. Friends invite friends, family, band members, fellow artists, travelers, and the list keeps growing. It feels bigger than Spicy Pie; bigger than a music festival.”
The Spicy Pie story begins in 2000 in Burlington, Vermont, when JJ and her husband, Chris Parent, bought an old ambulance and set up a pizza shop inside. They loved the outdoors and music festivals especially, and the business made it possible for the Parents to make money while traveling to shows. They drove their “vanbulance” to events around the country, slinging pizzas and soon adding solar panels, a surf rack and a bed. They got as far as Costa Rica, where they came up with the pizza recipes — the jalapeño and pineapple Hot Lips Hulahan, the veggies and parmesan Gnarly Marley, the classic jalapeño, crushed red pepper and pepperoni Spicy Pie — while hanging on the beach. Their hippie chariot later broke down in the Appalachian Mountains while en route to a show.
Seventeen years later, the Parents have relocated to Oceanside and now operate Spicy Pie out of a mobile office located in an old bus. They fatefully crossed paths with Empire Polo Club employees years ago, and have been a Coachella fixture ever since. One fake Coachella lineup even had Spicy Pie headlining Friday night and "the bad pizza w/ the shorter line than Spicy Pie that you will never get again" playing on Sunday.
Each season Spicy Pie sets up shop at more then 25 music festivals including Desert Trip, Stagecoach, CRSSD, HARD Summer, FYF, Tennessee’s Bonnaroo, Michigan’s Electric Forest, and Ultra in Miami. The core crew tows ovens and supplies thousands of miles back and forth across the country for events, like a band pushing pepperoni instead of rock.
Spicy Pie at Coachella 2017
The staff for each festival is fleshed out with locals, many of whom return every year and have found a family of like-minded free thinkers in the Spicy Pie community. The Parents focus on diversity in their hiring, and offer crews an opportunity to attend festivals for free while also making some cash. Many crew members return every year. Some even take vacation from their day jobs to work at Spicy Pie during festivals.
“The culture is one of the beautiful things about this job, and it’s why I keep coming back and why I think everyone else does,” says Spicy Pie manager Tori Tremayne, who’s been with the company for five years. “We bring in a lot of queer people, people of color, hippies, and somehow we all work well together and learn and grow from each other. It’s almost magic. I don’t think any other booth has the same kind of variety we have when it comes to people.”
“I’ve met some of the most incredible people through Spicy Pie,” echoes Coachella crewmember Rebecca Morrison, who is in her second season with the company. “A lot of us are radical humans that don’t really align with capitalism, and to have a small community of tight-knit queer anarchists is pretty sick. It’s a community that encourages me to be as radical as I want to be.”
Another satisfied customer.
Coachella is one of Spicy Pie’s biggest events of the year, with a staff of nearly 100 working five booths set up throughout the Coachella grounds, including a 24-hour stand in the campgrounds. While some chichi food stands at Coachella now sell entrees for nearly $20, Spicy Pie prices have held steady at a reasonable $7 per ample slice. They sell thousands of pies during the weekend (“You could fill the Do LaB with it,” Parent says), offering six types of pizza plus a secret slice that isn’t on the menu. Workdays can extend more than 12 hours, with Spicy Pie usually the only stand open at the end of the night, standing like a beacon of sustenance for ravenous fans.
“We stay open until security shuts us down,” Tremayne says. “We stay open until the bitter end.”
Despite the long days, the vibe behind the counter stays festive, with staff often seen dancing, singing and joking around when you roll up to buy a slice. Most employees camp on-site and get to see parts of the festival not available even to VIPs, including Lady Gaga’s Saturday morning soundcheck. These rare opportunities, combined with the chance to be part of a community (and presumably get a few slices of free pizza), mean Spicy Pie employees are often having as good a time as the festivalgoers they're serving.
“Every year I’m like, ‘I should get a real job,’” Tremayne says. “But there’s something about Spicy Pie that I can’t let go of.”
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