When Chris Sommers and Frank Uible launched the first Pi Pizzeria on Delmar Boulevard in 2008, the entrepreneurs were already thinking about expansion. With the opening of the Mercantile Exchange location Downtown, Pi now has six outposts. So what led to the company’s rapid, well-managed growth? “Frank and I [agree] that it was to our advantage that we didn’t grow up in this industry,” says Sommers. “Our business backgrounds helped us quickly realize the need to surround ourselves with strong lieutenants. Our weaknesses turned into our strengths this way.”
You were in finance and high tech in San Francisco when you bought the cornmeal crust recipe. What inspired you?
I had fallen in love with a crust from a pizzeria near my condo. When I listened to people from all over the world gush about it, I thought that it could do well in other cities. When one of the [pizzeria] owners bought the condo across the hall from me, I took it as a sign. I convinced them to sell me that recipe for $20k. I moved home and convinced my friend, Frank Uible, to leave his career and build a pizzeria around the recipe. It sounds crazy to this day, but we knew we had something good.
You’re now reaching back to your tech roots by launching Sqwid.
Sqwid was conceived out of a challenge we experienced at Pi. Our guests were talking about us on social media, but we had no way to engage them, to thank them when they evangelized about our restaurants or to address situations when we failed to meet expectations. Before Sqwid, there was no tool that enabled businesses to both listen and act on social media.
Why is Pi committed to green business practices? This has been core from conception of Pi. As we planned our first location, we began to pay attention to the footprint of existing restaurants. The amount of waste was incredibly frustrating. By choosing to sell only draft beer, we eliminated one of the largest landfill contributors of a restaurant. People thought we were crazy, but it worked for us, and is now working at many other establishments.
Your location in the Mercantile Exchange just opened. How did you design this new location to feel “Downtown.” The greatest challenge for the MX space was that it was a very “cold” gray box to start. The goal was to warm it up but not lose the expansive feeling of the space. A common element in our spaces is reclaimed materials, and nearly 2,500 square feet of barn siding from New Haven, Mo., was perfect at creating intimacy in an otherwise cavernous building. Kyle Nottmeier of Space Architects + Design envisioned an inverted hull of a ship straight down the center of the restaurant. From the "spine" of the hull, drape large panels of this beautiful 100-year-old wood. We showcase St. Louis’ most internationally celebrated artist, Tom Huck, with five oversized prints, which are essentially the only artwork in the restaurant. We're also excited about local furniture maker Mwanzi's Missouri walnut tables and banquets fabricated from reclaimed shipping palettes.
Do you prefer Pi’s thin crust pizza or the deep-dish?
For the first couple of years it was all deep, but I am currently really into our thin. I also order thins to check the product quality and consistency of the crust from store to store. Variations in temperature and humidity affect our thin crust more, so it’s important to constantly evaluate the product.
Favorite version? I am really into the new Grove pizza at the MX location. It’s topped with mozzarella, Volpi sopressata, red chiles, fresh oregano and spicy tomato sauce. The first truly spicy pizza on our menu. The response tells us we need to add this to all of our menus, and I think we will in the near future.
How do you maintain the Pi brand but give each location something fresh?
We look at everything from the guest’s perspective. If I am catching a show at The Pageant, I want to be able to grab a pizza and beer at midnight. If I am in midcounty for Saturday lunch, milkshakes are a no-brainer for the kids. At the MX the lunch traffic is monstrous, so of course we would like to be able to offer salad with soup.
What’s in your fridge right now? Well, we just got back from six days out of town, so not much, but there are generally some great leftovers from a wonderful dinner my wife, Anne, has made, plus lots of great product from Fair Shares. Anne loves the challenge of incorporating everything from the share and other seasonal ingredients into our meals. I am very fortunate that she loves to cook, because a cook I am not!
What would be your last meal? Anything my wife cooks for me, preferably eaten in the backyard on a beautiful spring night in St. Louis.
What do you wish the rest of the country knew about St. Louis’ culinary scene?
Pi Pizzerias, multiple locations, pi-pizza.com