Love at first bite: A growing number of pizzerias are offering pizza menus for catered wedding receptions.

The ceremony is over. The last photos of the wedding party in beautiful gowns and suits have been taken. Your guests restlessly mingle, wordlessly signaling their growing appetites for the perfectly timed reception bite. That’s when you lift the first hot slice of chorizo-topped pizza to your mouth.

Wait a minute—this is a wedding, right? You bet it’s a wedding, and a growing number of pizzerias around the country are now offering pizza as a reasonably priced
alternative to high-end menus at these blessed events. Considering that the expenses for a typical marriage rite can top $20,000 faster than a wood-burning oven can fire up a pepperoni pie, a pizza wedding is a bargain many young couples today can’t resist.

A Banquet On Wheels

“Not everyone can afford a $20,000 wedding,” says Michael Johnson, founder of The Pizza Company (woodfiredpizzacompany.com) in Sacramento, California. Fortunately, pizza makes a cost-effective catering option that will please even the pickiest palates. Johnson’s mobile wood-fired pizza oven is about the “size of a Prius,” says the environmentally conscious pizza maker and successful wedding grub supplier. “I’m not restricted by brick and mortar. I haul my great-looking mobile oven to weddings and rehearsal dinners around the Sacramento area exclusively, serving pizza and salads.”

Johnson works closely with prospective brides and grooms to plan pizza possibilities. “At some of the weddings I do, the bride has set up tables with fine china, but the requested entrée is still fantastic-looking pizza,” he says. “Others use plastic utensils and paper napkins, but, formal or casual, my clients can choose from a wide variety of pies that are prepared with locally sourced crust, sauces and toppings.”

Johnson has served pizzas topped with everything from farmer’s market-purchased braised lamb, duck and sausage to fresh asparagus complemented with sauce made from figs and caramelized onions. And he never forgets the fresh tomatoes.

“My pizza is thin-crust, New York-style, made from my own dough with local flour I drive 30 miles to pick up every week,” he says. “I use California-grown ingredients, including some of the best tomatoes and cheese in the world, along with vegetables I buy at the local farmer’s market. My salads are made from the same fresh sources, and people seem to love the idea.”

They love it so much that Johnson’s calendar stays booked year-round, although his wedding gigs are mixed in with catering trips to the area’s growing array of craft breweries. These venues, along with his high visibility at area farmer’s markets, represent the mobile pizza maker’s chief promotional sources. “My personal philosophy is to generate word-of-mouth for my business by getting out in the community and giving folks the chance to taste my pizza,” Johnson explains. “For weddings, I charge $15 per person for pizza only or $20 for pizza and salad, along with a small setup and travel fee, plus tax. We work hard to try to keep costs low by just providing great food. We don’t offer waitstaff, and you stand in a buffet line right next to my oven to get your pizza and salad. If couples need additional services, I’m glad to refer them.”

Michael Johnson’s The Pizza Company is the perfect vehicle for catering casual but tasteful weddings and other affairs. From his mobile woodfired oven, Johnson offers locally sourced ingredients and a buffet line, with prices starting at $15 for pizza only or $20 for pizza and a salad. Photo courtesyThe Pizza Company.

“When you look at the numbers, you realize weddings and pizza are perfect together. Nationally, we’re looking at a 14% growth rate in weddings per year over the next five years. The average age of the population is 26—ideal for marriages.”
—Louise York, LouEddie’s Pizza

An Affair to Remember

A few hundred miles south of Sacramento, another pizza-and-wedding love affair has been brewing at LouEddie’s Pizza (loueddiespizza.com), backing up the truism that the Golden State is the perfect high-heat oven for new baking trends. Louise York, the Lou in LouEddie’s name, and her business partner, Eddie Hillary, are also a couple, although, ironically, they have never tied the knot. Four years ago they bought a former logging camp in the mountains outside of Los Angeles, a few miles from Lake Arrowhead. Located in Skyforest, California, the site, now called Willow Woods Park, is resplendent with natural beauty and seven historical cabins. “The goal was to put a protective envelope around the restaurant by diversifying,” York says. “After buying the property in 2011, we opened [LouEddie’s] two years ago by converting one of the buildings—built in 1924 as a logging cabin—into a restaurant.”

