Today one of the customers said to me that our pizza was the best he’d ever eaten. Not the best vegan pizza, but the best pizza. Period. For me, this seconds-long exchange was a moment of tangible success. It was recognition of what we’ve managed to achieve in the past one and a half years – and I’d like to tell you a little bit about how we got here.
18 months ago, when we decided to launch a fully plant-based restaurant chain and franchise, we thought that at least one of our products needed to have mainstream appeal. We toyed with various kinds of burgers and fries, but then abandoned that idea because it’s not really who we are or what we do, that is whole and healthy foods.
That’s when our attention moved to pizza. The food known all over the world, instantly recognizable, simple in terms of process, but also whole and made out of fresh ingredients. At the time (early 2019) I moved to Moscow for several months to apprentice with chef Ivan Dubkov at his vegetarian restaurant Richter to gain some experience in a professional kitchen. I later invited Ivan to become a part of the Tolstoy food concept team.
While in Moscow I witnessed a pinsa boom. What’s pinsa? All the hip Italian places weren’t selling pizza but pinsa – a rectangular pizza made not with the thin chewy Neapolitan dough most of us associate with quality pizza but a relatively thick dough that in the oven develops an airy, crispy crust on the outside but also stays a bit soft on the inside. I loved the thing the moment I tried it – and I immediately knew that I wanted it to feature on our menu.
That’s when the hard work started.
The first thing I did was to get some experience working in one of DoDo Pizza’s kitchens in Moscow. I just opened their website, submitted an application and the next day I was already standing in there kitchen as a new kitchen employee.
DoDo is a young Russian pizza chain: famous for their transparency, optimized processes, digitization and consistently tasty, affordable American-style pizza. In just 9 years, these guys managed to build a global pizza chain with 653 locations and are now the 87th largest restaurant chain by number of locations in the world. DoDo Pizza influenced me a lot, I spent just 3 or 4 weeks there, but I learnt so much about pizza and fast-food in general – many of the processes we currently use in Tolstoy’s operations, from warehousing to assembly, I adapted directly from DoDo Pizza.
DoDo became a model and an inspiration for us and for me personally.
The second thing I did was to start working on the dough recipe with my team.
We very quickly realized that we needed a partner who can handle the complex combination of wheat, rice and soy flours, sourdough and a long 72 hour dough fermentation process, had experience working with the dough and had the capacity to produce the volumes we required. We were lucky to find such a partner in northern Italy and after some experimenting, we developed the product we have today.
The result is Tolstoy’s fully plant-based pinsa – crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside, with a hint of complexity thanks to the sourdough and that long ferment. Tolstoy’s chef de cuisine Olivia Tucek then developed our signature tomato sauce based on sun-ripened San Marzano tomatoes sourced directly from Italy and put a lot of thought into the various plant-based toppings we offer.
We know that our pinsa is amazing. As ever in the hospitality industry, the real challenge is getting that message out there and convincing the public to take a chance on something unfamiliar and step through our doors. The first step, in Leo Tolstoy’s words.
We’re confident that we’re onto something good here. It’s impossible to predict the outcome of a new project when you start out, but the proof that 18 months of hard work had paid off were encapsulated perfectly in a five-second exchange with a customer in our first week of operations: “that was the best pizza I’ve ever had”.
(photos by Kaleb Warnock)