Chef Q & A, Part 2: Paul Hibler & David Sanfield of Pitfire Pizza, the Velvet Underground and Reclaimed Wood
Pitfire Artisan Pizza owners David Sanfield and Paul Hibler at their Culver City location
"Radiohead!" "U2!" "Peter Frampton!" Owners Paul Hibler and David Sanfield are arguing about how to explain the difference between their Pitfire Artisan Pizza company and California Pizza Kitchen. In musical terms. Their idea, not ours. It's no surprise for a company they dub the "anti-chain" and compare to an indie record store. After all, they've created an internet radio station to stream into their four locations -- curated by a music director who began as a server -- and they let their staff audition to use the DJ turntables after the lights go down at 8 p.m.
In part one, Hibler and Sanfield talked about how their company grew over the last 14 years to become a $10 million-a-year business. In part two, the two discuss why the design of their Culver City location -- their newest of the four and the only they designed from the ground-up -- has gotten so many accolades. They also finally decide what music artist C.P.K. would be if it grew vocal chords and a pair of legs. And check back later for an heirloom tomato pizza recipe.
Squid Ink: So how'd you decide on the design of the Culver City restaurant?
Paul Hibler: When we went to Barbara [Bestor], we had tried to do it with a different architect, and it wasn't working out. She just sort of sat down and listened to us because what we were talking about here was actually our frustration from a year ago. We didn't know. We were trying to create an expression of who we were and have it shine through, and we hadn't done that yet.
SI: And now you have that.
PH: When you start with this wonderful baseline, it tells you a lot about us without us saying a word. You don't have to have a picture of our pizza up on the wall here. You get it when you walk in, and that's the value of working with really talented designers. I had this fantasy with the next few that it's going to be kind of like what case study homes were like. You know about case study homes in L.A. architecture? A series of homes that were commissioned to different young architects. Modernists using affordable low cost materials to create ideas in housing.
David Sanfield: It was a competition.
PH: Yeah. and out of that came all of these designers.
DS: Schindler and Neutra and --
PH: And from all of that came these classic houses, and I have this feeling that that's what Pitfire will be. We're really going to push that envelope. Because we're not a cookie-cutter company. Every [location] will have its own little interests and uniqueness.
DS: This restaurant was nominated for an outstanding restaurant design James Beard award and won the American Institute of Architects award. This is the one location that was done from the ground up by an award-winning and serious architect, Barbara Bestor. She was not involved in any of the other projects. This is it. This whole build-up, which included operating capital and everything, was $800,000. So to compete in that design area where most of the other projects cost a couple million, and to understand that the judges were not looking at how much money got thrown at a job...
This is not like a glamor design. We're not in Vegas here. This is pretty down low. What they're getting is that this is a perfect realization of concept and design put together in a way that is pleasing to everybody. Nobody walks in this place and doesn't get it. Whether they live in a two-door house in Malibu or whatever bizarre choice they make in their own life. Everyone walks in and finds this a pleasing space.
PH: That's what I was saying. It's a realization and expression of what we're trying to do. It matches our food. It's all reflected, and that was the unique skill of Barbara. She heard what our desire was, and when we actually talked about what we wanted this to look like, it was nothing like this. As a great designer does, she very elegantly turned us into this direction.
DS: Basically, we told her what we wanted, and she designed the restaurant that she wanted. [Laughter.]
PH: No, that's not true. She listened to what result we wanted. Because we're not designers. She is. You know what was really hot at the time? Gjelina. So that was the whole reclaimed wood. Industrial chairs. And all that stuff was burning, wicked hot. So then she kinda moved us into this minimalist, modern plywood, fun space that has nothing to do with that.
Server at the Pitfire Artisan Pizza Culver City location
SI: Gjelina's dark.
PH: And dense. There's lots of great detail. It's a beautiful restaurant, but it's got all sorts of old light fixtures.
DS: Every restaurant now is made with old timber. Every restaurant. I think the thing that we started with when we started with Barbara is that we knew we were going to sand blast the cinderblock and leave it exposed.
PH: We thought we knew.
DS: Yeah, that's about all we knew
PH: And then we changed everything. You know this was a Shakey's Pizza? The founder and owner of Shakey's, who also owns BJ's Pizza. The owner owns this building.
DS: Shakey's is our landlord.
SI: To someone who hears "California pizza" and immediately connects Pitfire to California Pizza Kitchen, how would you differentiate the two? Why is Pitfire the anti-chain?
Counter at the Pitfire Artisan Pizza West L.A. location
DS: How bad do we want to slam C.P.K.?
PH: I don't want to slam C.P.K.
DS: They're coming from a very different place than we're coming from.
PH: We don't want to talk about them.
DS: I know.
PH: How do you tell someone about Pitfire? That's interesting. We make really, really good pizza. It's in the name, right? Pitfire Artisan Pizza. So there's a huge focus on that craft more than anything here. Barbara unlocked it. We sell twice as many pizzas in this restaurant percentage-wise as all the others. For no reason discernible except if you look at the oven and how really the whole restaurant is built around that bright red oven. It really is. Everybody can see it. It's not quite like that at any of the other stores. That's why. Same exact quality and everything. People come to Pitfire; they have pizza. That's what they have.
DS: It's not quite so easy to put into words. C.P.K. has really got it easy because they can define it down to one sentence: "We invented California pizza."
PH: They can say that.
DS: And you don't have to talk about quality or anything. "But, it's in our title, California Pizza Kitchen, and we're the guys that created this. The 9" gourmet [pizza], all kinds of wild ingredients." So in a sense, it would be wrong to say that we we're not in some ways the bastard children of C.P.K. because this is a hybrid between a European product, an American product and a California product.
PH: Here it is: We're like the Radiohead of pizza. No, wait.
DS: And they're the U2? (Laughter)
PH: No, wait. Are we like--
DS: Hold on, hold on. No, we're--
PH: David Bowie.
DS: No, hold on. (Laughter) I know what we are. Cause we're the Velvet Underground. I'm just not sure what they are.
PH: Rod Stewart!
DS: No, because even that's... Okay, they're Peter Frampton.
PH: Yeah, but he's not around anymore. We gotta pick someone that's still around. I think Rod Stewart is relevant. He's doing kind of like Frank Sinatra covers. No?
DS: Hmm... We're definitely the Velvet Underground. We just have to figure out what they are.
PH: Okay, they're like the Elton John of pizza. If you pushed me to the ground [and asked]. (Both laugh)
DS: That's good.
PH: Elton John. Rhinestone Cowboy.
DS: And not Honky Château Elton John.
PH: Philadelphia Freedom Elton John.
DS: Okay. Yeah.
Si: So then why are you the Velvet Underground?
DS: Because we took something that was already there. You can't say that the Velvet Underground doesn't have wide appeal, but they're originators. They took something that already existed, rock 'n roll, and twisted it in their own head, to their own device and sort of took it in a whole new direction. Yeah.
Si: You guys are the Velvet Underground and --
DS: They're Elton John.
PH: Everyone else is Elton John.
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