Yellow Brick Pizza Quickly Takes Hold in OTE
Like many residents in many neighborhoods around Columbus, Orin Hemminger has spent plenty of time eyeballing the boarded-up retail space at the end of his block and wishing that someone would open up the type of business that he’d like to see: an east-coast style pizza shop with killer happy hour deals on a variety of microbrews. After a few years of dreaming, Orin decided to take matters into his own hands, and the concept for Yellow Brick Pizza was born. We sat down recently with Orin to find out more about why he decided that it was time bring this idea to life.
Walker Evans: I guess first things first… why pizza?
Orin Hemminger: Well, I make pizza from scratch quite a bit at home when friends come over. I’ve never worked at a pizza shop before, but I love pizza, and I love making it. My sister Lily had moved out to Rhode Island with her boyfriend Josh, and they both had worked at a few pizza places. They enjoyed it, but were looking for something else to do. I told them that they should move to Columbus and start a pizza shop in Olde Town East. So, we wrote up a business plan to use for talking to banks for financing, and my Dad actually decided that he would finance the project. So that’s how it all started out. It was very much a family affair.
I live two houses down from here, and my wife and I have been here for about four years. We’ve been watching this block closely, and hoping that something was going to develop here sooner or later. This whole block is all boarded up, and it’s an eyesore.
Anyway, originally I had looked at the building across the street, as it looked like it needed less work, but the guy who owns both buildings convinced me to set up in the spot where we ended up. It’s a bigger space and a better fit for us.
WE: What sort of shape was the building in when you first looked at it? Was it a pretty big undertaking to revamp into a workable space?
OH: We have pictures here on Facebook of what the space used to look like. There was a giant hole in the floor where you could see down into the basement. The floors were warped and moldy from a leak in the ceiling, so 80% of the floor beams had to be replaced. Essentially, it was just a shell, and fixing it up took forever. It took us about six months, which I guess in the restaurant world probably isn’t really that bad. We originally thought it would take less time, so I think that if we had the right expectations going in it would have been fine.
WE: That seems to usually be the case for any kind of major project. You can set a target opening date, but you almost always run into unexpected complications along the way.
OH: Yeah. It was difficult for Josh & Lily because they moved out here and this was going to be their job, so they didn’t have any income right away because it took an extra five months. So Lily ended up waitressing at Black Creek Bistro in the meantime. It was a bit stressful working with the city too. They were really challenging every step of the way. If we’re crazy enough to do this again, at least we’ll be a lot better at it next time.
WE: As far as the pizza itself goes, how would you describe it?
OH: We do an “East Coast” style pizza. The cheese is an east coast blend – a great high-quality brand that we found in Wisconsin. The sauce is a New York style sauce. We’re using better ingredients that cost more and we end up charging more, but we really aren’t trying to compete with Domino’s.
Anyway, we hand-stretch our dough to where it’s thin, but it’s not like the usual Columbus-style thin crust… Rotolos, Donatos, Tommys… that cracker-type thin crust. Some of those places run their dough through a sheeter that presses it so you get that cracker-type thing going on. Instead, we stretch it by hand to keep it where it will still rise a little bit and still be a little chewy. It still gets a little dark on the bottom, and very slightly crispy. We are a bit slower in our service because we hand-stretch the dough for each order before sliding them into our stone oven.
WE: I recall hearing that your oven was one built by Bill Yerkes from Bono?
OH: Well, our original plan was to get a wood-fired oven from Bill, and we were going to do Napoli-style Italian pizzas in a wood fired oven, like what he does at Bono… in addition to East-Coast style pizzas. The city wouldn’t approve that oven though because it wasn’t UL certified. We could get a variance to allow for it, but it takes extra time and money, and at that point we had to make the decision to switch to the stone oven. I’m actually kind of glad that things worked out this way. If we had two separate ovens with two separate styles of pizza I think it would have just confused everybody. When Josh and Lily came to town they worked with Bill for a few days on his portable cart that he had going this past summer. I think our dough is definitely influenced by Bill. We’ve also got influences from where Josh & Lily worked in Rhode Island, and some of our ideas came from my pizzas cooked at my house. So, we’ve got influences from all over. What we ended up with is what I would generically call “Good East-Coast Style Pizza”.
