By Rick Hynum
As a former indie rocker and songwriter, Alex Koons, owner of Hot Tongue Pizza in Los Angeles, knows how to put on a show—and he’s not the least bit camera-shy. His Instagram Reels for Hot Tongue are a musical, magical mix of the surreal and the wildly absurd. Grown men in ridiculous wigs dancing to pop ditties about ranch dressing and pineapple as a pizza topping. A skinny dude in a green-man body suit who “knows good pizza” because he’s from New York. “Farming” the brownish water of the L.A. River to make pizza dough.
Watch a few of Koons’ off-the-wall Reels—some of which can also be found on on YouTube and TikTok channels—and you might think he isn’t all that serious about his craft. But you’d be wrong.
Related: The Reel World: Creating an authentic presence on Instagram
It took his wife, Jackie, to put him back on the (somewhat) straight and narrow marketing path. “We’ve slowed down on the Reels, because she said, ‘Listen, you’re very serious about food, and it’s not coming off in your Instagram presence,’” Koons recalls. “She goes, ‘Your Instagram is scary, dude. It’s just a bunch of weird dudes in wigs.’” He laughs. “But she was right. When we look for a new restaurant, the first thing she does is go to their Instagram and look at the food pictures.”
Nevertheless, once you’ve seen one of Koons’ crazier Reels on Instagram, you want to see more. Fortunately, he has plenty of handsomely crafted pies to show off, too. And did we mention that they’re all vegan? Thing is, Koons doesn’t make a big deal about that. Because, as far as he’s concerned, his pizzas are as good as—if not better than—anything with meat and dairy.
“Every aspect of your experience here is important to me. And the visualization of walking in—you’re supposed to be, like, kind of walking into my brain.”
— Alex Koons, Hot Tongue Pizza
A New Direction
When he wasn’t playing keyboards and singing in local bands, Koons worked as an audio engineer—until he got laid off during the Great Recession. He was broke and crashing on a friend’s couch when he got hired as a pizza delivery driver. “That catapulted me in this new direction,” he says. “That job literally saved my life. I loved it.” He soon discovered he had a good head for the pizza business. He was promoted to manager at that pizzeria, then took a new job at Purgatory Pizza, also in L.A.
When he first arrived, Purgatory Pizza was a bit of a mess. “It was punk rock,” Koons remembers. “There weren’t a lot of rules or regulations. And the owner at the time just let me do whatever I wanted. I really enjoyed being able to see the results with better management processes and the food. And within a year, I realized how much I loved the restaurant industry and how good I was at it, because I could see how I’d improved Purgatory.”
A Candid Conversation
In a PMQ.com exclusive, Alex Koons talks in more detail about vegan pizza, creating pies that are easy on the eyes and marketing beyond Instagram.
Read it at PMQ.com/alex-koons
Koons became half-owner of Purgatory Pizza in 2017, but, now well-versed in pizza making and pizzeria management, he had ideas for a different kind of restaurant. In 2022, he founded the all-vegan Hot Tongue Pizza in the hip, eclectic Silver Lake neighborhood, just seven miles from Purgatory Pizza. “It has a completely different menu, completely different vibe, completely different logo, but the same values and integrity,” Koons says. “Everything I believe in is still in place—the pillars of what a good shop should be.”
Related: Alex Koons’ 4 steps for interviewing potential pizzeria employees
“I don’t necessarily want only vegan customers. I’m not really marketing to them. The idea is to open people’s minds to a cuisine that’s equally as delicious.”
— Alex Koons, Hot Tongue Pizza
Down to Clown
The vibe at Hot Tongue Pizza reflects Koons’ own rock-and-roll rebel-with-a-cause persona, if that cause is surprising people with how delicious—and cool—vegan pizza can be. Surrealist artwork by L.A. artist Deladeso lines the walls. The Hot Tongue name itself, blazing in neon-pink letters above the exterior doors, hints at sultry, perhaps forbidden delights. The logo—a pair of full lips with an outstretched tongue—evokes memories of The Rolling Stones in their heyday.
You might say Koons is making plant-based pizza sexy—yet outrageously funny—for the masses.
“Every aspect of your experience here is important to me,” he says. “And the visualization of walking in—you’re supposed to be, like, kind of walking into my brain.”
That brain is a pretty interesting place, thumping to the beat of its own drum machine. On the one hand, Koons is a businessman through and through; he runs a tight ship and expects his team members to show up on time, stay focused and produce food to his exacting standards, with both flavor and esthetic appeal.
On the other hand, he’s a nut. And he likes to hire other nuts.
How he finds the time to create those Instagram Reels is anybody’s guess, but they’re screwball classics. Koons and his team members, bewigged and outrageously clad, dance, prance, wiggle and twirl about to catchy tunes—some made famous by hip-hop or pop acts (think Fugees or the Backstreet Boys), and others, like “Pineapple On Pizza” and “Ranch Dance,” that Koons writes and records himself.
All the people in the club
Throw your hands up, show some love
If you’re ready, do the dance
Dip that pizza in the ranch
When Hot Tongue cast members aren’t wiggling their bottoms for the camera, they’re getting high on contraband marinara sauce (snorting it, no less) or impersonating Draco Malfoy trying to pay for an order with his magic wand.
To Koons, marketing a pizzeria is not unlike promoting a band. “When you’re in a band, it’s all about making flyers, colorfulness, creativity and putting on a show,” he says. “I think I’m pretty creative, and it helps that everyone in the shop is incredibly creative, too. Everyone’s down to clown when the camera goes on, and we just cook up these crazy ideas, and then I film and edit them, and the rest is history.”
