The Chef's Corner: Will Grant Interview
Will Grant chats with PMQ about restaurant concepts, sourdough pizza, and winning the Caputo Cup.
Pearl Jam, Starbucks and rainy days. Just a few of the things Seattle is best known for. Now, while PJ is my favorite band, I now associate Seattle with something better. Great sourdough pizza!
In November 2017, Will Lawrence-Grant of That’s A Some Pizza in Bainbridge Island, WA., just across the bay from Seattle, packed up his famous sourdough starter, ingredients, and I assume a change of shorts, and headed to the Caputo Cup in Atlantic City, NJ. Will had never competed before, and almost didn’t make this trip due to employment issues at his shop. However, his apprehension about competing soon waned. He felt the need to do it now, at this moment,
“Like a Band-Aid, right off!”-Jerry Seinfeld
Luckily for Will, that was one of the best decisions he ever made, having returned with Best Non-Traditional Pizza for his Award-Winning Gorgonzola Vegetarian. Taking this win back home, as well as the renewed confidence that, “Yeah, I’m doing this right!”, Will took time to sit down with me in The Chef’s Corner to talk about starters, pizzas, competitions, and his love for the industry.
Brian: Welcome to the Chef’s Corner! Today we are very lucky to have one of our good friends with us, Mr. Will Grant from That’s A Some Pizza. How are you today Will?
Will: I’m doing great! Thank you so much for having me on.
Brian: So where are you located?
Will: We are on Bainbridge Island WA., just a little ferry ride across Puget Sound right across from downtown Seattle. We’ve been here for 34 years.
Brian: Perfect! I love grunge, just not on my pizza. So, we’ll start with something I ask everyone, what is your earliest pizza memory?
Will: My parents opened our first restaurant in Kingston, just north of Bainbridge when I was 5 years old. They had had no experience in the industry, they would just have competitions with friends to see who could make the best recipes and it grew from that. I remember my parents Lee and Marti Grant, and their good friend Phil Hausmann ended up coming up with a great recipe using Phil’s great-grandfather’s sour dough starter from the Klondike gold rush era, so that’s the beginning of our locations. But the memory I had was opening week of That’s A Some Pizza in Kingston in 1984, having to get this giant 32-pound garbage can full of 30 pounds of starter back to the pizzeria. So, it was a different time, the 80’s, and my job as a 5-year-old was sit in the bed of this pick-up truck with the barrel of starter and make sure it did not fall over. Well, it was late July, early June, it was warm out. They just had this 30 pounds of starter in a 32-pound bucket. Anyone who has ever worked with sourdough is it’s a living organism. When you feed it, it grows and puts out gasses and can double in size. We were about halfway down the road on the way to the pizzeria, and I’m sitting there holding this giant bucket of starter when the top blows off and starter starts streaming down the sides. So, I’m just trying to fold the starter back on itself so none of it touches the ground. I just remember looking into the front of the truck, terrified, thinking, “Oh no! Am I going to be in trouble?”. That was my first experience with that sourdough starter, and it’s amazing, because it’s the same starter I used to win this competition.
Brian: What level of success did you have saving that starter?
Will: Haha! It was not very good!
Brian: Well you mentioned this was a family business from the start. How did you get involved, besides being almost drowned in starter? Were you always being groomed to take over one day, or did that just happen organically? Did you have other plans for yourself at some point?
Will: For me it was just a natural thing. When I was getting a little older I wanted to start buying my own things. We were a very blue-collar family, so for me to get funds, I had to start working at these restaurants. Plus, I was really wild! Very hyperactive and bouncing off the walls. My parents didn’t know what to do with me. They couldn’t leave me alone because I was so young, so they just put me to work in the restaurants. We started with the first pizzeria in Kingston, then a second a month later in Bainbridge Island, where I’m at now. Then an Italian restaurant, That’s A Some Italian in Bainbridge Island. Then we did a second Italian restaurant in Poulsbo, and a third pizza place, Pizza Man Pizza, in Silverdale. Growing up, I was always working with pizzas and chefs. I ended up becoming a chef’s apprentice. I really developed a great passion for food with them and my family since we were always cooking at home as well. My Grandma was a chef, so she always instilled in me that love of cooking
Brian: That was going to be one of my questions, how many locations do you have. From that story sounds like 3 pizzerias and 2 Italian restaurants, correct?