The pizza wedding concept evolved after a couple that had enjoyed Hillary’s authentic Neapolitan pizza at acatered event suggested he serve it at weddings. “We’ve taken off from there,” says Hillary, who credits the success of the wedding operation (125 events in two years) largely to the restaurant’s artisan pizza. “I think our patrons, like people around the country, are increasingly willing to explore different flavors. Our guests are able to save money while experiencing handmade artisan pizza with incredible flavor. They tell their friends and family about the experience, and the word has gotten out.”

LouEddie’s wedding menu selections include a spicy chorizo, Greek-olive-and-feta-laden pizza, and a Baja Fiesta pie with roasted peppers, chicken breast and caramelized onions. “Once they taste the different varieties of pizza we offer, they love our simple, fresh approach, and they enjoy sharing it with others,” Hillary says.

The restaurant’s three-course pizza reception starts with a lightly topped slice (the three-white-cheese garlic pizza is a popular choice) cut into 16ths and rolled into toothpick-pinned crescent rolls. This finger-food portion of the meal is followed by a buffet featuring a variety of protein- and veggie-stacked thin-crust selections, capped off with a chocolate-chip-and-powdered-sugar-packed dessert pizza.

For some lucky brides and grooms, the pizzaiolo may even officiate the ceremony. One of the restaurant’s managers performs double duty, baking artisan pizzas at LouEddie’s and presiding over weddings in Willow Woods Park.

The Numbers Add Up

Pizza expert and recent bride Liz Barrett says she recommends pizza as a wedding food for any couple looking for a family-oriented, affordable, delicious option. Photo by Steve Green

“Our success in hosting weddings and receptions seemed counterintuitive at first,” notes York, a former video game marketer. “But when you look at the numbers, you realize weddings and pizza are perfect together. Nationally, we’re looking at a 14% growth rate in weddings per year over the next five years. The average age of the population is 26—ideal for marriages. Even developments like same-sex marriage can be a growth area for us.”

It’s another trend, however—toward casual, affordable and rustic-style weddings—that has fueled LouEddie’s wedding-bell bliss, York believes. “I think couples respond to our beautiful natural setting, which lends itself to a rustic wedding theme,” she says. “The feel is historic—burlap and lace, with log cabins and mason jars. But the closer is our fabulous pizza.”

Bottom line: York and Hillary offer a reasonably priced alternative to wedding costs that could rival the budget of a small country, especially in California. “Our business model—$90 per person and up—for wedding receptions has been a profit maker for us, but it represents a 60% savings for our customers over comparable wedding venues in the Los Angeles area,” York says. “Pizza, as the primary food item at our events, integrates seamlessly into our restaurant operation. We’re set up to easily handle this kind of volume. A few dozen pizzas at a reception is a number we can meet easily.”

Pizza as a reception entree may seem like out-of-the-box thinking, but in today’s pricy wedding environment, it makes sense for some couples. Photo byLeiShell Correll.

And from their vantage point of 5,000 feet above sea level in the San Bernardino Mountains, York and Hillary foresee a bright future for their business—including possible expansion. Currently able to handle up to 100 guests, they envision opening a second location for the wedding operation, as well as pricing adjustments that could yield a better profit margin at still highly competitive rates.

And the free publicity they’ve recently earned can’t hurt. “We were thrilled that the Travel Channel filmed an episode of a new show here last January,” York says. “It’s called Pizza Paradise, and it should air this spring. Our restaurant was also just selected by Yelp as one of its top 100 places to eat in 2015. We’re No. 72, and, since that announcement, our sales have risen 20%.”

York and Hillary want to stage a full-frontal publicity assault to reinforce the wedding side of the operation in 2015. “To market weddings, I originally joined local wedding associations, but this year we’ve moved aggressively into marketing and promoting the service on Weddingwire.com and Herecomesthebride.com. We want to be a high-end wedding site. We’re hoping to be featured in Bride & Groom magazine later this year and, combined with the Travel Channel exposure, we’re confident we can grow our wedding business significantly.”

In other words, as Karen Carpenter once famously sang, the marriage of pizza and weddings has “only just begun.”

Andy Knef is PMQ’s associate editor.