For Koons, authenticity is everything—and he knows more and more customers, especially younger ones, feel the same way. “I do post photos, but, recently, I got sick of making captions, so I’ve just started posting songs with photos because I don’t want to just be fake and make up something.” In his tamer Reels, Koons simply pans the camera across Hot Tongue’s slice display case, showing off various pies fresh out of the oven. They burst with color and eye appeal as well as flavor, so why not let them speak for themselves?
Whether you’re shooting stills or videos, strong visuals are paramount. One common Instagram marketing mistake, he notes, is “bad camera quality, bad lighting or sound. The Reel just doesn’t look good. Another thing that’s kind of cringey is when people are trying to be funny and it doesn’t come off as authentic. When you’re really trying hard or wanting something to hit, I think it’s easy to see through that. If you’re not funny, don’t try to be. If you’re not good at it, I think you should pay for it. There are plenty of people these days that make full careers out of running social media accounts.”
Fortunately, Koons is very good at it. And getting his team members involved in social media also lets them know that they’re valuable and that their ideas are welcome. In many of the wackier videos, Koons himself never appears on camera. His staffers are the stars. “They’re good at getting on camera and having a good time, and, yeah, people enjoy them. Sometimes, they act like, ‘Aw, dude, are you serious? Another one?’ But when the camera starts rolling and the finished product comes out, I think everyone’s stoked. It’s a break from the day, and we all create this thing together.”
Koons’ Greatest Hits
Alex Koons is a frequent contributor to PMQ’s sister website, PizzaVegan.com, as well as PMQ’s print edition and PMQ.com. For his latest column on creating a successful pizzeria culture, click here.
Pizza for Everyone
They also create some amazing pizzas together. Yes, they’re vegan pizzas, and that’s a major selling point in a city like Los Angeles. But, Koons notes, “I don’t necessarily want only vegan customers. I’m not really marketing to them. The idea is to open people’s minds to a cuisine that’s equally as delicious. You don’t have to put dairy and meat on everything. Eat this pizza once a week—just try it. Once I get somebody in here who’s a dedicated meat-eater or loves dairy and they sit down and enjoy the pizza, they’re, like, ‘This is incredible!’ And that’s the goal.”
Koons, now 37, went vegan when he was 20 years old. Opening a vegan pizzeria, for him, isn’t about capitalizing on a trend. He’s serving what he loves to eat. “The foundation of any great pizza is the dough process,” he says. “If you don’t have good dough, your pizza is gonna suck. Light, airy, crispy, a great crumb structure: There’s a lot of love that goes into that process. I still tinker with the dough recipe every day. It’s something I’ll keep playing with for the rest of my life.”
Related: Alex Koons: Don’t be afraid to break the rules
A stickler for conveying the traditional pizza experience—and then one-upping it—in plant-based form, Koons makes Hot Tongue’s vegan cheese in-house. Like mozzarella, it melts splendidly on the pie, yet stands on its own as a high-quality ingredient. “It’s supposed to be something different,” he says. “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.”
“I don’t like being put in [the vegan] category because it’s like, dude, let’s go toe to toe. I’ll make a cashew-based vegan cheese, and we’ll put it up next to your New York-style cheese, and let’s see who’s got the better product.”
— Alex Koons, Hot Tongue Pizza
Koons also makes his own plant-based meats, including pepperoni and crumbled sausage. “I’m not interested in using anyone else’s meats but my own,” he says. “And, really, it’s not something that I like that much, so I’m probably not going to extend that part of the menu.”
In fact, while Hot Tongue Pizza is a vegan pizzeria, Koons bristles at the label. “I don’t like being put in that category, because it’s like, dude, let’s go toe to toe. I’ll make a cashew-based vegan cheese, and we’ll put it up next to your New York-style cheese, and let’s see who’s got the better product. I don’t want to be in the vegan category. I don’t want to be listed among the best vegan restaurants in Los Angeles. I want to be on that top 15 pizzerias list, period. And rightfully so—I deserve it.”
But Koons is quick to give props to his fellow pizzaioli, too. In January, he launched a podcast, “Pie 2 Pie,” now streaming via his Hot Tongue TV channel on YouTube, Apple and Audible, among other platforms. Here, he chats with his L.A. pizzeria and pop-up peers—including the owners of Lucky Nick’s Pizza, Ozzy’s Apizza, Secret Pizza LA, Rose City Pizza, Secret Vegan Pizza and Quarantine Pizza—in a Q&A format, with each answer timed at 60 seconds.
Some of his “Pie 2 Pie” guests focus on vegan pizza, while others offer both meats and vegan options. For Koons, good pizza is just good pizza.
“I’m not on a religious crusade,” he says. After all, veganism can be a loaded term in today’s hyper-politicized era. “I’m not here to make anyone feel a certain way about animals or dairy cheese. I’m here as somebody who’s running a restaurant that makes great food without those two ingredients. There are other people who market their food as cruelty-free, and that’s cool, too. I totally get that. I just think that can be off-putting to a lot of people. Maybe they can’t eat dairy cheese because their cholesterol is messed up. Maybe they have celiac disease or they’re lactose-intolerant. Or maybe they just don’t want to eat meat every day. I think people want options. Having a more plant-forward diet—maybe not eating as much meat or as much dairy—is something that’s already happening. And you’ve gotta be welcoming to everyone.”
Rick Hynum is PMQ’s editor in chief.