Friday Night Heat

In the world of pizza, nothing tops Friday. Eagerly referred to as Pizza Friday, the numbers don’t lie, it is the busiest night of the week. In the pizza-loving neighborhood of Magnolia at the end of the work week, Pagliacci is a hive of activity. Dough tossers, delivery drivers, salad makers, pizza cooks, servers, slicers, boxers—25 people in all—dance around each other as discs of dough are spun into the air, quick hands pile toppings, pizzas are boxed, cut and whisked away for delivery. But perhaps no one in the carefully choreographed bustle behind the counter bears more responsibility—and takes more heat—than the one brandishing the peel. A few weeks back Molly Wakenshaw ran the ovens. She’s been with Pagliacci for eight years, previously General Manager of the Madison store, and now General Manager of Pagliacci’s new Columbia City store. That night she averaged more than a pizza a minute. She made it look easy, but that hasn’t always been the case. 

Molly running ovens

“Running ovens is my favorite spot to be in the store now. But I remember it being very intimidating when I first was learning how to pull the pizzas out of the oven,” Molly says. “It takes a certain amount of repetition to build up the strength, if that is what you want to call it. I call it my pizza arm. Once you are good at it and you find your rhythm it is the place to be. There is a lot going on all at once. You help manage quote times, cook the pizzas, cut the pizzas, make sure they are correct for the customer and route them for the driver.”

For Pagliacci, developing skilled oveners has been an evolution. Mike Niznik, General Manager of the Bridle Trials store, remembers the old days. “There was no time to be careful. Burns were almost like battle scars, to be respected. Once a person could do Friday solo that was when he was really bad ass! It made it super frantic, but it was a part of proving oneself.” 

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Bridget Dougherty, General Manager of Lake City Way, says, “There is a certain respect that comes with holding the peel and if you can hold down ovens on a Friday that is a feat not for the weak. It is fast, stressful, mentally challenging, physically exhausting and by far the most fun.”

As Pagliacci grew some of the old ways had to change. With new stores opening, more skilled oveners needed to be developed. Ovens became a two-person job, with general managers stepping away, so they could manage more than just ovens. Of the change Mike says, “Life has changed for the better since we, the GMs, stopped being oven hogs. Setting it up for two, even three people, allows for greater volume, better quality, and smarter working. Passing on the years of learning the hard way is one of the most satisfying parts of the job.”

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Justin Wehrell, General Manager of 85th Street, remembering the hectic, macho days of yore, says, “Years ago when running around doing the job by myself things were much worse. I would put in more effort than necessary and just be wiped out at the end of the shift. Sometimes dehydrated. It gets hot. I would recommend plenty of water and most importantly, don't do it by yourself.”

“Now running ovens is easy,” says Josh Frost, General Manager of Main Street. “Once we fill up an oven we brush out the next oven then fill that oven up with pies, it's a great cycle because the ovens have enough time to recover from the cold dough cooling down the brick, this way the bottoms of the pies have that crispness that you can't have without proper rotation.”

Two people working ovens does require special coordination. “You work very close with them,” Bridget says. “You both have to move well together. It's a kind of dance where you need to anticipate each other’s moves and trust the puller not to burn you.”

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But even with a well-trained partner the job is intense, especially on a Friday. Mike says, “Tickets can be missing from the wheel due to the printer jamming or human error, and you have ovens full of pies with no idea where they go, but they keep cooking and need to be pulled, and it feels like you're being swept out to sea and you have no time to solve the problem.“ Other issues arise too. “When you call a driver over and over and no one hears you but you can hear that driver's voice in the back room at that very moment, that is a special kind of angry,” Mike adds.

Every ovener has their war stories, but few wish to step out of the role. “Halloween is the busiest day of the year,” veteran ovener Jim Tanguay says. “One year it was on a Friday. I dreaded the night but was prepared to knock it out. As I'm leaving for work early in the morning I get a call from my assistant manager. I know it’s not going to be good news. Sure enough, he broke his foot in a mosh pit the night before. The worst day of the year just got worse. Luckily someone from the operations team came over to help out.”

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The satisfaction of good teamwork, a kind of zen flow to the work, and the pride of having made a great pizza supersedes the stress and the occasional nightmare. “There’s nothing like having a great crew you developed who can rock out four hours of a hundred plus orders without a hitch,” Jim says. “Many Friday nights we averaged more than a pizza a minute for the whole night. That's from hand tossing them to getting them to the customer's door.”

“I prefer to be busy, have my ovens full and always look forward to Friday nights,” Justin says. “Running ovens is my favorite job in the kitchen hands down and while dealing with the heat can take a lot out of you, I still love it.”