There’s No Place like the Wizard of Za
If you haven’t scored a spot on Wizard of Za’s waitlist… you’ll have to wait just a little bit longer. But, there is pizza somewhere over the rainbow.
Pizza Oz can now be found in Clintonville. And in just a few weeks, the cult Instagram brand will be through its waitlist and slinging Sicilian-style pies for the general public. (Although don’t expect a day-of grab, these pizzas will remain a pre-order experience.)
Youngstown roots, COVID, and some Instagram-worthy pies all play a part in Spencer Saylor’s journey from underground pizza following to brick-and-mortar partnership with local, fast-casual sushi joint FUSIAN.
A Youngstown, OH transplant, Saylor grew up with Italian comfort food, where recipes were passed down from generation to generation, and folks would wait an hour plus to get food from their favorite local mom-and-pop restaurants.
Saylor says while Columbus has great Italian food and great pizza, “You always want that thing that reminds you of home.”
Unable to find the Sicilian-style pizza he was craving, Saylor started making pies, if for no other reason than to have them for himself. That was January 2019.
The next year would bring research, trial and error, and eating a whole lot of pizza. It also got Saylor thinking bigger. He saw a gap in Columbus for Sicilian-style pizza – and more – and between Youngstown transplants and folks from other major cities, he knew he couldn’t be the only one craving his particular brand of Italian cooking.
Meticulous in his research, watching videos and reading books, by January of 2020, Saylor crafted a pizza that he was comfortable sharing with friends and family.
That was when the pizzas started spider-webbing across Instagram. The Wizard of Za account itself had been humming along for about a year, documenting Saylor’s pizza-eating journeys as he traveled across the country, with a mix of self-made pie posts. But as friends and family got to try the pizzas and started posting on their own accounts, friends of friends came out of the woodwork and started reaching out to Saylor.
Word of mouth quickly grew into more than what Saylor could make in a day as a one-man operation, giving rise to the infamous waitlist. It was also time to move things from a home operation to a commercial kitchen space.
At a time when Wizard of Za was starting to take off, the rest of the world was slowing down. Saylor calls the coronavirus pandemic both a blessing and a curse for him.
A curse in the sense that he was furloughed from his job at a local catering company, a blessing in that he could drive head first into Wizard of Za.
“In our normal, day-to-day lives, we don’t have that time to sit down and really map out our dreams and our goals,” Saylor says.
He also knew exactly the environment he would be bringing Wizard of Za into.
“If you do your research and are smart about it, you get to go into this knowing what the playing field is,” Saylor says. “Folks that are already open, they didn’t have the time, they didn’t have the instruments and tools there to change their entire operation quickly and continue being profitable.”
Saylor has a background in the food and beverage industry, working for restaurant and catering companies. Coupled with a business degree, it gave him a basic understanding of the facets needed to turn his at-home operation into a certified business.
With that understanding, Saylor also knew making Wizard of Za a success wasn’t something he could do all on his own.
“If you want to truly succeed, you’ve gotta bring some other experts in that can help take some of that load off of you,” Saylor says.
The proposals were many. By mid-May 2020, Saylor was seeing interest in his concept from both local and regional restaurants and restaurant groups. Things had escalated to full-on survival mode for the industry, and carryout and pizza were king.
FUSIAN had kept an eye on what Saylor was doing, and heard glowing reviews from an employee who had tried the pizza. Things started casual. Saylor says FUSIAN and Co-Founder Steve Harman reached out and offered to connect, and potentially they could find a way to work together.
After a few weeks of “dating,” “It felt like the right place to be,” Saylor says.
Not only was the established, in-house administrative team at Saylor’s disposal as-needed appealing, but the understanding of being on the entrepreneurial journey and building a business from the ground up.
“While there were some other really great offers and opportunities, Steve and the group behind FUSIAN, they started about my age,” Saylor says. “Someone took a chance on them and they made every mistake they could possibly make in the last 10 years, and so it was that now they were in the position of, ‘Now we can take that chance on someone. We’ve been in your shoes; we’ve made the mistakes.’ So for somebody like myself that had never owned a restaurant, that was a huge selling point for me.”
