We stayed up past our bedtime at Mikey’s Late Night Slice, home of Pizzaface, Cheezus Crust and one very drunk Mr. Potato Head

You might say Mike Sorboro built Mikey’s Late Night Slice with his own two feet. Sorboro, who co-owns the famously irreverent pizza company in Columbus, Ohio, raised the money to launch the first Mikey’s location with his pedicab business, carting hard-partying tourists and clubbers around the city in the wee hours. “Mikey always had the idea to start some kind of drunk-food thing,” recalls his business partner Jason Biundo, chief creative officer for Mikey’s. “When we started doing the bike taxi, people would ask, ‘Where can we get pizza by the slice in this town?’ There was no place to get it.”

Sensing a niche ripe for exploitation, Sorboro bought a ramshackle storage shed in Short North, an arts and entertainment district known for its bustling nightlife. “He started researching what he needed to do—permits and stuff,” Biundo says. “Then he’d go out on his pedicab and take a bunch of people around until he’d made enough money to pay for an oven, then a freezer, a cooler, smallwares…and eventually we opened Mikey’s.”

Watch our exclusive video interview, "Twisted Paradise," with Jason Biundo here!

“We were always irreverent and off-the-wall ourselves, so this was just a reflection of who we were. We make pizza the way we like to eat it. We stay open late, and we like to make people laugh.”
—Jason Biundo, Mikey’s Late Night Slice

Sorboro and his partners, Biundo and Bryce Ungerott, finally had a pizza shop (initially called the Shack), albeit a scruffy one; now all they had to do was learn how to make pizza. “We didn’t exactly know what we were doing right away,” Biundo admits, with a laugh. “For the first week or so, we just bought pizza somewhere else, reheated it and sold it. Eventually, we got our hands on some dough balls. We didn’t know what the hell we were doing with those, either, but we learned quickly. We watched a lot of YouYube, went to a lot of pizzerias, took in as much as we could, and eventually we had a product that we’re proud of.”

Friendly servers, offbeat promos and a relaxed, party-like atmosphere make Mikey’s Late Night Slice the go-to after-hours place in Columbus, Ohio.

They also had a scalable concept that reflected the trio’s personality—edgy, funny, progressive and ready to party. Since the first store opened in 2009, Mikey’s has expanded to three stores and three mobile units, called the PizzAssault Trucks, which are weekend fixtures in downtown Columbus. To further spread the brand, the company also operates kitchens in Newport Music Hall and the Express Live! concert venue and, under a deal with Aramark, runs permanent food stands in the Nationwide Insurance Headquarters and the Chase McCoy Center.

And everywhere the partners go, they bring along their trademark snark and racy, good-time vibe, serving every slice with a side of sass. “We were always irreverent and off-the-wall ourselves, so this was just a reflection of who we were,” Biundo says. “We make pizza the way we like to eat it. We stay open late, and we like to make people laugh. And we’ve stuck with that.”

The Meme Master

Not a lot of pizzerias have a chief creative officer, but they might want to look into it. While Sorboro is the visionary behind Mikey’s and Ungerott is the “money guy” who ran another multimillion-dollar business before taking the pizza plunge, Biundo delivers the laughs that have helped the company build a loyal and engaged fan base on social media. A branding and marketing whiz with a finely tuned sense of the absurd, Biundo is also a master of the art form known as the Internet meme, crafting parody images that place well-known movie characters and pop-culture figures—from Pee Wee Herman to Professor X—in a Late Night Slice context. The company’s not-so-cute mascot, Pizzaface, makes frequent appearances, too, riding on a unicorn or sitting triumphantly in the Iron Throne from Game of Thrones.

Many of the memes tout Mikey’s “Free S#!t Friday,” a weekly Facebook promo in which followers share the posts for a chance to win free pizza, while others call attention to Pizza of the Week specials. A promo for a baked-potato pizza, called Loaded Mr. Potato Head, featured a tipsy Mr. Potato Head, glasses askew, with a caption that reads, “Go Home, Potato Head. You’re Drunk.” Another meme recreates the look and feel of a Midol ad to promote the Extra Strength P.M.S., a pie topped with pepperoni, mushrooms and sausage. The Asian-themed Punk Wok pizza inspired a meme featuring Bruce Lee clutching a slice in one hand and making a deadly “fist of fury” with the other.

“My favorites are the unexpected ones, like The Usual Suspects with Pizzaface in the lineup, which I wound up really digging,” Biundo says. “Once I got an employee to wear a wrestling unitard and put on a luchador mask, and I made the El Pizza ad, which looked like one of those Mexican wrestling posters, for our Cinco de Mayo pizza. We probably skirt the line of legality a little bit, so as we continue to grow, we’ll have to walk away from a lot of that. But we’re having fun with it—we’ve gotten only one cease-and-desist notice so far.”

Biundo’s talents as a meme master, graphic designer and photographer have paid off for Mikey’s. The company has more than 22,200 Facebook followers, 6,800 fans on Instagram and nearly 6,000 devotees on Twitter. All that can be a little too much for one person to handle, so Biundo recently turned the Free S#!t Friday graphics over to an assistant, Darien Fisher, whom Biundo honored with one last classic meme: a laugh-out-loud recreation of an iconic scene from The Graduate, with Pizzaface filling in for the alluring Mrs. Robinson and baring his hairy legs to Dustin Hoffman, who responds, “Mr. Pizzaface, you’re trying to seduce me, aren’t you?”

Chief Creative Officer Jason Biundo is also a photographer and graphic designer who channels his love for pop culture into Mikey’s marketing materials and social media.