Will: We’ve had up to 9 at one point, but currently we are back down to two. The That’s a Some Pie I run in Bainbridge Island, and the That’s A Some Italian in Poulsbo.
Brian: With zero experience your parents had in the restaurant business, what do you think was the secret of their success?
Will: I think a big part of my Dad’s business plan was that there was no good pizza in the area, and in that county itself, there may have been 2 pizzerias. People just love and need pizza! We grew up in the Downtown Seattle area and at least there, there were some options. They went to remote places where people didn’t have a lot of options and they just knew it would do well. It’s a low price-point when you make your own dough and shred your own cheese, so, it was a good business plan and allowed us to be creative. Before we opened the first Italian restaurant my family spent a month in Europe and Italy. We really wanted to get a feel for ourselves what Italian food was like.
Brian: What inspires your recipes in your restaurant?
Will: So much of was already there before I entered the picture as a chef. The first big pizza was called the House Special. That’s your basic loaded pie, or the “Everything but the Kitchen Sink”, as I call it. Every pizzeria’s gotta have it. Really, it’s how I just any pizzeria I visit. I must have their house, or loaded, pizza. Basic thought process is you just want to give the best value to the customer that you can. But over the years we have lightened up on our topping. I’ve adopted the “less is more” philosophy, as well as KISS, keep it simple stupid. Especially in pizza where you think more is better, but in reality, you want to be able to taste every ingredient. It's all how they complement each other.
Brian: What would you say is the biggest obstacle you had to overcome in opening a new restaurant?
Will: In opening my two concepts Deano's, a Dean Martin inspired restaurant, and, being prepared for all the red tape and hoops you have to jump through. Also, make sure you take time for. Take a day off every now and then. You are your business. If you burn yourself out, well, no one is going to care as much as you about your business. You have to also think about what 's best for it, the business, instead of what's best for you, and sometimes that means taking time for you.
Brian: Now, is the something that caught you by surprise when opening your two stores?
Will: The only mistake I think I made in opening my Deano's concept was I didn't have enough confidence in myself. I was doing $1000 a day in sales in the beginning and I was thinking, “It's just not enough”. And looking back at it now, for just having opened up and it being 15 years ago, $1000 a day wasn't a terrible start. Just having faith in yourself, doing all you can do and knowing that you can only work as hard as you can. You can only do your best. There's no more you can do that that.
Now for my Penelope's concept, named after my wife, I wanted to go for family friendly and a lower price to get people in there. Well, people don't care as much about the price, per say, as much as they do the passion. If you have the passion, know the recipes, and deliver on the food, they will pay a little extra to make sure you're there again. They don't to come there planning on good food and a good time only to find you're not there because you didn't charge an extra $1-2 for a pasta. You can't underprice yourself. You must value yourself.
Also, if you ever have to give up a restaurant, don't close it down, sell it. Keep the price point reasonable so it will sell, and you can recover some of those losses. Never close, always sell if you can
Brian: There's a problem hitting the workforce out there in many pizzerias, finding quality employees. How do you attract and retain quality employees in your shops?
Will: You have to always be hiring. You can't “not be hiring”. You can't “not be training”, you have always got to be working with and on someone. You have to inspire them. A lot of people in the industry started in a pizzeria or something similar, and they don't always take it too seriously. To them it's a side job. But I am trying to make a bunch of copies of me to run these stores, so I must push them, give them direction and goals to keep them focused. As I said, no one will care as much as you do about your shop. Make them care.
Brian: How do you guys market locally? Do you do a lot of community events? Sponsor schools, sports teams and the like?
