Competition can bring out the best in many people. When life-long pizza aficionado James Whitehead drove by the Old Oakland Farmer’s Market one Friday afternoon in 2009 and spied Pizza Politana making wood-fired pizza from a trailer and serving it on the street, the die were cast for him. He pulled over, got in line and watched and waited “for like a half an hour” to get a pizza on the street. A burgeoning home pizza maker whose friends had encouraged him to think about selling his own pies, James was so intrigued by what he saw that day, he knew he could start a similar business.
“It was captivating,” he said.
James originally started “consciously thinking about” pizza making in 2006 and 2007 after he and his partner bought a house in East Oakland. Starting with a recipe for yeasted pizza dough that he got from the Cheeseboard Collective cookbook, he adapted and built on the recipe over the years and would often invite friends over to share his experiments. A graphic designer by trade, he had worked at “big magazines,” such as Wired in the late 90s and early 2000s before going freelance. But as the economic downturn took hold in 2010, he began to get worried about the skillset he was using and his potential for clients.
“It was pretty obvious that I needed to either really start pushing to get new clients or figure out something else to do, and when I saw Pizza Politana, something clicked, and I was like ‘I’m going to figure out a way to do that myself and give him a run for his money,’” James said.
A few months later, serendipity stepped in when his partner discovered an advertisement for a class at the Institute of Mosaic Art in Oakland offering a one-time class in building a cement-based, wood-fired pizza oven. She showed James the ad and he “was like, ‘What?!? I’m taking that class!’ he said. He was so determined to learn how to build his own pizza oven, he offered to buy out the whole class when it almost didn’t happen, he said. “I don’t care how much it costs,’ he recalled telling them. “I’ll do it!” Lucky for him, the class filled up and was held without him having to buy out the class himself.
After learning from the course instructor that it was indeed feasible to haul a home-built cement pizza oven around on a trailer, James decided to build his first oven in the backyard. Six months later, he’d come up with the name Fist of Flour and started a small mailing list and got on his local Listserv to sell pizza on the down low from his backyard.
“I got on the local Listserv and was like ‘hey, it’s Monday night—anybody want pizza?’ And I’d sit there and just wait for somebody to just text me or email or call, and we started selling a few pizzas here and there,” he said.
James quickly developed a small fan base in his immediate neighborhood. As he was starting to sell his pizzas, he was simultaneously formulating a plan for how he could turn it into a business. Despite having no formal restaurant or culinary training, he says one thing just kept leading to another and by the summer of 2010 he felt ready to build his own trailer oven. He got his first gig back at the Institute of Mosaic Art commemorating their fifth anniversary with a pizza party, where he sold 33 pies on his maiden voyage
Flush with that first success, James then started selling at a small farmer’s market held in the Giant Burger parking lot in Oakland’s Laurel District, where he lives. Before that he’d just been hauling the oven and trailer around with a bus he bought, doing underground events on the fly.
“It really was just renegade—we’d do it where ever people wanted it. I was doing friends’ house parties, housewarmings, we were just working out this oven and figuring it out and figuring it out,” he said.
After six or eight months of doing the farmer’s market, it was clear they were becoming more popular, he said. Then he started to meet more people in the mobile food community and got involved with some people at Oakland Art Murmur and was also invited to make pizza for the opening of the Sacred Wheel Cheese Shop.
When he met a woman who was writing for Edible East Bay that wanted to do a story on him, he knew it was time to go legit. With the thought of what he was doing getting out there in the press, he knew he needed to get the proper business licenses he needed so he wouldn’t get busted and be shut down.
“It freaked me out so much that I went and was like ‘Allright, we’re doing this.’ I got all my paperwork in order and joined a commissary and got a business license, insurance, everything and Fist of Flour Pizza Company was officially born March 23rd, 2011,” James said. After that, his first big public event was the Oakland Art Murmur, where he sold out with 77 pizzas.
“It pretty much just took off from there…suddenly we had a small fan base, and I could see it growing and I never looked back,” he said. “That’s how it all started.”