WE: You mentioned that the service is a little slower because of the additional pizza preparation. Was that part of the reason behind adding the beer selection? Nobody seems to mind waiting a little longer when they’ve got a good selection of drinks in front of them, right?
OH: Well, essentially this is part of my dream of what I wanted somebody to open in this location. I’m a big home-brewer and I love beer and microbrews. And of course, pizza and beer go hand in hand. My favorite happy hour in town is at Bodega in the Short North because they’ve got 50 taps that are half-off everyday from 4 to 8pm. Their food is a little hit or miss… some items are great, and others aren’t so great. So we thought that if we can do great pizza, we would just copy their happy hour… 4-8pm half-off all drafts. Of course, we’ve only got 16 taps instead of their 50… but we offer all microbrews, and we’ve got a few domestics in bottles too. We’re not really inventing anything new here, but instead trying to take all of our favorite things from other places that we love and put them all in one place.
WE: Yeah, I think that Bodega is great spot, but it can be difficult for someone who lives on the Near East Side to fully enjoy their happy hour if you’ve got to be concerned about driving home afterward.
OH: Exactly. There’s so many people that live over here in OTE. It’s more of a residential area than the Short North. There’s people everywhere, but we just don’t have very many restaurants. I love Grandview too, and I originally thought that it would be cool to have a pizza place over there, but there’s just so much competition. Here in Olde Towne East, there’s really not much else to compete with. When we opened three weeks ago, we didn’t tell anybody at first. I didn’t even tell my friends. We turned on our neon “open” sign the Friday after Thanksgiving and that’s all we did. This Columbus Underground feature is the first interview we’ve done since opening, and outside of Facebook and word of mouth, we’ve not really done much else so far. We really wanted to have a soft opening to get things figured out during the first few weeks.
WE: That sounds like a very soft opening. How’s the response been so far?
OH: It’s been great! More than half of our orders so far are carry-out, but we figure that the more people who find out about the beer, the more will come to dine in for happy hour. We don’t have any of the neon beer signs in our windows yet either, so I don’t think a lot people driving by know that we have beer yet. I think more people are slowly finding out by word of mouth.
WE: Yeah, the word has spread pretty quickly on Columbus Underground so far. I’ve been seeing a lot of reviews over the past few weeks. It also sounds like the opening of Yellow Brick has gotten a lot of people hopeful that your willingness to be a pioneer in this location will potentially bring some additional entrepreneurs to follow behind you. Do you feel like the pressure is on to help lead the charge in bringing this part of Olde Towne East back to life?
OH: I don’t feel too much pressure, although the guy we’re leasing from made it clear to us that he wants Yellow Brick to be the cornerstone tenant for this building. He’s trying to renovate the residential units attached along the side of this building, but he’s got to have pre-sales and some financial commitment before that can happen, so he really wants our shop to help spur interest in that. I actually think we’ve had more support than pressure so far. Josh & Lily are here every night running the place and doing everything that needs to be done. I have a full time job, so I’m just here in the evening to help out when they need me. But everybody in the area seems to want us to do well, because everyone wants to see another shop of some sort across the street. There’s a guy who just brought us some Christmas decorations last week. He’s stopped in just three or four times, and said that he wants to help out with things like that, so he brought us some little Christmas trees to put on the bar and lights to hang up. We’ve been seeing a ton of repeat customers from the neighborhood. So I try not to worry about this not working out. I know that a large percentage of restaurants fail within the first few years, but that doesn’t really worry me. This neighborhood is underserved for a place like this, so we’ll work it out. We’ll be here for awhile.
More information can be found online at www.YellowBrickPizza.com.