By Charlie Pogacar

Square Pie Guys, the Bay Area, Detroit-style pizza brand, has three locations and 12 licensed ghost kitchens. In other words, it’s a decent-sized brand, but it isn’t exactly huge yet. Which makes it a little surprising to hear Priya Kane, the brand’s director of marketing and innovation, describe Square Pie Guys’ incredibly well-thought-out approach to menu innovation. The process sounds more like something out of the Taco Bell playbook rather than the best practices of a small-but-mighty independent chain. 

“When we decide it’s time to start developing for a seasonal cycle, it starts with our back office team sitting down and brainstorming and just talking about what is in-season and what people are seeing trending out there,” Kane said. “After we brainstorm, I write an exploration brief: This is a guide for what we’re going to do in the kitchen. We think about things like, does this really make sense for a prep crew? How are the finishing steps? Does it make sense in terms of food cost? And does the pie deliver well?” 

There are various steps after that, including connecting with vendors and actually cooking different builds and taste-testing them. The key, though, is that there isn’t a single part of the Square Pie Guys’ innovation process that hasn’t been deeply thought out before a pizza hits the menu. The process used to be even more intense, too, owed in part to Kane’s early professional career in the fine-dining establishments of New York City. Long story short, Kane found that she didn’t love working in restaurants like that and ultimately landed what has become a dream gig at Square Pie Guys.

Related: Square Pie Guys: Hip to Be Square

“I kind of joke that it felt like I was in a Michelin-starred kitchen of my past,” Kane said. “We’ve taken a step back and realized tasting pizza should really mirror the experience of eating pizza. It should truly be about having fun with the process. But we still take a scientific approach and we think about the constraints of building a great pizza when we are designing them.” 

That’s where the exploration brief, and things of that nature, come into play. The brand’s innovation process reflects Square Pie Guys as a whole: It is both fun and serious at the same time. Maybe that has to do with the fact that, from the beginning, Square Pie Guys’ co-founder and current CEO Marc Schechter knew he wanted to scale the brand into something big. He’s told PMQ in the past that he believed it could be “the next great American pizza chain.” 

“We didn’t just find ourselves in this position, with three restaurants and 12 licensed ghost kitchens and trying to open more stores in the next two years,” Schechter said. “It didn’t just fall into our lap. It was always the goal to build something scalable. I don’t think we’re there yet, but I think we are somewhere between doing things in a scrappy way like a smaller brand would, but at the same time, pulling techniques and ideas and such from larger brands.” 

On Thursday, April 25, Square Pie Guys launched its latest limited-time menu items. They are two Indian-inspired pies—the Paneer Tikka-ish and Chicken Tikki-ish pizza—that represent another key facet of the Square Pie Guys’ innovation process: They were generated via collaboration with a Bay Area icon. In this case, the pizzas were created alongside recipe developer Hetal Vasavada and Bay Area-based paneer manufacturer Sach Foods. These type of collaborations have become an integral part of the Square Pie Guys’ story since the brand first collaborated with basketball star Jeremy Lin in 2021.

Related: Square Pie Guys to Debut Two Indian-Style Pies

Here’s a sampling of a recent conversation between PMQ and Kane and Schechter. The discussion surrounds the new pizzas, the collabs the brand has become known for and the cutting-edge innovation process that Square Pie Guys uses to make it all happen. The following has been lightly edited for clarity. 

PMQ: Going back to when you were doing pop-ups, Marc, what was your innovation process like at the time? 

Schechter: It was just me making stuff at home because all of the pop-ups were prepped either out of my apartment or in a bar somewhere in San Francisco. I was inspired by other pizza restaurants and things I saw people doing on Instagram that weren’t happening in San Francisco. It wasn’t always thoroughly planned, but it was a lot of fun.

this photo shows Danny Stoller and Marc Schechter, co-owners of Square Pie Guys, with their arms around each other and smiling
Danny Stoller (left) and Marc Schechter (right) co-founded Square Pie Guys together. Stoller is no longer with the brand, but Schechter remains.

PMQ: I guess I should ask: How did you decide on Detroit-style pizza of all things, as a Long Islander living in the Bay Area at a time when Detroit-style wasn’t as nationally known as it is now? 

Schechter: Yeah, having grown up on Long Island, I’ve always loved a good corner Sicilian slice or Grandma slice, so pan pizza is something I’ve always loved. When I was first doing pop-ups, I was working at a restaurant called Pizzeria Delfina and also at a place called pizzahacker. It felt like all of the restaurants in the Bay Area at the time were doing that Neo-Neopolitan or California-inspired Neapolitan-dish pizza. 

I started playing with pan pizzas and started an Instagram account that was actually called Square Pie Guy (singular) to post some of the square stuff I was making. When I had my first pop-up, I was doing 18″ round pizzas to sell by the slice at this wine bar. Then, one night at the pop-up, I was experimenting with these three Detroit-style pans I had bought from Sean Randazzo’s company—may Sean rest in peace—and I sold out of my round pizza.

This couple came for a tasting—they were hosting a wedding at the wine bar and considering me as the caterer. So I gave them the Detroit-style pizza just so that they could get a feel for my dough and sauce and everything, and they came back and said, “We love that. That’s what we want at our wedding.” It kind of dawned on me that we should do Detroit-style to really stand out. We didn’t want to do a style everyone in the city was doing. We wanted to do something unique.