The name Fist of Flour is a pun, James said, on how they use their fists to pull, stretch and toss the pizza dough. A fan of Bruce Lee movies, he likened the speed of his team’s fists when tossing dough to Lee’s flying hands in the film Fist of Fury. Then James remembered that Lee also had connections to Oakland—apparently he taught martial arts in the city during the 70s. The fist is also appropriate, James said, because it’s always been a symbol representing power for the people. “I always say ‘Pizza to the People,’” he said. Thus, the genesis of the name.
In October 2013, James took over the space that formerly belonged to Roma Pizza in Oakland’s Laurel District, opening his first brick and mortar space. Also known as the “doughjo,” now the business has both the permanent spot—which is open every week from Tuesdays through Sunday in the late afternoon and evenings—as well as the portable oven. Pizzas at the shop are made in two gas ovens, and they have about six staple pizzas and two salads available on the shop menu at a given time, in addition to build-your-own options. Although there is some seating, it’s primarily a take-out establishment at this point.
“Our grand opening week was really intense—people really responded. After three and a half years of building a street rep…it was a crazy first week…it was insane, the phone was ringing off the hook, and we damn near exploded,” he said.
“My original mission was to get some good pizza where I lived in East Oakland, and when this place opened up, I jumped on it,” he said. “I figured we’d work it out, we’d figure it out when we got there. I figured I didn’t know what I was doing four years ago when I started, why start learning now?” he added with a hint of sarcasm. “That might explain why the first couple of months were a little rough but it’s been a good learning experience. We’ll be open six months July 15 and we’re just starting to hit our stride.”
Because they’re now juggling the shop and the catering business, Fist of Flour has grown to have nine employees on staff, not including himself. And they’re averaging at least three events on weekends, in addition to events during the week. The extra staff will allow them to start double-booking events, James said.
James believes what sets Fist of Flour apart from other pizzas is that everything is made from scratch, except for the pepperoni and their cheeses. They focus on high-quality ingredients and don’t follow any particular traditions beyond trying to recreate the kind of pizza he likes and grew up with, he says. Instead, they try to make sure everything is always consistent, flavorful and high quality. All his recipes were honed at home over the years where he says he “watched a lot of Food Network.”
“We make everything in house, and we put a lot of love into everything we do. I just believe in our product. We use mostly organic ingredients, I don’t really skimp. My food costs are a little high for a pizza place, I could be making a lot more money, but I’d rather provide a much better product. We focus on quality rather than quantity. I’m not interested in making 600 pizzas a day. I don’t want to be some large thing. I want to be some niche market artisan focusing on flavor and interactions with people out in the world,” he said. “We get to connect more with the customer.”
For their dough, James said they use very little yeast, and they let it age for up to seven days in a cold proof so that it can “do it’s own thing.” They use unbleached, all-purpose flour from Giusto’s in Daly City. According to James, the flour has no additives—unlike other flours out there, it consists of “flour and a sack,” he said. He also sifts and aerates his flour. For his sauce, he also keeps it simple using just crushed tomatoes, garlic, black pepper, a bit of chili flake, salt and basil. All the tomatoes are organic, sourced from a farm in Hollister. They also use as much organic produce as they possibly can, primarily sourced from Dan’s Produce in Alameda. For special events, he’ll hand-pick ingredients himself, he says. They recently catered a wedding, and he chose all the tomatoes for a caprese salad himself.
“I still do all the shopping, I pick everything up myself,” James said.
Meat for his meatballs and sausage is ground in-house, and they make their own aioli as a base for their salad dressings. Half–baked pizzas are available, as well as a “take and bake” package of fresh dough and sauce. Those are really popular with families, James said, because it lets kids make their own pizzas.
“The short and the long was I was bored I was sick of making jpegs for Powerpoint. And the day I saw Pizza Politana I was like, ‘here we go.’ And I applied the focus there,” he said.
“I had a nice life, paid the bills, but I was bored out of my mind and wanted to challenge myself, and that summer it became all about pizza and that was that,” he added.
James says he’s reached a point now where he feels like he can take a step back and think about the next thing, which, he says, will definitely be something in food—perhaps a restaurant.
“It’s become a real thing now,” he said.
What drew you to food?