Besides a love for pizza, “At the end of the day, it boils down to we believe in Spencer,” Harman says.
Harman saw an alignment in both businesses’ approach to food, and recognized the gap Wizard of Za would fill in the Columbus culinary scene.
“Anybody can make pizza, but it’s really the attention to detail for us that becomes the difference between good and great,” Harman says.
With a brick-and-mortar, more folks will get to experience great pizza. Having a physical location not only allows Saylor to hire staff, creating job opportunities for displaced workers, but ramp up production of his Sicilian-style pies.
Wizard of Za’s pies are a hand-made marvel, from the focaccia crust to the house-made sauce.
The focaccia crust is a signature of the style. However, the cheese which crowns the pizza is not, although the Wizard’s pies feature it.
“Most Sicilian-style doesn’t have any cheese, and so now it’s adapting to kind of an Italian-American way that people are used to,” Saylor says. “But now we are getting comments here and there of, ‘I wish there was even more cheese.’ Now it’s going to be finding that balance of what folks are used to on their pizza and what true Sicilian-style is.”
One thing that also falls outside the norm is a finishing touch for the pizza. All are drizzled with Mike’s Hot Honey.
Noshing on a Wizard of Za pie will remain somewhat elusive. It will be pre-order only. When orders open to the public – likely late January or early February – a set number of pizzas will be made each day, with pre-order available anywhere from 24 hours to seven-to-10 says in advance through an online system. When a pie is sold out for the day, it’s sold out.
“Because everything that we make is from scratch, or fresh locally, we don’t have the ability for same-day orders,” Saylor says. “The dough that we make, it’s got a one-day shelf life.”
Each order comes with a little nod to the pizzeria’s tongue-in-cheek name: a box of Lemonheads.
“They are one of those candies that, like, they just get thrown to the side, but when you have them you’re like, ‘Holy cow this is good!'” Saylor says.
Not only do, “Troubles melt like lemondrops,” but many lemons are grown in Sicily. So while Olive Garden has its Andes, Skyline its Yorks, Wizard of Za has its Lemonheads.
Wizard of Za is largely focused on pickup, with a few seats around the bar where diners can watch the action. In the warmer months, there will be some outdoor seating as well.
To start, Wizard of Za will be open Wednesday through Sunday with pickups from 4 – 9 p.m. Saylor wants to ensure the quality of every pie as it goes out the door, but is training staff with plans to ramp up pizza production to seven days a week.
Pizza might not be the only thing coming from Wizard of Za’s kitchen in the future.
“The partnership is built on a foundation that will allow him [Saylor] to kind of pursue his passion and his talents along the way,” Harman says.
According to Harman, Saylor makes amazing pasta and tiramisu. Saylor confirms there are indeed plans to eventually expand the menu with pasta and desserts. (For now, outside of the Lemonheads, dessert comes via partnership with Angie’s Rainbow Cookies – another Italian who couldn’t find the classic she was craving.)
With a firm footing and Wizard of Za’s popularity, there are temptations to expand the business’ footprint rapidly.
“With something like this that has such a demand, it’s easy to get wrapped up in and wanting to grow it quickly,” Saylor says.
However, he knows he’s built something in Wizard of Za – the concept, the word-of-mouth rumblings, the secrecy surrounding the location (an address for the location is purposefully absent – that’s sent when a diner gets order pickup instructions) – that can’t be recreated again.
“I think this is one of those concepts you just can’t mimic, at least locally,” Saylor says.
However, there are a lot of other places that haven’t been to see the Wizard.
“Maybe Wizard of Za goes into another city or state – where they haven’t experienced it,” Saylor says. “For Columbus, I think this will be the Wizard of Za.”
That ability to expand out of Columbus is of interest to FUSIAN. Harman says the partnership with Wizard of Za gives them the opportunity to look at some different real estate, and create more diversity in their ability to scale as a restaurant group. Harman also hints it could create a ticket to explore locations out of state.
Folks can sign up on Wizard of Za’s website to be alerted when orders open to the general public. For more information, visit thewizardofza.com.