Will: We do a lot with schools. We do a kitchen takeover quite often that allows the students to take care of promoting a night, through ads, Facebook and word of mouth campaigns. They are responsible for filling the restaurant and we are responsible for making the food and running the shop during their takeover hours. Then the sales from that time period are donated to the school or program. It helps with local marketing, it's free advertising and it's beneficial to the community. You have to take care of the kids, life is legacy. Winning the Caputo Cup Championship competition in Atlantic City last November really helped with notoriety as well. People love feeling like they are a part of your national awards. Urges them to become customers to be part of something that big.
Brian: That's right, you just competed in your first competition ever and won. How did that come about?
Will: I remember 20 years ago; my Mom went to this thing called the Pizza Expo. I asked, “What is that about?” She said, “Well, it's all about pizza, and there was this guy there, Tony Gemignani, and he was throwing pizza doughs everywhere and he was just amazing. When I inherited the business after my Mom retired, the big thing for me was I wanted to take this business to the next level. Having been around for 30 years we have a good foundation, but I really wanted to make my family proud, make my island proud. So, what could I do to be the pizzaiolo I could be? I could get certified! So, I started looking up some schools online and thinking, “I can't go all the way to Italy now”. Then I noticed there was one in San Francisco, then immediately saw that it was Tony Gemignani's school and that made the decision for me. I was going there.
Brian: SO, you are a certified pizzaiolo through Tony Gemignani's International School of Pizza?
Will: Indeed. So, I went, and it was a fantastic adventure. Laura Meyer, who is a great chef, is working right along beside him, so you learn a lot. And I remember the first day of class, we were all sitting there, and Tony was asking us about ourselves. I told Tony my story and how I came to be at his school, then he asked me, “Well, do you compete?”. I said “no.”, and he responded, “You absolutely have to compete, being in business as long as you have.” And when Tony tells you to jump, you say how high?” And that really was the motivation for me to get started in competing
Brian: And that was it, eh?
Will: Oh yes. I was going to wait for the next Pizza Expo to start competing, but then Tony asked us if we'd heard about the East Coast Pizza and Pasta show coming up. So, following the thinking of the next big thing again, I signed up for the Atlantic City event. I almost couldn't make it due to equipment issues with the shop, but I muscled through and competed, and I got first in non-traditional. And my manager I took with me got 2nd in Traditional
Brian: What was the recipe you won with?
Will: The one I competed with was our Gorgonzola Vegetarian, it has mushrooms, red onions, pine nuts, Feta cheese, garlic, an 80/20 mozzarella-provolone. All this is done on a sourdough crust. I like to put the Feta on after the bake and cover it for a minute to let it gently melt on top of the pie and not dry out while being baked.
Brian: That's a great tip for Feta users. Give it that nice, soft texture.
Will: There were so many great competitors there that's it's just an honor to be able to compete at their level, and then to win...it was great. Now I call these great competitors my teammates. And to see someone like Tony on the sideline cheering for me, it was a pretty amazing experience to say the least.
Brian: What's a good tip for a first-time competitor having been one yourself recently?
Will: Get over yourself and do it. Just do it. Don't think about it, just do it. Do or do not, there is no try. You're the only one stopping yourself from doing it.
Brian: What are the benefits of competing and/or being on a competitive pizza team? Does it play well in the marketplace?
Will: Absolutely. I want to be the new voice of pizza in my town. I want to let people know there is a new style of pizza in town, and it's Pacific Northwest sourdough. As far as the team, I am really eager to learn from that experience. The second you stop trying to learn is the second you become irrelevant, and someone else will swoop in and try harder. But being a World Champion definitely helps the business.
Brian: Well, I know you've been dreading this moment, but the time has finally arrived. It is time for the “Scott Wiener Lightning Round”! Here's how it works, I give you 3 ingredients, and you tell me off the top of your head what you would make with them. Now, I don't know what the hunting seasons are like in the Washington area, but the first one is a bird. Duck!
Will: Oh, well we do have that season here, and I'm actually going next week. We have made a duck pizza before actually. It was a Peking duck pizza. I used a Hoisin sauce base, with sautéed duck breast, cut thinly and layered over the top. Then I used green peppers, onions and peanuts. Then I bake it, cut it and add crispy chow-mein noodles over it. It was phenomenal. Duck hunting in Washington is a big thing.