What drew me to pizza, food, is pretty obvious, we need to eat, but what drew me into food was a couple of really influential friends in my life and having a kitchen that I felt really comfortable in in my house, just making food for my partner and for friends. Pizza has just been a life-long love. Really, I blame Pizza Politana—that just set it for me that was it. And just a lack of anything really good to eat where I lived. That was what really focused me on ‘where am I going to get the food that I love? Well, I have to make it myself.’ So necessity drew me to food, in short.
Memories of going to Pasquale’s in San Francisco and watching the guy throwing the dough in the air. There was Village Pizza in Carlmont in Belmont, we’d go there. For me, pizza was every Friday night, that was dinner. My parents would take us out, we’d go play video games, we’d eat some pizza and have a great time. We’d have pizza birthday parties. Most of my birthday parties happened at either Chuck E. Cheese’s or Pizza and Pipes, Straw Hat, you name it—soccer pizza parties. Pizza is just the most American thing I think there is next to apple pie. And it’s the most accessible. Most people eat pizza. At least once a week. It’s sort of a no-brainer. And when more than 20 people told me that ‘your pizza’s really good, you should try and sell it,’ I was like ‘All right, I’m gonna try that’ because, I said, I didn’t really know what else to do with myself. And when you love something, I think it shows. I think that’s what separates us.
Where does your food inspiration come from?
Being a California native, pretty much having access to everything available under the sun. Fresh ingredients are inspiring. Even when we bought the house, the first couple of years we actually did a lot of urban farming, as much stuff as we could grow in our little yard. I think just the accessibility here. Growing up eating, my parents were not rich, we ate junk food and canned vegetables. It was the 70s. But now being an adult and having access to all these amazing fruit and vegetables, and just other friends in the business that cook, and having amazing food at our fingertips is inspiring.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve gotten along the way in building your business? What advice would you have for others?
I was just told the other day that the best advice I’ve given was to an emerging food truck called Kenny’s Heart and Soul. I just saw him Friday night and he was like ‘Man, James, two years ago when we met, you said something to me that just blew me away.’ I said “How do you know if people are even going to buy your food? Have you sold anything yet? You’re going to spend $80,000 on a truck? What’s your name, who are you? Does anybody care? Do your research. Know your market and stick to your guns, don’t stray.”
And the best advice I was given—can’t do it, ‘til you do it. My friend Lexie said that, ‘You won’t know until it happens. If you don’t do it, you’ll never know. So do it.’
But Kenny came up to me and was like, ‘Dude, you blew my mind when you said that.’ Because then he went and did a pop up and started selling food. And he learned, oh, yeah this is hard, this is not easy, and you’d better make sure your shit’s legit or else people aren’t going to buy it. Especially in the Bay Area. There’s so much. Crème brulee carts, peanut butter and jelly, grilled cheese, every little niche is being explored right now in the mobile food revolution that’s finally come to America. If you travel the world, everybody eats on the streets. There’s carts everywhere. Out of the back of a bicycle, I had the most amazing samosas in India or fresh tea. Or Thailand, there are little bites everywhere, that’s how people live. Here it’s so constrained, and so it’s about time that we had this sort of street food revolution here in America. And I wanted to be a part of it. ‘Cause I didn’t have a lot of money to start. I started this business with about 20 grand, that was all it took and we built it. It was enough money to build the oven, buy a van, get it painted and buy some food, pay for my kitchen fees. That money was gone in like two weeks. I spent it all right away and now, here we are—bam!
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced thus far?
In the beginning it was figuring out all the legalities, especially in Oakland where to this date, there’s still no comprehensive mobile food policy. So navigating that was tough three years ago, and we sat in on a lot of meetings with city people and meeting with other potential food truck people. Just figuring it all out, there was no rules, there was no playbook, we had to just look at other cities and talk to people like ‘how do we do this?’ Then we overcame all that, and now the biggest challenge is keeping the doors open. Tuesday nights we might sell 20 pizzas – that’s barely justifying keeping the doors open. But you have to commit, you have to do it, you have to provide a consistent time and place and product that people will respond to. So I think the biggest challenge has been growing and adjusting—more bills, more fees, more payroll taxes, the legalities of a true business now are kind of overwhelming at times. Just answering emails is incredibly difficult. That’s definitely been the biggest challenge is just the growth, the rate of growth and balancing that with what’s left of my personal life.
