By Rick Hynum
As PMQ’s May 2023 cover story explains, Alex Koons, owner of Hot Tongue Pizza in Los Angeles, markets his vegan pizzeria with a light—and often comedic—touch, particularly through his laugh-out-loud Reels on Instagram. But make no mistake: He is serious, thoughtful and ofttimes philosophical about the business. Due to limited space, we could only hit the highlights of our interview with Koons in the print issue, but in this web-exclusive Q&A we delve a little deeper as he talks about his passion for plant-forward pizza and how he looks beyond Instagram to market Hot Tongue and stay top-of-mind in the highly competitive L.A. pizza market.
PMQ: You were a musician and a studio engineer before you moved into the pizza business. What was the transition from music to pizza like, especially going from the late-night hours of rock-and-roll to running a pizzeria day to day?
Koons: I would argue that they’re very much the same. I think pizza, especially in Los Angeles or the shops that I’ve worked at, really attract a musician because there’s always a flexible schedule. A lot of times [in the pizza business], you’re not really working during the morning, so you can sleep in if you want to. But, I think, if you want to be successful in anything, you need to have discipline. The bands that slept in and partied too much probably still aren’t around. In my music career, I didn’t take it seriously. If I had taken it half as seriously as it should have been taken as a job, I probably would’ve been 10 times more successful.
Being in a band is a lot like being in a restaurant. You put yourself out there. You still have merch. Your customers are a lot like your fans, and your food is kind of a song. It’s all very similar….Running a restaurant can be cool. I see a lot of people have a lot of fun with it, but it takes a certain amount of dedication and putting yourself into it that you need in any industry, whether it’s being in a band, running a restaurant, or, I don’t know, owning an H&R Block. You gotta put your passion into your purpose and into everything.
PMQ: How did you end up co-owning Purgatory Pizza and then launching Hot Tongue Pizza on your own?
Koons: The owner was looking for investors at the time, and I basically said I would invest and became 50% owner. And that was the takeoff. I wanted to open up more restaurants. I’m vegan. So it was important for the Purgatory menu to really be well-rounded. It was a place where, if you’re gluten-free, vegan or you ate a ton of meat, that menu was so all-inclusive that anyone could go there. Nowadays, everyone’s got a dietary restriction, and it was a place for everyone. As I got more into the vegan cuisine stuff, I knew that was where my heart was and where I was transitioning. And so Hot Tongue was born. My partner at Purgatory didn’t want to open up a second location. So we decided on me opening up [Hot Tongue] in Silver Lake, which is seven miles away from Purgatory.
PMQ: Why did you want to open a vegan pizzeria?
Koons: I was vegetarian since I was, like, 20 years old. I’m 37 now. So I’ve been vegetarian for a very long time, and then I went fully vegan, I think, maybe six years ago. But I don’t ever want to preach or get on a soapbox of why I’m a vegan. It’s a personal decision. And I’ve been very happy with how I feel and how I cook. And I also like the challenge of going toe to toe with somebody who’s using meat and dairy on their pizza and just making sure that I’m still coming out on top or, at least, I’m right there with you, you know? And that’s hard to do.
The word “vegan” comes with a lot of weight. There’s a lot of people who look at that word, and, they’re, like, “I’m not eating there. That’s gross, or that’s weird.” But, really, it’s just plant-forward food. It just doesn’t have those two main ingredients [meat and dairy] that we’ve all grown up eating and that we all love and that are all delicious.
PMQ: So for you, Hot Tongue Pizza is just about great pizza, period, not great vegan pizza.
Koons: I’m trying to make the best pizza, the pizza that I want to eat. The foundation of any great pizza is the dough process. I mean, if you don’t have good dough, then your pizza is gonna suck. Light, airy, crispy, a great crumb structure: There’s a lot of love that goes into that process. And that’s just me getting on the internet, reading books and then failing over and over and over and over again and tinkering and tinkering and tinkering. I still tinker with the dough recipe every day. It’s something that I’ll keep playing with for the rest of my life. I think that’s how you get better.
The other part is presenting things in a different way. Like, someone might say, “Oh, I’d never put broccolini on a pizza.” But if you season it right and it creates that kind of umami flavor or that chew in your mouth that’s maybe similar to, like, a crumbled sausage…you’re just trying to match that pattern [customers are familiar with], you know? And it’s the same thing with cheese. I don’t want the vegan cheese I make to overpower anything it’s not supposed to. It’s not even supposed to replace anything. It’s supposed to be something different. It’s a cashew cream that kind of emulsifies and has a similar texture [to mozzarella], but it’s completely different. If I didn’t have to call it mozzarella, I wouldn’t. I’d call it what it is: a cashew cream. I’m not trying to replace mozzarella, because that’s 100% impossible. It’s really just about doing everything with 100% integrity. And I think everyone who comes in here can taste that. There’s no b.s. to hide behind.