Brian: Wow, that was kind of a gimme right out of the gate. Ok, let’s try a harder one then, avocado. Not quite your typical pacific Northwest ingredient.
Will: You know, my wife's from the Dominican Republic, literally one of the 10 here in Washington. Avocado is a big part of the cuisine over there. On a pizza though, I would do an avocado spread as a base, then maybe some yellow and black corn, maybe some chicken to keep with theme. Maybe some lime, but definitely some cilantro. Maybe on a thin crust pizza to get some crunch. Cracker thin crust.
Brian: Well seems you're getting the easy ones today. Last ingredient, sun-dried tomatoes.
Will: I'd say a quarter to a third of our pizzas have sun-dried tomatoes on them. In fact, one of our most popular besides the House and the Gorgonzola Vegetarian is our Frog Rock Pizza. It is named after two large local rocks that lay on top of each other and have been painted for the last 30 years to look like a frog. It has a pesto base, with Italian sausage, artichoke hearts and sun-dried tomatoes. People love it. It's a really really good one. That's another good tip, if you are a locally owned place, name dishes after local monuments and landmarks. People love to have that sense of ownership and emotional connection with your food when they walk into your place. If you can do that, you've already won.
Brian: Great advice, and speaking of winning, everyone here in the “Scott Wiener Lightning Round” is a winner so congratulations! You win the self-satisfaction of knowing I have given you and imaginary award that carries absolutely no clout in the real world!
Will: I will cherish it always.
Brian: Now, I want to jump into the recipe for the Chef's Corner for a second, what recipe are you giving us?
Will: Let's go with the Gorgonzola Vegetarian. The champion pie. It'll be on the sourdough crust, and I'll send you the starter so you can do a good one in the test kitchen. People can also make their own starter to have available at all times. I am working on a cookbook called “The Culture of Culture”, and it's gonna be talking about my lifelong journey with sourdough, and my philosophies for life through sourdough and it will have a lot of fun little recipes sprinkled in there as well. To really learn about a culture is to eat their food with them, and to learn their passion is to cook with them. People can keep an eye out for that book at http://www.thatsasome.com/.
Will: I came up with this recipe 6 years ago and it was the first one we added to the That's A Some menu when I took over. If I had to go out and compete and out my best foot forward, I wanted it to be with the first pizza I ever put on my family's menu.
Brian: Jumping into some of the more personal questions for you and That's A Some. How often do you come up with new recipes for the shops, who comes up with them, and how to you test/market them to your customers?
Will: Well, we really don't add too many new things that often. The reality of it is when you've been around for 34 years, people have an idea of who you are and what you are. So, bringing something new to the table doesn't really interest them. I always test things and I am always open to suggestions from my staff. Always learning. Some of these kids have good ideas as they come through our shop. It's really important to me, the idea of always going forward and always learning. That 16 year old or the 60 year old that comes to work at my shop, they all have a different perspective on life that is important to listen to. They're not going to listen to me if I don't listen to them. But after the idea stage, it all has to be done consistently. Consistency is key. Then we'll keep some slices in the slice warmer and give them out casually and get input from the customers.
Brian: Well what about styles of pizza? Do you focus mainly on one style or does your menu contain a few different crust types? Are they all sourdough based, and which is your favorite?
Will: We really only have one style right now. But I learned at Tony's that everyone should at least have two styles of pizza. So, we are actually working on a Sicilian style to go along with our New York style sourdough pies. We tried deep dish for a while, but we weren't really doing it authentically. I didn't like the idea of people just shoving pizzas into pans and saying this is Chicago deep dish. UM, no...no it's not! We're not gonna do that. Calzones are also really good with our sourdough. We make our own homemade hoagie rolls that we use our proofing oven for. Besides that, our style pizza is just kind of a New York sourdough. We're such a small pizza place, only 500 square feet, so doing Sicilians is a big thing, even doing salads is a big thing for us.
