Can’t take a joke? You may want to steer clear of Jay Jerrier, Dallas’ merry prankster of pizza.

Some people just can’t take a joke. Those people should probably steer clear of Cane Rosso (ilcanerosso.com) and Zoli’s NY Pizza (zolispizza.com), a group of phenomenally successful pizzerias in the Dallas area owned by Jay Jerrier. Depending on your definition of “funny,” Jerrier, Dallas’ merry prankster of pizza, will either make you laugh or make you mad. But one thing’s for sure: You’ll take his pizza seriously. It’s consistently ranked among the city’s best by publications like The Dallas Morning News and The Dallas Observer, while websites including The Daily Meal, Eater and Thrillist have hailed it as some of the best in the entire country.

With four Cane Rosso stores and one Zoli’s location, Jerrier has developed something of a cult following, partly based on his pies and partly on his personality. A dedicated family man, father of two and ex-corporate suit well-versed in multimillion-dollar deals, he’s also a pizza provocateur who routinely pokes fun at himself and his customers—especially ranch dressing lovers and those who consider themselves gluten-sensitive—while making pies that even his detractors can’t resist.

“I’m the guy people love to hate,” Jerrier says, with typical self-deprecation. “I don’t like that image at all, but a lot of people who have never met me think I’m a huge jerk. When you joke around online and people can’t hear inflection and nuance in your voice, they take you literally. But I think I’m a nice guy.” He pauses a beat. “My mother thinks I’m a nice guy.”

Every Cane Rosso location features a colorful wood-burning Stefano Ferrara oven with bar seating all around, enabling guests to chat with the pizza makers while they wait for their food.

Quitting the Rat Race

For the longest time, Jerrier toiled in a business that’s not exactly known for its nice guys. He worked in sales, handled operations and managed call centers for corporate giants like GE Capital. “I hated it,” he reflects. “I hated wearing long pants and a tie every day. In sales, it’s very much about ‘What have you done for me lately?’ I had done a couple of very large deals and made a lot of money, which immediately put a big target on my back. Even if you’ve made some of the biggest deals in your company’s history, if it happened a couple of years ago, it’s just a matter of time before someone says, ‘We can pay someone else a lot less to do the same job.’”

Meanwhile, Jerrier had gotten hitched and honeymooned in Italy with his new bride, Karen. There, at Pizzeria Aurora in Sorrento, he discovered authentic Neapolitan pizza, and his life would never be the same. Upon his return, he built a wood-burning oven in his backyard and “started making the worst pizzas ever,” he recalls. Undaunted, he took a class taught by the American delegation of the Associazione Vera Pizza Napoletana (VPN). “That really helped me figure it out,” he says. “After that, my pizzas were pretty incredible, if I do say so myself. That gave me the courage to get increasingly crazy and think I could do it for a living.”

In 2011, Jerrier finally quit the rat race and opened the first Cane Rosso (Italian for "red dog") in Dallas’ Deep Ellum district. Ironically, all those miserable years in a coat and tie helped him become the successful pizzaiolo that he is today. “While it sucked the life out of me, it trained me to run our pizzerias like a business,” he admits. “One of the biggest things I took from my beige cubicle was, ‘What gets measured gets managed.’ We know all of our unit costs down to the gram. We measure many different things in terms of productivity and profitability. We use technology in the right places. We have very detailed P&Ls and can go deep into the weeds. I tell people the easiest part of this job is making pizza. Corporate America prepared me for the rest.”

“Some of [the messages on Zoli's exterior marquee sign] are so shocking that we just put them on the sign to take a picture for social media, then quickly change it. My favorite was 'Honk If You're Horny For Pizza.' It only stayed up for a few minutes, but we got a lot of honks.”
— Jay Jerrier

Cane Rosso has made the "Best Pizza in Dallas" lists for The Dallas Observer andD Magazine for the past three years in a row.

