In the summer of 2016, I embarked on a mission to build a pizza oven in our back garden. A lengthy research phase took place followed by numerous plans being drawn up, each being scrapped to accommodate additions and modifications. After getting my hands on the required amounts of sand, clay and firebrick, my project was underway by early July. A few short weeks later, we were dishing out pizzas from our very own oven, taking full advantage of the long Irish August evenings.
This undertaking really cemented my appreciation for pizza. It’s a food that seems to insist on shared participation. It brings people together. It’s a blank canvas on which you can adhere to the preferences of individuals; the classic margherita, a simple salami, a vegetarian bonanza or an all-out quattro formaggi. It’s a food that takes time to prepare and you appreciate it all the more once it comes out of the oven. It takes time to make the dough. It takes time to make the essential homemade tomato sauce and it also requires time to start and maintain the fire, ensuring that it reaches the right temperature, with the appropriate amount of flame, before sliding in the circular discs of dough onto the hearth.
Pizza first made its appearance in Naples around the early 1600s. As large numbers of Italians were drawn to North America in the early 19th century, they carried their culinary wisdom with them. The Neapolitans brought pizza to the likes of New York and Chicago, where its popularity would soon see it spread throughout the country and eventually go on to reach global domination as one of the worlds most recognized foods.
Such large scale popularity has today rendered it difficult to find authentic, Italian-style pizza from a wood-fired oven. However, such an offering recently opened its doors in a suburb of Auckland and I had the chance to meet with the man behind the operation. I met Simon Murphy of UMU Pizza on a Thursday afternoon at his Kingsland pizzeria. After stepping inside I was immediately welcomed by the beating heart that is the three ton Naples-made pizza oven as it radiated heat while a tray of mushrooms were slowly roasting.
Q – So where did it all start for you getting into this line of work?
A – It actually started out initially with an interest in sourdough bread. I created my own starter and experimented with baking. Then while I was in the UK, I came across an amazing pizza one day at a place called Franco Manca. It was probably the best pizza I had tried and after that I went on a mission baking pizza at home. It was a challenge trying to replicate great pizza from a home oven because you simply don’t get the high heat. But I kept at it for years, never really thinking that I would make a business out of it. Then in the last few years we were looking at opportunities here in Auckland and felt that it was something that could work.
Q – How was your time in the UK and what brought you to New Zealand?
A – While I was in the UK I was working as a solution architect doing contract work. We enjoyed our time in the UK and the contract work gave my partner and I a lot of opportunities to travel. We bought an old post van in the UK and drove it across Europe in a trip that carried us for about 20,000 km through places like Bulgaria, Romania and Turkey. We spent some time travelling in Africa as well before making the journey back down to New Zealand where we had a baby girl and started to put down some roots.
Q – What made you decide on opening a pizzeria in Auckland?
A – I felt there was a gap in the market here for good pizza. There is pizza everywhere, but great pizza is just really hard to find. To get something that is good quality, hand-made and not full of a list of unknown ingredients, its quite difficult to find here. You can see some other niches pretty well represented such as Mexican and Burgers, but the pizza scene was lacking. From a business side, I felt that there was the market opportunity. There is also a relatively high margin with pizza. You get the eat-in trade where customers will typically have a few drinks, as well as the takeaway trade. So there were a number of factors commercially along with the business model that I felt stacked up.
Q – Did you have experience in starting a business before?
A – When I worked in IT, I went from engineering into architecture and then into sales. In sales, a lot of the work was around building business cases so I approached this in the same way. I took a step back, tried to be objective and consider the competitive landscape. It just seemed right. There are only so many spreadsheets you can do, trying to predict how many pizzas you are going to sell a day over the first 6 months. A big part of it is simply making the call to go ahead with it and then it all starts to fall into place.
Q – How have you found the transition from working in IT to running your own pizzeria?
A – Its been a lot of hard work but I’m enjoying it. I’m here at around 8 AM every day and there is always something going on behind the scenes. One of the team will come in at 12 PM to mix the dough. The dough will then rest at bulk for about an hour, after which we divide it into round balls that will be the individual pizza bases. They sit at room temperature until the next day, then in the morning I come in to take a look and determine if they can stay at room temp or need to spend a few hours in the refrigerator to slow down the fermentation.
Q – The oven is an absolute work of art. Could you tell a little about where it came from?
A – The oven was built by Stefano Ferrara who is a third generation craftsman building authentic neapolitan pizza ovens. Everything is done to order. The tile work is custom spec and its all done by hand. It took about two months for them to complete the oven. Then it spent another two months on the water being shipped over followed by a few weeks in customs. The oven weighs almost three tons so it was a tough job getting it in the shop once it arrived. The flute system that funnels the smoke out the back was also a big cost associated with the oven, costing more than the actual oven itself.
Q – Have you had any issues with neighboring businesses complaining about smoke?
A – Not at all. We are using really well-seasoned wood. Manuka is seasoned for two years and we also use a kiln dried beech wood. So as long as you are burning well seasoned wood, you shouldn’t have any issues with smoke.
Q – Looking back on it now a few months into operation, what were some of the major hurdles with getting the business off the ground?
A – The financial side of starting a business can always be tough. A lot of people starting out might find it difficult to obtain a loan if you don’t have some sort of equity. That’s why you see a lot of people starting out with food trucks. You can get your brand out there, build up a following and then eventually move to a bricks and mortar location if things move along well.
You also need to pull in a lot of people such as a draftsman, architect or engineer. I had a designer / architect who submitted the building consent, which was a massive document. We then had to get a structural engineers report on top of that. Because we have another level above us, we had to put in a special roof to meet fire safety standards. That was another unexpected cost that we didn’t foresee. We also had to have fourteen smoke detectors put in.
The actual food side of the business takes up a minor portion. You spend a lot of time dealing with builders, the council, reviewing food safety documents, fire engineers, negotiating lease agreements. But aside from all the challenges, it is a satisfying experience. I work twice as much and I don’t get paid nearly as much as my previous job, but you don’t get into this for the money. I get up every day and I’m happy coming in to the pizzeria.
Its clear to see that UMU does a bit more than the average pizzeria. They use the oven to cook everything that they serve; such as roasted potatoes, roasted mushrooms and homemade sausage. The pizza dough is made using a naturally leavened sourdough starter which results in a noticeably tastier crust, as well as making it easier to digest. As we chat at one of the tables in the pizzeria, builders are hard at work in the building next door and Simon tells me that expansion plans are in action as they look to increase the current size and include a larger bar offering.
UMU seems to tick all the boxes if you are looking for good pizza; an impressive wood-fire oven, enthusiastic staff that are passionate about pizza, craft beer on tap as well as a selection of wine. Keeping things simple but doing it right. Taking all into consideration, for me its the best pizza that I’ve tried in my almost two years living in New Zealand.