By Brian Hernandez
Mobile pizza units: It sounds like an elite squad of culinary commandos that will show up and pizza the heck out of a place, under cover of darkness, leaving without a trace. While that sentence is silly in itself, it’s not wholly inaccurate. U.S. Pizza Team (USPT) members Dave and Kathy Conti, owners of Red Planet Pizza & BBQ in Ansonia, Connecticut, are proof that mobile pizza units (MPUs) and pizza pop-ups are manned by some of the best pizzaioli in the biz. They’ll bring the pizza kitchen to your house and then depart, leaving behind nothing but smiles. Along with winning first place in various barbecue competitions—as well as the 2018 Galbani Pizza Cup—the Contis have added a little extra in-home pizza flair to the ranks of the USPT.
Brian Hernandez: How did you guys get into pizza?
Dave: Kathy and I really got started out in the barbecue competition world. We were Connecticut state champs in ribs, chicken and more. We had been doing that for years, and I started feeling like I wanted to expand into something else. We won first place and a $5,000 prize in a competition at the Greenwich Town Party, where I put pulled pork on a pizza. Barbecue became so hard and time-consuming, involving long weekends, that we decided to give pizza 100% of our time and started winning there as well.
Kathy: I thought barbecue was more sticky than difficult. Pizza is less sticky.
Hernandez: Do you consider yourselves to be caterers or an MPU? Is there a difference?
Dave: With the barbecue, we were more catering. We would make a few trays and just drop them off. With mobile pizza, we are a part of the party. We don’t use a trailer or food truck, because those will typically have to stay in the driveway or even on the street. We have a tent, a Blackstone oven and a table. It’s a lot more personal.
Kathy: We also help raise money for charities like Wounded Vets and See More Pink. It’s definitely easier with mobile pizza. Plus, it’s more interactive. We can teach little kids and even fun adults how to make pizza.
Hernandez: What should you do first if you want to open an MPU?
Dave: Practice on your friends and family. Get to know your product. Be patient and organized, which created a conflict here, since one of us is organized and the other isn’t.
Hernandez: What’s the hardest thing about being an MPU?
Dave: Three words: weather, weather, weather.
Kathy: You can’t plan the weather in advance, so you get more cancellations than in catering. I was trying to get dough to Dave at an event once, and [a storm] knocked some trees into the road. I eventually made it, but, unfortunately, sometimes you can’t.
Hernandez: What’s the best way to market an MPU?
Dave: Social media, yard signs and word-of-mouth. We put signs out that get great reactions. Also, Frank Zabski of The Pizza Gavones [in Milford, Connecticut] and the New Haven Pizza School sends me leads all the time. He has a mobile pizza truck and drops my name to people wanting something a little more personal than what he can do.
Kathy: It’s all low-cost and effective. Pizza kind of sells itself. We also do local events just to get the visibility in town. Hand out some free pizza, and it is its own commercial.
Hernandez: What’s the secret to getting that signature cavernous Red Planet crust from a backyard oven?
Dave: Be consistent. I measure everything. I don’t go even one gram over. Also, the temperature of the water and the mixing time. Just do all the small things you are supposed to do consistently every time, and the big picture falls into place. Plus, I love it. I find it very relaxing.
Hernandez: What in the industry will you guys will be watching out for in the future?
Dave: Robots. Robots and plant-based meats. Not really a fan. These two things are big on the horizon, I think.
Hernandez: What is one message you want to leave the industry with?
Dave: Pop-ups and mobile units are a great way for people to get into the business with little risk. Test it, see if you like it before committing to something larger, like a food truck.
Kathy: I think it’s a great thing to do with your partner. I mean, we like doing it together.
Dave: [Winks and smiles] We do?
Brian Hernandez is PMQ’s associate editor, test chef and U.S. Pizza Team coordinator.