It Takes Two

The first Cane Rosso, located on Commerce Street, was a hit from the start. As food critics filed rave reviews and reporters dropped in to profile the pizzeria’s charismatic owner, demand for Jerrier’s pizzas soared, and Cane Rosso White Rock opened in May 2013 on Gaston Avenue. Two more stores opened this year—one in Fort Worth and another in Fairview.
Every Cane Rosso location is VPN-certified, but the atmosphere is anything but stuffy. “We are very casual,” Jerrier says. “This is probably dangerous, but I used a focus group of one: What kind of restaurant would I want to go to? I hate dressing up, and I hate fancy food. So Cane Rosso is a come-as-you-are kind of place.”

Gourmet pizza choices abound, ranging from a simple Margherita to the Paulie Gee (hot soppressata, caramelized onions, Calabrian chiles, San Marzano tomatoes, mozzarella and basil) and the Delia (spicy bacon marmalade, roasted grape tomatoes, arugula and mozzarella.) “I think our pizzas get better every day,” Jerrier says. “We’re constantly tweaking the way we make and proof the dough. We’re using a 24- to 30-hour room temperature-proofed dough. It’s never refrigerated, so we use tiny amounts of yeast to develop flavor.”

Of course, some think Neapolitan pizza is overrated and the strict Italian rules are a bunch of hooey. For those folks, Jerrier developed Zoli’s NY Pizza, which he calls “the anti-Cane Rosso.” A smaller shop (less than 2,000 square feet), Zoli’s opened on West Davis Street in August 2013 and serves the kind of pizza that fills your belly and makes you want to guzzle beer. “A lot of people hate Neapolitan because it’s so wet and soft and you can’t have a lot of toppings or ranch dressing or chicken,” he says. “Here, we jokingly said, ‘If you hate Cane Rosso, you’ll love Zoli’s.’ The pizzas are big, crispy and loaded with toppings. It’s not for the faint of heart, but it’s so delicious.”

The Joker’s Wild

Jerrier’s talent as a pizza maker is matched only by his genius for marketing and PR. His jokes and pranks often earn headlines for both Cane Rosso and Zoli’s (see the sidebar on Cane Rosso’s “Ranchgate” controversy), and the marquee sign in front of Zoli’s has become a popular local attraction. “It’s on a busy street, so we thought it would be fun to post unusual messages on the sign for commuters—and not just always promote our specials,” Jerrier says. “Some are so shocking that we just put them on the sign to take a picture for social media, then quickly change it. My favorite was ‘Honk if You’re Horny for Pizza.’ It only stayed up for a few minutes, but we got a lot of honks.”

Many of the messages play into sports culture, such as “Jeter and Pizza Are the Only Good Things From NY” and “Our Pizzas Get Fired Faster Than Lane Kiffin.” Another commemorated the U.S. team’s loss to Belgium in the World Cup: “We Never Liked Soccer Anyway.” For additional exposure, a photo of every funny message gets posted on social media.

One of Jerrier’s favorite signs nettled the gluten-free community. “It was based on a popular Internet meme—‘Y U No Eat Gluten.’ It’s fun to try and draw the gluten-free people offsides,” Jerrier says. “We realize that some people really do have celiac disease, but that sign made all of those people with self-diagnosed ‘gluten sensitivity’ really mad.’”

Tangling with the gluten-free community is risky business, but Jerrier is both a seasoned and a fearless jokester. He wishes everyone would realize that he’s just kidding around, but he knows some folks will never get it—and he plans to keep ribbing them anyway. “We’ve identified a lot of people who can’t take a joke,” he notes, wryly. “Today I posted something on Facebook: ‘It’s time to get your lunch on at America’s most beloved pizzeria.’” Jerrier chuckles to himself. “Well, obviously, that’s a joke.”

Certified by the VPN, Cane Rosso serves authentic Neapolitan pizza, but its atmosphere is far from stuffy. Customers can order a classic Margherita or Capricciosa or win a T-shirt by gobbling down the Mother Effer, a gigantic platter that contains every type of pizza on the restaurant's menu, in 30 minutes.

A Marketing Budget of Zero

Jerrier may not be Dallas’ most beloved pizzaiolo, but he is surely the one people talk most about. How does he do it? Not by spending money, that’s for sure. “From a marketing perspective, what I’m most proud of is that we have zero dollars in our marketing budget,” he says. “We only spend money on T-shirts. Our customer base has grown organically through our use of humor and social media. We’d be a totally different company without the Interwebs.”