Pouring On the Spice

Of course, not every joke lands quite as expected. Since Mikey’s caters largely to hip, young late-night partiers, the humor can be decidedly spicy—and a tad politically insensitive for some people’s tastes. The first Mikey’s store served up a signature concoction called Slut Sauce, which had to be renamed Unicorn Sauce in 2015. “It was wildly popular,” Biundo says. “We actually took more flak for changing the name than we ever took from people who didn’t like the name. But we changed it because we want to see it distributed in supermarkets like Kroger or Giant Eagle, and that’s never going to happen if it’s called Slut Sauce.”

Some signature specialty pies, such as the Spicy Ass Pepperoni and Plain Ass Pepperoni, also underwent name changes. “We’ve covered our asses and moved on from that,” Biundo jokes. But Mikey’s keeps the heat turned up with another signature pie called the Fiery Death, made with ghost peppers, reaper peppers, scorpion peppers and more. The company offers the belly-burning pie just one week out of the year, promoting it with eating contests and luring in local TV personalities, such as Cameron Fontana from Good Day Columbus, for an on-air bite, usually to their regret. “We tried to warn [Fontana], but he went ahead and ate it,” Biundo says. “He turned a crazy shade of red, and everybody got a good laugh out of it. It was good TV.”

“[Our memes] probably skirt the line of legality a little bit, so as we continue to grow, we’ll have to walk away from a lot of that. But we’re having fun with it—we’ve gotten only one cease-and-desist notice so far.”
—Jason Biundo, Mikey’s Late Night Slice

Besides the Fiery Death, Mikey’s menu is packed with signature pies boasting memorable names and flavors to match. Biundo comes up with many of the recipes, letting his keen nose for trending pop-culture themes lead the way. The Death Star Chili Mac proved a best-seller when Star Wars: The Force Awakens hit theaters last year. On the other hand, the Groot’s Broccoli and Cheddar, inspired by the lovable tree monster in Guardians of the Galaxy, failed to take root but made for a terrific meme. “Don’t ever put broccoli on a pizza,” Biundo warns. “No matter who says they want it, it’s not gonna sell.”

Then there’s the Cheezus Crust, Mikey’s best-known signature item. “That one goes back to our days in the Shack, when we were bored because we were getting, like, one customer every 50 minutes,” Biundo recalls. “We took a couple of slices of American cheese, pressed them together between two slices of pizza like a grilled cheese sandwich, and heated it up. We were, like, ‘What are we going to call it?’ And Mikey’s girlfriend at the time saw it and was like, ‘Cheezus Crust!’ We were like, ‘Brilliant! Done!’”

The partners also dreamed up the Pizza Dog, a sliced hot dog stuffed with pepperoni and cheese and wrapped in a slice of pizza. Biundo even has a pie bearing his own name. “It’s a joke about how terribly I eat,” he says. “I will take whatever’s on the menu and find a way to make it terrible for you. So the Biundo has, like, five different meats and onions on it. It’s not healthy.”

Servers stand by with glasses of milk as patrons gear up for a pizza-eating contest featuring the Fiery Death, a super-hot pie only offered once per year.

Tailor-Made for Columbus

When the marketing mad men of Mikey’s aren’t devising off-the-wall recipes in the kitchen, they’re using their flair for improvisation to develop quirky promotions that have endeared them to the up-all-night crowd. A Valentine’s Day event, for example, combined speed-dating with the popular Cards Against Humanity game. “When it came time to [implement] it, we were setting up the tables that night and were like, ‘Well, how are we gonna do this?’ We quickly came up with some rules, but it was more about the interaction than the game. We had 30 people on one side of the restaurant and 30 people on the other. We’d pair two people up and use the cards to start the conversation, then after a minute and a half, the buzzer would go off and everyone would move down to the next table. It’s great because people take their own pictures and Instagram it, so they’re doing my work for me, because they’re having such a good time.”

In a cross-promotion last March, one Mikey’s store created a new specialty pizza in collaboration with Hot Chicken Takeover, another local brand with hipster appeal, and launched it with a fundraiser for the Columbus Diaper Bank, a nonprofit (founded by Sorboro) that provides diapers for needy families with babies. “A regular week at that location would be about 30 grand,” Biundo says. “During the week we ran that pizza, we doubled that number. There were lines out the door. Of all the specials we’ve done, that was the biggest success we’ve had.”

Mikey’s Late Night Slice gets deeply involved in community events, such as Columbus’ annual Pride Parade, and assists multiple nonprofits, inspiring fierce loyalty among its customers. Some have even gone so far as to get a Pizzaface tattoo.

Mikey’s supports other kid-friendly causes, including Toys for Tots and A Kid Again, a nonprofit modeled after the Make-A-Wish Foundation. In fact, for an operation that bills itself as “the black sheep of Columbus pizza joints,” Mikey’s keeps drifting dangerously closer to the mainstream. The downtown shop offers designer cocktails and craft beers on tap, and the location inside the Chase McCoy Center is a daytime-only operation for Chase employees—not exactly After-Party Central.

But that’s one of the great things about the Mikey’s concept—it’s highly adaptable. And it’s tailor-made for a high-energy college town like Columbus, home of Ohio State University. “Columbus is a great place to introduce a new idea,” Biundo says. “There’s some kind of synergy in this city—if you put all your effort behind your business and really believe in it, people will come. I started to say Columbus is like an oasis in the middle of Ohio, but it’s really not. Yes, there are cornfields in Ohio, and, yes, there are cows. But there are cities, too, and they are very connected and sophisticated. It’s a battleground state. You don’t win the presidency unless you win Ohio.”

Rick Hynum is PMQ’s editor in chief.

SaveSave