PMQ: You all have done some really impressive collaborations. Why do you like doing them? Is it to help grow the brand via the celebrity’s star power? Is it just exciting and fun? Or does it push your innovation to the next level? 

Schechter: It’s all of the above, for sure. You know, I think the best things happen organically, and the very first collab was super organic. Like I said, I’m from New York, and in December 2019 Jeremy Lin, who is a hometown hero here (he grew up in Palo Alto), somehow found himself at our restaurant on Seventh and Mission in San Francisco. I went over and served him, and he was really nice. 

That next summer, the pandemic hit, and we noticed he started ordering a bunch of takeout multiple times per week. And, at the time, we had simplified our menu and weren’t allowing for anybody to modify pizzas because our volume was so high. But when we saw Jeremy was ordering this same pizza and asking for substitutions, we, of course, did it because it’s Jeremy Lin. 

Jeremy Lin’s collab pizza with Square Pie Guys.

Finally, I emailed him and was like, hey, you don’t necessarily know me… and ultimately, we began collaborating on a pizza that ended up being an item that would help us donate to a good cause he’d chosen. So it was this really cool way to work with a local legend and also be a force of good in the world, which has always meant a lot to us at Square Pie Guys. 

That sort of became the template for our collabs: We’d meet somebody who genuinely loves our brand, and if we love what they’re doing, what they’re about, we will make a pizza with them and tie it back to some positive force in the world.

PMQ: How did the Indian-style pizzas come to be? 

Kane: It actually started as a collab with Sach Foods, which is a company out here in Oakland. They DM’d me and said, “Hey, we really like your pizza. Would you be interested in trying some of our paneer?” I was like, I’m not completely sure how this is connected, but, yeah, we could try this. 

They shipped over paneer, and I ended up trying a couple builds of it on our pizza. And I thought to myself, it actually does make a lot of sense for a brand like us to showcase Indian flavors. Considering the Bay Area is the birthplace of Indian pizza and our goal, when we think about it, is not only to have good and delicious pizza, but also to represent the Bay Area. So it’s a win with Sach foods.

Then they connected us with Hetal (Vasavada), the author of Milk and Cardamom, and she came on board and actually got in the kitchen with me to work on the build. So now we have a pizza that’s truly representing the Bay Area.” 

Hetal Vasavada samples the latest Square Pie Guys collab that she was a part of creating. Photo by Melati Citrawireja.

PMQ: One thing I was thinking about leading up to this interview, Priya, is that your title is “director of marketing and innovation.” What is the tension between marketing and innovation and/or how do those two things work together? 

Kane: I actually think the tension is not between marketing and innovation. Because I think even if I were not at the helm of innovation, what we understand here at Square Pie Guys is that anything we do is going to have to make sense for our team and for our food cost. So there’s never really this fight between “I’d like to market caviar on pizza” and then having to deny it because it doesn’t really fit with the ethos of our food.

I think the tension is actually sometimes between marketing and ops—bringing the operators on board and convincing them a menu item can work and is, in fact, really exciting and will increase their footfalls. 

If anything, the menu innovation makes the marketing piece easier. We always see we’re able to tell more stories about the collaborators or the flavors we’re featuring, and we see a corresponding spike in web traffic around the time we drop a new menu item. So it actually makes the marketing hat a lot easier to wear because I’m able to paint and tell that story. 

Now, convincing my team that they really need to bring on a new vendor for spices? That is a greater challenge. And for that reason, we put constraints on our pizzas. For example, we are very critical during the innovation process about how many touches a pizza will require. Because if we do something like four touch steps, that can really slow our line down during high-volume times like a Friday night. So we are very careful when we develop recipes. 

PMQ: What advice would you give to other pizzerias looking to step up their innovation game? 

Kane: It would be: Find inspiration everywhere. And when you’re dining out, just think about the elements you’re trying because they could translate to pizza. And get inspired. Don’t be a copycat.

Schechter: I’m gonna actually disagree with Priya on that one! One thing I would say is that there are no original ideas. So don’t hold yourself to too high of a standard in the sense that you might not be a copycat if you put your own unique spin on something somebody else is doing. 

One of the reasons why the Chicken Tikka-ish and Paneer Tikka-ish pizzas are gonna be successful is because they are derivatives of a style that the Bay Area can claim, which is Indian-style pizza. There are some places that have been doing Indian-style pizza in the Bay Area for decades. So there’s a reference point that is not originating from us, but we are putting a spin on it.

Kane: That’s a good point. Actually, one of the stories I want to tell is that long ago, I was in a Domino’s India commercial for a paneer pizza.

PMQ: What?! I feel like we buried the lead here!

Kane: (laughter) Yeah, at some point in my twenties, I was living and working in India, and my cousin’s friend was a casting director, and someone dropped the ball casting a Domino’s commercial. So they needed somebody in a hurry who could be on camera and had kitchen experience. So my cousin was like, “Let me tell Priya about this opportunity.” And that’s how I ended up in a Domino’s India commercial about Paneer pizza. It was like 16 straight hours of biting into a paneer pizza and I will never forget the flavor.”

Food & Ingredients