By Charlie Pogacar

Rajesh Selvaraj first ate pizza when he was about 23 years old. Now he’s the co-founder and Chief Pizza Officer of Pizza Karma, a small but fast-growing chain that cooks pizza differently than any other pizza chain in the country. 

Pizza Karma uses tandoor-fired ovens—an ancient cooking technique that originated in Asia and, in modern times, is closely associated with Northern Indian cuisine and naan. Pizza Karma’s dough is slapped to the side of a red-hot tandoor oven and cooked for 45 seconds to a minute. The ovular ovens are on full display in the dining room, adding a theatrical flare to the cooking process. The crust is then topped with one of Pizza Karma’s seven signature sauces and other fixings and finished in a conventional pizza oven. 

First opened in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, in 2018, Pizza Karma has grown to three brick-and-mortar locations and three food trucks. Selvaraj, who has an engineering background, said the brand has aspirations to become a regional or even national brand. 

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“I always wanted to become an entrepreneur, and especially when you’re in the country of dreams,” Selvaraj said. “I have agreed to take this pizza to every community that I can. I want them to experience this offering that we’ve got since nobody in the country is doing it like we do.” 

Rajesh Selvaraj stands inside a Pizza Karma storefront with his arms folded.
Rajesh Selvaraj had never eaten pizza until he was an adult. Now he’s gone all in on the pizza game with his brand, Pizza Karma.

Selvaraj co-founded the brand with James Beard Award-winning chef Raghavan Iyer in 2018. An engineer who had spent his career working for Fortune 500 companies, Selvaraj brought his practicality and process-driven approach to the world of pizza. 

“As an engineer, I have a passion for solving problems and coming up with innovative ideas,” Selvaraj said. “I grew up in India, but my kids are growing up here in the states. Pizza is a food that they would like to eat every single day. I always felt, as a parent, that we should feed them well. But I also found a problem, which was: Why does pizza always have to be made with Italian flavors that are alien to me? Why can’t you make the sauce and ingredients I’d find in my mom or grandmother’s kitchen? Why use ingredients I can’t even pronounce?” 

Iyer, who lived in Minnesota for many years, was an acquaintance of Selvaraj. When Selvaraj became determined to create a tandoor-oven pizza concept, he looked no further than Iyer to help him come up with recipes that would be both Indian-inspired and approachable. 

“I started this concept believing pizza doesn’t have to be Italian,” Selvaraj said. “With that principle in mind, I knew [Iyer] for many years, and we started one step at a time testing recipes, looking at what it costs to make them, and building everything from the ground up.” 

The Pizza Karma menu features more than 15 pizzas. Some are as basic and American as the Simply Pepperoni, but the majority of the menu is based on Indian staples, as exhibited by the Butter Chicken, Chicken Kebab, Coconut Paneer and the Paneer Tikka pizzas.  

Each pizza features Pizza Karma’s unique, light crust that is made with six simple ingredients: 00 unbleached flour, olive oil, water, baking powder, sea salt and, notably, buttermilk instead of yeast. Using buttermilk is a technique borrowed from the traditional Indian method of making naan. According to Selvaraj, the buttermilk works as a natural leavening agent that adds tenderness to the crust that you can’t get from yeast, making it more digestible. 

“Our crust doesn’t bloat you,” Selvaraj said. “I challenge my guests: You can eat a whole pizza without taking a sip of water. You don’t need a drink to push it in. It doesn’t affect your health [negatively]—you feel good. It’s a feel-good pizza.” 

The menu also features wings, bowls and wraps made with the tandoor-fired crust. Appetizers include Tandoor Garlic Bites and Masala French Fries. The adventurous fare may have once been a stretch in a place like the Midwest. But Selvaraj has found locals to be insatiably curious, especially as global flavors continue to trend across the country. 

“Global cuisine has penetrated deep into the [United] States,” Selvaraj said. “When we brought in the unique techniques with our crust and the sauces and flavors, there was some familiarity to it. There’s also such a variety in our sauces that there’s something for everyone.” 

Pizza Karma’s Butter Chicken pizza.

The “karma” aspect of Pizza Karma’s name alludes to the community-driven approach Selvaraj takes. Not only does he believe in donating to local schools, organizations and other causes, but he thinks it’s vital that Pizza Karma finds ways to contribute beyond just writing a check. 

For example, when a local school district celebrated 100 years last month, a food truck was sent out to the celebration and offered complimentary pizza. “Those are all the things we can do through food,” Sevaraj said. “We just want to be there to be a small piece of the puzzle for noble causes like that. That’s one of the things I’m most passionate about.” 

Pizza Karma has been growing via franchising. Its third brick-and-mortar location, which opened in June, was a franchised store, as are the three food trucks. Selvaraj is getting an increasing amount of interest in bringing his unique concept to different regions and states, and everything is on the table.

“[Franchising] is a natural extension of our mission to bring global flavors to as many people as possible,” Selvaraj said. “To reach different communities and make this product as accessible as possible to a wider audience. We are gearing up for nationwide expansion and we want to grow this organically.”