We sat down with George - founder of Stubborn Slice Pizza Co. - to chat about life, food vans and, of course, pizza. George talks us through the source of his passion, what his brand represents and some of the challenges he's had along the way. We're proud to bring you his story as the first post in our chat series... Buckle up and enjoy.
"Other pizza vans are very successful and people love what they're doing but I didn't want to do that. I wanted to do something different."
A by-the-slice pizza business in Fife isn’t your everyday. What inspired this?
I think for my entire life, I've never wanted to follow what everyone else is doing. I've just wanted to be that bit different to make me stand out. Not going to university made me think, what am I gonna do? I worked in a camp in America and when I was in New York, I went to all these different slice shops. I knew about this slice concept, but it hadn't taken off in the UK. I was working in Vienna and there was this pizza place that I would go to pretty much every day to get a slice, and that got me thinking. Then, when I was in South America, I had a lot of time to rethink about life and in my case, pizza. Everyone loves pizza – the whole novelty of a really big pizza with a big slice. It can be on the go and you get it within a minute of turning up. That's fantastic. I came up with the idea of bringing that slice concept to Scotland, to Fife. I knew a lot about other foods, but making pizza was new to me and I found that really intriguing. This was going to be a new experience, a new product that I was going to learn about. I was thinking a shop would be ideal, but I was only 19 years-old and that would have been way too much investment. So, food van it was! There are no food vans in Fife, let alone in like Scotland, that do pizza by-the-slice.
So, you had this idea, you found your market, and you went with it. What’s so stubborn about your slice?
I wanted ‘Slice’ in the name because I wanted it to show what I was selling and what made it unique. I'm also known for being, you know, stubborn. It’s all coming from a good place but I’m particular about the way things are done. I'm a massive perfectionist when it comes to food. So, I wrote ‘Stubborn Slice’ down and I thought it had a decent ring to it. I ran it by my mum and sister – they absolutely hated the name. Then I spoke to a few more friends and they really liked it. It also represents the fact that I'm doing it by the slice and I'm not following the usual pizza van route: woodfired, artisan, really fancy. I felt like they were selling the pizza by telling customers about the woodfired oven. It means nothing in terms of whether it tastes good. You've got to actually make a good pizza. You can't just sell it with the oven. I decided I'm doing it in a gas oven with big pizzas. Other pizza vans are very successful and people love what they're doing but I didn't want to do that. I wanted to do something different. It's a reflection of who I am, what I've been working towards and who I want to become as a person.
Who is that person?
I'm pretty happy with who I am right now. When I was younger, I had standards and I just wasn't meeting them. It was frustrating for me, but it literally just took time to grow into myself. In my last year of school, that's when I really came into myself and I felt that I reached those standards that I knew that I was capable of.
If you could pass some words of wisdom to your younger self, what would you say?
Honestly, it comes down to the kindness, love and acceptance that you show towards other people. That is the most important thing. The love you have for other people, your friends and your family. If you're getting that right, then that's what's going to hold most of the really important things together. There are the thoughts of ‘being better at this’ and ‘being better at that’ – you think that's so important when you're younger. But you figure out later that those things aren't so important. Important things are the connections you have with other people. I've always known myself very well. If anything is getting me down, there is this strong sense of myself; this beaming light that it doesn't actually really matter. I suppose I've been lucky that I've always had that. But then obviously, on the surface, I wasn't content with what people thought of me. Even if I knew who I was, I was still thinking, ‘I want people to think of me differently’. It just took time.
When it comes to pizza, you’re very passionate about authenticity and making everything from scratch. Why is this an important part of your process?
Any cook knows that the ingredients is where it starts. If you've got raw ingredients and you've cooked everything from scratch, it means that you're going to produce a much better product. It also comes from growing up with my mum being very health conscious and putting that on me and my sister. We never bought anything ready-made. I mean, we don't own a microwave. If we're going to cook something, you cook it from scratch. So, it was a no brainer for me going into it.
What was your cooking experience before the food van?
