Since arriving from the midwest in the mid 2010s after successful stints at the now-huge startup Boxed Water, our friend Kevin Hockin has made a huge impact on the LA food scene. And while his earlier projects created quite a buzz around burgers (Burgerlords) and coffee (Collage Coffee), those early hits were just appetizers compared to the waves Kevin and his small team made when they started Side Pie, a DIY pizza venture turned foodie phenomenon.
We recently caught up with Kevin at his home in Altadena to talk about his plans for upleveling Side Pie from an experimental pizza experience run out of his backyard to a full service sitdown restaurant with its own natural wine bar and pizza garden. We also chatted about a variety of other topics - from entrepreneurship to the merits of wacky toppings.
In short, he’s a cool dude, he makes great pizza, and he has a lot of great wisdom to share. We hope his story inspires you to cook up some dreams and walk towards them every day.
Tell us about your pizza journey. Were you aiming to create in a certain specific regional style, or was your approach more relaxed?
I had been experimenting with making pizza for around 4 years with the intent to open a restaurant here in Altadena, where I live. Once the pandemic hit and I started to go nuts sitting around at home, I decided to hit Youtube and learn how to make a pizza oven in my yard. I figured if the pizzas turned out good, I could sell a few by sliding them through my fence to people who wanted them - nothing fancy at all.
To answer your question about the style we were going for, I didn’t want to do a 12” Neapolitan-style pizza, because those are so played out here in LA. But, we also couldn’t make an 18” New York-style pie due to the size of our oven. We finally settled on a 15” pie that was both crispy and delicious and not impossible to produce at a fast clip.
Side Pie took off really fast. How did you deal with all that growth, especially given all the insanity of those first few months of Covid?
We started out by making pizzas on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays at the end of May and then our neighbor - who is a bit of an uptight right wing type of dude - ratted us out and got the community board sending us scary letters. We were told we had to stop selling pizza by Sept 12 and so we decided to have a blowout on Labor Day. We ended up selling over 600 pies in just under 15 hours. A$AP Ferg came. It was nuts.
A few months later, in January, the New York Times called and said they wanted to feature us. They were intrigued because demand for these pizzas were insane but our marketing was really vague and we weren’t a real restaurant. Based on that interest we “got the band back together” for one night and sold 200 pizzas in about ten minutes after sending out one email. We did five more services after that one and then decided to really stop it so we could open up the restaurant - and not get fined into oblivion by the city.
A lot of people on the East Coast, especially New Yorkers, like to goof on the concept of California Pizza. Is there more to California Pizza then chicken and BBQ sauce?
I don’t believe that there is any such thing as a California style. There’s no special dough or cooking method. It’s really just chefs doing wacky things with toppings and not taking themselves too seriously. I mean, I personally don’t eat pineapple on pizza, but good food is good food. When done right, chicken and cilantro and smoked gouda on a pizza can be absolutely delicious. Pizza is so new out here that people are not bogged down by tradition. We’re the rebellious kids and New Yorkers are the parents.
The failure rate in the restaurant business is so high. Based on your experiences, what skills or mindsets do you need in order to stay in the game?
For one, you need to be able to think and act on the fly and just dive into whatever the challenge is. Along with that, it’s very helpful to have someone on your team who is good with systems to really think through the flows of work and information. If that’s not you, find someone who is comfortable with all that stuff.
Can you share some successful and not so successful experiments you have tried over the years?
Running my burger joints with a few partners taught me a lot about how to work with other idea-focused people and how to grow a business when everyone has very strong visions about where to take it. Your business is only as good as your operating agreement so really make sure that is buttoned up.
Finally, I’d like to say that the best way to prove something is to have a plan for a year and step towards it every day. Anything beyond that is just speculation. Look forward, but not too far ahead, and be open to everything that occurs naturally.