The Pizza Place That Feeds Facebook

Russ Banham

Who doesn’t love pizza? What appealed to me about the following story is that it involves a startup company that leveraged new technology to make a better pie, at a time when fashionable pizza parlors countrywide were eating up market share using old-fashioned baking methods–burning coal and wood.

The sheer serendipity of the story also grabbed me. Young techies are pizza-mad for sure and for good reason—they can’t pry themselves away from their computers. A pizza shop next door to a tech-shop can fuel constant creative programming. One can even surmise that without proximate pizza, the world’s most famous social media site might have turned out quite differently in the end.

Bill Freeman is a serial entrepreneur, the classic type of businessperson who builds a company from scratch and then gets the itch to build another. And when it comes to exploring “encore careers,” Bill’s story is a perfect example of why we should think outside the pizza box and consider diverse opportunities, not just those in our career industry.

After a long and successful career in Silicon Valley starting such businesses as United Telecom, Freeman had more than enough money to lounge on the patio of his manse in Marin County, California, in perpetuity. Then, he munched on a slice of pizza made by his boyhood pal Francisco “Paxti” Aspiroz at his small pizzeria in Berkeley. The pizza’s crisp crust scratched Freeman’s dormant entrepreneurial itch.

“It was similar to Chicago deep-dish pizza, though slightly less thick and doughy and incredibly crisp without being burned,” he says.

The secret was Aspiroz’s state-of-the-art electric oven, which came from Italy and cooked at 800 degrees—much higher than the hottest wood-fired ovens that were just beginning to take America by storm, pizza-wise.

The businessman in Freeman saw dollars in that oven, which not only produced a more delicious pizza, it cut down the time to make a pie by 35 percent. He and Aspiroz launched Paxti’s Pizza in Palo Alto in 2004 as a single restaurant. Unbeknownst to them, they had serendipitously located their dining establishment one door away from a small social media startup run by a 20-year old programmer named Mark Zuckerberg, who just happened to love their pizza.

Yes, that Mark Zuckerberg, co-founder of Facebook. “He’d eat here five days a week and brush his teeth in our bathroom,” says Freeman. “When the film `Social Network’ was shooting, they asked us to send them our pizza boxes for authenticity’s sake. You can see them in the movie.”

For the first few years, running Paxti’s was like a hobby to Freeman, who was used to managing much larger enterprises. He focused on his wife and children, bought and managed a few apartment buildings on the side. But, as diners started lining up outside the Palo Alto restaurant, thoughts of expansion scratched that old itch again. When the financial crisis hit in 2007-08, he decided, as he put it, “to go full-bore.”

Plans were put forth to develop several other Paxti’s Pizza throughout California, each with the same energy-efficient Italian electric ovens. Freeman wanted the interior designed to convey a warm, welcoming family-like ambience. Reclaimed woods are used throughout, including the long bar that extends from the interior of each establishment to the outdoor al fresco area.

Unlike other upscale pizza chains popping up like mushrooms the past few years, he did not want the chefs or the ovens visible to diners. “Why would anyone want to watch a bunch of sweating cooks?” he says. The ovens and cooks are located beyond the dining area.

Aside from his design aesthetic, Freeman’s background in Silicon Valley also assisted the thriving company, which tallies 16 restaurants in the state and another set to open in Seattle’s old Ballard neighborhood this year. Freeman developed a sophisticated mobile app that uses a predictive algorithm. Using a mobile device, a customer can order a pie and know exactly when it will come out of the oven, guaranteeing little to no wait at the restaurant—the kind of prompt service that time-constrained techies adore.

They can also use the app to order pizza for delivery to their homes.

“The goal is to deliver the freshest pizza in as few minutes as possible—much less than the usual 45-minute wait,” Freeman says. “You order a custom-made pie on the app, can see when it was put in the oven and exactly how much time is left for it to cook. You also can see who the delivery driver is (a picture of the person appears on the buyer’s mobile device), and can watch the driver’s progress on the GPS as he or she makes it to your home, sort of like Uber.”
He adds, “If we’re late by a single minute, we’ll credit the buyer’s loyalty program for a free pie.”

Asked if Mark Zuckerberg orders Paxti’s Pizza today from his home in Palo Alto, Freeman declined to comment. “Let’s just say I’d be surprised if he didn’t,” he says.

 

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