I left school when I was 16 because I wasn't doing very well academically and I wasn't feeling like I was getting anything out of school. Food was a constant through my life and I wanted to get a job in a restaurant to see what I made of it. So, one summer I did a cooking course in London and I worked in my local pub. That was really not very fun but I realised you’ve got to pay your dues; you’ve got to work up. Then I went to Vienna, and I shadowed a really top chef there but he didn't speak much English. I didn't do a lot of cooking but I watched a lot and did a lot of thinking. I also did another cooking course in Naples. Working in a restaurant wasn’t all that I’d cracked it up to be; I felt like I failed in many ways throughout that period, but it made me grow so much as a person. I got convinced to go back to school and finish my final exams. I turned up in January – halfway through the year – which was kind of intimidating. But then I had a year and a half of like, the best year of my life.
You obviously haven’t let your experience deter you from pursuing pizza. You’ve landed yourself an impressive set of wheels – what’s the story behind your iconic Citroën van?
I wanted to do something independently and a food truck was something that was small scale that I could handle at my age with my lack of experience. I wanted a van that would stand out and I knew that there was a trend of people using converted Citroën’s. It made sense with the product I was doing and, in Scotland, there's not many of these vans around anyway. I originally wanted a metallic colour but this red one came about at a good price and in really good condition. So, I bought it completely empty and then I worked with a conversion company on what I wanted inside. When I got the van back, I actually looked into changing the colour but why would you want to change it? Red being like tomato and pizza. The fact that red stands out as a colour but also red apparently makes you hungry. Plus, it’s just way too expensive to change the colour. I changed my logo from blue to red and added the silver wording on the actual van itself.
How was the first summer in the van?
First summer, I was very lucky to have friends helping me out getting some events. It went as good as it could have gone. I did some gigs, private parties and local farm shops. I got through a lot of pizza! Of course, I did a couple of bad gigs, like this caravan park which didn't really work out. I don't think they were very good at telling all the guests that I was going to be there. I was there for about three hours and I must have sold five pizzas. You’ve got to get out there but also, you've got to learn who is going to enjoy your pizza.
2020 has been a crazy year for hospitality and the food industry. What has business been like for you in 2020?
All of my events were obviously cancelled by April and it was pretty clear that nothing was really going to happen. We've got a whole lot of friends who are locals so a pickup and delivery service from my house was a no brainer. I sent out emails to as many friends as we knew around this area. I asked them to order in and tell me what they wanted and the time they wanted to pick it up. It was basically just like a drive thru – I got the pizza ready in my boxes, and then passed it through their car window. I did that once a week on Fridays, for several weeks. I wasn't paying a pitch fee and the system of them ordering in advance worked really well with my system. I knew exactly what I was going to sell and how many ingredients I needed for that day. There was no waste which is really important for me. I wasn't getting enough people but I was still using up the ingredients I had left over from last year.
What are you setting your sights on moving forward?
I want to go to drama school in September so I still have this summer to use my van. I’ve also been in touch with a friend who works for this Land Rover garage that's based on the Forth Road Bridge. There’s an amazing view and the owner is interested in taking advantage of the footfall there by sticking a pizza oven in the back of an old Land Rover. I would basically be involved to help him start up. It’s funny because you're finding new ideas and new businesses in these testing times, and I think making the most of it is so important. I'm also very, very conscious that, due to my background – my friends and family – I'm in a very fortunate position where people want to help me. So, I'm conscious that, other people may not have the same opportunity.
If you could offer some advice to someone looking to start up a food van business, what would you say?
For me, a food van, yes, it’s a business and yes, it’s a way to make a buck but you should be going into the food industry to try and make the best product that you can. At the end of the day that’s what people are going to come back to. Of course, it’s important to be polite and be good to your customers but the food is what they’re coming back for. So, I would say do your research and fill the whole business idea with passion. Show people that you know what you’re doing and the product is the best you can make it.
1. Pizza in Naples or New York?
New York. I prefer the pizza there but it’s an unfriendly city. And they’re proud of it.
2. Domino’s or Papa Johns?
Neither. I hate both. I’ve never had a Papa Johns.
3. Coffee in Italy or US?
Italy. They really take it seriously over there.