What’s the best thing about what you’re doing for a living?
It’s different everyday. There’s a new challenge everyday. Whether it’s parking the trailer somewhere, getting in, figuring out how we’re going to do this, I think it’s just the ever-changing environment, which keeps it exciting. And connecting with the communities that we go to—that’s definitely important to us. We do a lot of stuff with kids, grade schools, people call us to do school carnivals. Giving kids something that’s accessible like pizza that’s made with really good ingredients and people are like ‘whoa, this isn’t just Little Caesar’s’ this is something you want to eat. There’s no preservatives, there’s no junk in it.
What’s your favorite item on your menu?
I’m really happy with the fennel sausage. That, and the things we make in-house. I feel like we use high-quality meats, there’s no nitrates in it, I can control the process from every step. Once it leaves the farm, it’s all in my hands. We sort of pride ourselves on making all of our stuff. I’m really happy with the sausage—it’s one of our best selling pizzas here [at the store], we can’t keep it in house, we run out by Sunday night. The [other] meats—we use Molinari out of San Francisco, and they’ve been making sausages and salamis for 116 years—they know what they’re doing.
What other local food artisans do you admire? Why?
Certainly some of my biggest friends in the mobile scene are like Roland Robles of 510 Burger. He’s just a powerhouse—I met him years ago when he was just building his first truck. I didn’t even know who he was—turns out he was this head chef in San Francisco for eight years before I met him, he’s just been doing it for a long time. I really like his style and his approach to everything, he’s just a powerhouse. Tina Ramos—Tina Tamale—she and I are really good friends. She’s just got that Old Oakland [shop and] her family’s been doing Mexican in Oakland for 65 years, and she’s taught me a lot about how to scale up and do larger events. Alexeis Filipello—another female business owner that runs a really successful bar, Bar Dogwood and the Stag’s Lunchette, with a really awesome menu, hormone-free stuff. There’s really a lot of people, and it’s mostly the people I associate with on a regular basis—it’s kind of like there’s a little club. We’re all friends—I don’t think I have too many enemies, considering every other food truck, even if they make pizza—like Pizza Politana – Joel and his wife Naomi, they’re great. I see them at every event, we chat. He was super inspiring to me because he’s got like five trailers, and he’s at every big event, he’s been doing it since 2006. That was probably my biggest inspiration, like I said. I blame him for getting me into this in the first place, and I admire what they’ve done and following their business model. We’re all in this together, if we can’t work together, they why work at all? I don’t want to be angry. I don’t want to work alongside people that are angry. I won’t work with those people. And there are those people out there that I’ll never work with. It’s a network—it’s a friend network—and we need to all stick together because we’re all doing it together and none of us can do it alone. We certainly can’t do it without customers.
Probably grilled cheese and chicken noodle soup with sliced pickles stuffed in the grilled cheese. With as many slices of American cheese as I can shove in that sandwich. Dirty, yummy, yellow, pasteurized product cheese food, I don’t care what it is. Grilled cheese and soup is my comfort—I feel like I’m dying, I’m sick, I just need grilled cheese. I’d even dare say I’d crack open a can of Campbell’s chicken soup. I mean, I make a really nice chicken soup myself, but it’s the best. It’s good, it’s warming. Grilled cheese and chicken noodle soup—with Ritz crackers, gotta have Ritz crackers, those are the best. Or anything that’s even close to a buttery cracker like that, I have to have crackers in my soup. That’s been my go-to meal—that was the first thing I learned to cook. Six years old, and we were latch key kids and my dad was like, ‘Here’s the can, here’s how you open it, here’s the skillet, here’s how you make grilled cheese. Go for it.’ And I’d make lunch for my brother.
Favorite Bay Area foods/resto/chef?
It’s hard to say. I really just like the entire food scene here in the Bay Area, and I’m always just excited to try new things. Nido is one of my new [favorites]—I’ve eaten there three times already in the last month, and I’m like, wow, it’s really good. That’s nice. I’m just happy to see my town coming alive right now, and I want to try them all. I can’t pick a favorite because every week I’m in a different mood.
Fist of Flour Pizza
Photos courtesy of James Whitehead, Fist of Flour Pizza.