Brian: In your personal opinion, what is your favorite ingredient or flavor to play with?
Will: Pine nuts. I love pine nuts for that, but I love cheese. I have a little Norse in me. Norwegians love their cheese. Anything cheese and dairy I absolutely love. If I were to get a dairy allergy it would be the death of me.
Brian: Alright, on the other side of that coin., what is one ingredient you cannot stand? If an employee is caught with it, they are immediately fired and blocked on Facebook.
Will: I don't think there really is one. Gosh, um...lutefisk? But on the other hand, I like pickled herring even. There's not much I really do not like. I have a passion for food.
Brian: Equal opportunity eater...I like that. What about one item you don't use a lot but would love to incorporate more of into your menu?
Will: Really, I love goat cheese. I use it a little bit for salads and stuff like that, but I would really love to do a little bit more with it. It's just such a different world now. That's the best thing about doing more restaurants and starting more menus. I am really looking forward to using my starter in more ways ion the future for different breads and things as well.
Brian: I do need to ask, as a local establishment, what do you use primarily for marketing? You have mentioned your online presence. Would your biggest outreach be through your website or social media such as Facebook and instachats and snaptagrams?
Will: Definitely having online ordering has helped in that area. If you don’t have it, you have to get it. Right now, I’d say about one half to two thirds of our business is online. The idea is I don’t have to pay employees to be there to take those orders. The order just pops up and it’s easy, and it will do the upselling for you. But for live calls, having the on hold waiting, that has become a big part of how I market to my customers. Letting them know what we have available through the on-hold messaging, so I can tell them about the Sicilian pizzas we will only make 10 a day of, or I can tell them about how many pizzas and salads it will take to feed a group of people, or even about winning this competition. But it also fills that dead air so that the customer doesn’t start wondering if you have forgotten about them. We’ve all been there on a silent hold, eventually we say “Hello? Are you there?”. This gets rid of that and makes the hold time less miserable for the customer. This can give my small staff 2 minutes to take 3 other orders before they get to that customer, and it’s all upselling either the products or the pizzeria.
Brian: That’s great Will, but you evaded the crux of the original question. What do you have to hide? What do you think is your best social media platform for marketing?
Will: Haha! I veered off for a second. I do favor Instagram for the pictures of products, but I’m kind of back and forth between Instagram and Facebook. You definitely have to know the times to engage on Facebook. Your best times to post and reach the most people. It is all dependent on your area. But also, just put yourself in there and give it that personal touch. Post, respond, engage. I try to at least a couple times a month to do a sponsored ad on Facebook. Especially since winning the competition and having all the news appearances lately. It’s a great way to get my story out there. But the difference on engagement and reach on those sponsored posts were noticeable. We’re talking thousands of views.
Brian: Will, this was a great talk. I feel like I’m talking with a brother here. Congratulations again on the win in Atlantic City, I wish you all the best. If there is one more word of advice you can give people out there reading this, what would it be?
Will: It’s the passion for what I do that makes people like what I do. Have passion and the people will respond. Sharing this passion online, sharing this character that I made for the business, always leaving politics out. Between you and me and now the world, it’s about being ambiguous to everything. I’m not here to sell religion, I’m not here to sell my political views. I’m here to sell pizza, I’m here to be positive! It’s easier not to get caught up in other people’s negativity, it’s easier to be the positive one.
Brian: Words to live by in any profession. Will I see you in Italy then?
Will: Yes! I will be competing there at the World Pizza Championships in Parma, Italy in April with the World Pizza Champions! First bottle of wine is on me!
Brian: I can’t guarantee the U.S. Pizza Team won’t win it all, but I’ll take that bottle, and the second one is on me. Thanks again Will.
Will: Thank you Brian!
For more information about That’s a Some Pizza, visit www.thatsasome.com/. Also check out Will Grant’s award-winning Gorgonzola Vegetarian Pie recipe in the April issue of PMQ Pizza Magazine at www.pmq.com/willgrant.