PMQ: And you’ve got a pretty simple menu, right? I saw, I think, seven specialty pizzas on your menu. What was the thinking behind that?
Koons: I think everyone should be keeping their menu simple and really concentrating on what they’re good at. I didn’t come up with any funny names for these pizzas because all I’m trying to do is reinvent what a plant-forward pizza could be. I have a Sicilian—I call it a White Pie. I have a Margherita, a Detroit, a Supreme. There’s no bells or whistles. This is my version of all of those pizzas. So I did the classic pizzas that you would get anywhere else. I think the craziest one is a Buffalo pizza, which is pretty popular out here in California. You’re probably not gonna see that in New York. But, for the most part, it’s just your basic hitters.
PMQ: Do you use any of the so-called vegan meats, or does that interest you at all?
Koons: No, I don’t need them myself. We do make our own vegan pepperoni, which is also gluten-free. We use soy protein, and it’s good. And we make a crumbled sausage. And I think most people wouldn’t even know [it’s vegan] because ground-up Italian sausage is pretty easy to replicate. But I’m not interested in using anyone else’s meats but my own. And, really, it’s not something that I like that much, so I’m probably not going to extend that part of the menu.
PMQ: Can your customers choose their ingredients and build their own pizza?
Koons: Yeah, you can build your own. But that’s kind of annoying because a lot of people will try to build their own pizza and, you know, it’s gonna suck. You know what I mean? Like, they put together too many toppings. They throw on too much sauce. “I want caramelized onions, red bell peppers, spinach.” They pile on all the wettest ingredients. And then they call you back and say, “Hey, this was soggy.” And, it’s, like, “Well, no s—, it’s soggy. You ordered it that way.” We try to educate them. We’ll say, “Hey, if you’re gonna do extra cheese, I wouldn’t do extra sauce.” And then, you know, you warned them and if they still say, “No, I want that,” then it is what it is.
PMQ: Your pizzas are also just really pretty to look at. Do you develop your recipes with this kind of visual aesthetic in mind?
Koons: Yeah, because I think it’s really important that plant-forward pizzas look no different than a pizza that would have meat or dairy on it. People eat with their eyes first. They always have. They always will. Especially now. People now eat with their cameras first, which is crazy. Some people sit there and take pictures until their pizza’s cold. But, yeah, when I put something together, especially like a house pie or or a specialty pie, I want to make sure that it’s gonna be photo-friendly out of the oven, that it’s a piece of art every time. And that it’s delicious. It should be hitting on every single cylinder. You know what I’m saying? All your senses should be at play. And then you take that bite and it’s like, “Holy s—, what’s this? Dude, you just change my life!”
PMQ: We already talked about your Instagram marketing (in the cover story). What other kind of marketing do you do?
Koons: We do email and text marketing. We have a marketing program that emails and texts people after their order and asks them to rate their meal. If they rate their meal, they get a code for 20% off on their next order. And that helps to get repeat customers. They also get push notifications if they haven’t ordered in, like, a month with a discount on their next order.
I’ve been looking at doing a direct menu mail-out and will see how that works. We’ve done some flyering, too, but most of the marketing’s been online. Putting together a marketing plan in this next year is definitely important and possibly working with some kind of public relations person for one or two months to really kick things off. Because, you know, in a big city it’s easy to go unnoticed. There are people that still come in every day and they’re, like, “I had no idea you were here” or “I’ve driven past this place forever, and I’ve never come in.”
And I hate to say this because I’m not a big fan of these platforms, but…there are also the reviews that we get on Yelp and Google and being able to use those tools. Whether that’s reaching out to people or making sure I’m updating my profile pictures and putting live updates in Google and in Yelp and making sure that there’s delicious-looking photos for every single pizza. Those touchpoints have brought more people in because they’re, like, “I’m not vegan, but you have five stars on Yelp. You don’t see five stars a lot.” We wouldn’t have five stars if the food and the experience wasn’t great, so I attribute that to us and our staff. We brought those people in, but people are going on those platforms and giving us a five-star rating on both Google and Yelp. We hear, more often than not, “Hey, I saw you guys on Google” or “I saw you guys on Yelp.” And a lot of the time it’s people saying, “I’m not vegan, but we’ve gotta try you.” And they always leave satisfied.