Jerrier works with a local branding agency to create his funny, offbeat T-shirts and other logoed apparel, which are mostly for staff members to wear. One shirt simply bears the hashtag “#PILF,” while another features a butchery diagram of a pig that depicts where all the cured meats come from. Another shows the semi-famous Zoli’s unicorn. “We jokingly say the secret ingredients in our pizzas are unicorn tears,” Jerrier says. “So we did a butchery diagram of a unicorn to show where all the best stuff comes from. The tenderloin is reserved for Chuck Norris because he’s such a badass, and the succulent butthole is reserved for Yelpers because they’re so annoying.”

Jerrier’s humor may not appeal to everyone, but his social media followers usually get the joke—and social media is where he truly shines. “You want it to be 90% humor,” he says. “I write most of the posts. If you see anything that’s not funny, Britt Chapman, our general manager at Zoli’s, posted it. I regret giving him the passwords.” (He's kidding. We think.)

Great food photos are another key to social media success, he says. “You want good, sexy, close-up food pictures. And you want to avoid the big corporate shill, like, ‘Hey, we’ve got chicken fingers on special tonight.’ I ask myself, ‘What do I want to know about a restaurant that I really like?’ I want to see how they’re prepping their food or a dish coming out of the oven or a dish I’ve never tried before.”

“From a marketing perspective, what I’m most proud of is that we have zero dollars in our marketing budget. We only spend money on T-shirts. Our customer base has grown organically through our use of humor and social media.”
— Jay Jerrier

The Teddy-Bear Heart

Beneath Jerrier’s scrappy interior beats a tender teddy-bear heart. He regularly hosts events for animal-related causes at his restaurants, including the Duck Team 6 Yappy Hour for a local street dog rescue group. More recently, he launched a nonprofit organization called Cane Rosso Rescue, dedicated to pairing abandoned dogs with foster and adoptive families. “My wife constantly tells me, ‘You’re pushing your luck,’” he says. “We have four dogs now, which is technically the legal limit in Dallas, so she may finally catch a break.”

Anyone who thinks of Jerrier as a dour, baleful spirit should see him with his kids. “The man people love to hate” is clearly adored by his two adorable daughters. Emma, 12, is a lacrosse player, avid reader and artist who’s obsessed with Percy Jackson and Harry Potter. “I try and make her nuts by asking which one Chewbacca is in,” Jerrier says. Ella, 8, has a passion for competitive dance and competes around the country. “She’s almost out of room for her trophies. She is the girliest of girly girls—she loves Disney World and must wear a dress every single day, otherwise someone might think she’s a boy.”

Karen, Jerrier’s “sainted wife,” has stayed in the rat race, working in marketing and communications for a $5 billion company called Alliance Data. “Even with her relevant background, she doesn’t help me with the business at all—except when she needs me to make a reservation for her ‘Dance Mom’ friends.”

When Jerrier isn’t rescuing dogs or coaching Emma’s lacrosse team (“About 30 years and 100 pounds ago,” he says, “I was a very terrible lacrosse player”), he’s looking for ways to expand the Cane Rosso and Zoli’s concepts. The store in Fairview was his first “suburban model” and “is doing really well in a small footprint, so we may do more like that in the suburbs,” he says.

“Between my awesome team and my business background from GE Capital, we have developed a really scalable model based on repeatable business processes,” he continues. “We’ve developed a franchise program, but we’re not actively soliciting. We just want to be prepared for the right opportunity.”

Does he ever miss his old life in the corporate world? “Easiest question ever—no way,” he says. “I never wear pants; it’s shorts and a T-shirt or hoodie every day. I had to go out and buy pants so I could attend a Bat Mitzvah. And I now love Mondays! The wife goes back to work, the kids go to school, and I get peace and quiet with the dogs as I review the weekend credit card deposits that hit the bank on Mondays.”

Rick Hynum is PMQ’s editor in chief