In 2009, Wisconsin native Squish Durawa, along with his wife Red, started turning heads along SE 50th Avenue with the debut their food cart Wy'east — for the uninitiated, it's outfitted inside a classic '70s camper with a delightfully retro paint job. But asethetics aside, the Durawas soon attracted a major following (and national media attention) for their cooked-to-order, 12-inch pies, which feature super-seasonal ingredients like asparagus and fresh mushrooms. Eater chatted with Durawa to learn more about the 22-pizzas-per-night philosophy, what it's like inside a cart with an 800-degree oven, and why eventually going brick-and-mortar is a "real possibility" — (hint: it's for the sake of the pies).
On Wy'east's limited nightly production:
Wy'east — which cooks its pizzas one at a time — famously limits its nightly output to exactly 22 pies an evening, with the full creation process (including dough-making) taking place inside the trailer. "It has to do with how the recipe worked itself out," Durawa says of the specific number. "And we found that it takes my wife and I — the time that we're open, if we're continually making pizzas all night, 22 pizzas is what we can do. The number works — we're not killing ourselves, but we're definitely busy all night. We've tried to push it — we used to do 28, and that was making ourselves insane."
"We do one pizza at a time, which is our blessing and our curse. We can keep our eye on the pizza, make sure it's being cooked really well, but we're limited by the time and the space," Durawa says, noting that it takes about 10 minutes to create each pie — three to four minutes to cook, and six or seven minutes to put together. The oven takes two or three minutes to bounce back to the correct temperature after each bake. "It was a pretty hard introduction in the beginning, because within the first three months, we got busy very quickly. It doesn't take long before you're finding a groove and getting the timing down. Right now, we pretty much nail them — when we quote someone, we feel pretty bad if the pizza's going to be 10 minutes late."
Yeah, about those wait times:
On Friday or Saturday evenings, Durawa estimates the average wait for a pizza is between a half-hour and 45 minutes (recommendation: call ahead, and they'll give you a quote). "Ninety percent of our calls come in through the cell phone, so they know in 10 seconds, whether [the wait is] going to work for them or not," Durawa says. "We quote them on the time, and we're pretty spot-on — doing this for almost three years, we pretty much know exactly when the pizzas are going to be ready. Sometimes there's a little glitch and it's five minutes late, but more times than not, we're right on time."
Pizza on a small scale:
For its 22 nightly pies, Durawa estimates that Wy'east uses about 15 pounds of dough per day, with six quarts of sauce and about 15 pounds of mozzarella cheese (not counting small amounts of pecorino, ricotta, and goat cheese. "It's an embarrassing amount of dough," Durawa says...
Hence, talks about going brick-and-mortar:
"We're not really cart people," he admits. "Carts were very romantic in the beginning, but when you consider all the rainy days, the weather impacts your business so much that it's kind of crazy. A brick-and-mortar is where we want to be. Plus, this style of pizza really should be eaten within five or 10 minutes from coming out of the oven, and most of our customers are taking them to-go and eating them at least half an hour after its been out of the oven. So, we're not all that excited about serving the pizza that way. We would like to be in a brick-and-mortar mostly to keep the integrity of the pizza the way it should be."
Complicating matters is that Durawa creates all of Wy'east's dough in the trailer, which gets particularly tricky on cold days. "You want environmental controls when you're baking, and the inconsistent temperatures is on the daunting side," he says. "It's dough. It's temperamental. It'd be nice if we were in a building and had a thermostat set at 76, which is the best temperature to raise your dough."
Popular toppings and spreading pizza wings:
According to Durawa, the spot's best-seller is "definitely the Hot Marmot" [which features Otto's pepperoni, garlic, and Mama Lil's sweet/hot peppers]. "The margherita's probably our second — everyone loves the basic." But Durawa's passion lies in the monthly-rotating seasonal pies, which is "where we get to spread our pizza wings and get a little crazy," he says. "I'm working on one right now called the Pearly Gates, which is tapenade, ricotta, and basil. The recipe for the tapenade I've been working on all winter — [and it will] sneak in some anchovies. I love anchovies. I'm a fish guy, so we've got the sardines on pizza, which don't sell that much, but I want to keep it on the menu because it's one of the thing that sort of distinguishes us."
On having a pizza oven inside a food cart:
Wy'east's retro camper — which Durawa found in Salem before gutting the interior — proved a tricky place to install the Pacific Coast propane oven, which was squeezed in through a side door that had to be expanded to accommodate the 800-pound beast. "One we got the oven in, we had to get it up on its table — it had webbing on it that held it up, and we had a chain that went through the roof with a forklift outside," Durawa says of hoisting the 800-pound oven. "We picked it up with the forklift, and slid the table underneath it. And it's a done deal. This oven is never going to leave this trailer."
But despite burning at 800 degrees, Durawa finds the cart's internal temperature mostly manageable. "The first summer, we tried to be open on a 100-degree day, just to see what it was like, and it was doable," Durawa says. "But then you question how many people want a hot pizza on a 100-degree day. Personally, I want a salad. So, if it's forecasted at 100, we start thinking about not being open. But 95 degrees? We're fine with that."
Pizzaolo as babysitter:
"Pizza's totally obsessive. It's hard to be doing what we do and not be... I personally become a little more obsessed with each pie I've made," Durawa says. "And it's a total learning experience. The dough — you're dealing with a living thing. It's not always cooperative, and it's somewhat like babysitting. So it's really challenging, and that's what also drives me to do the best I can."
Wy'east will soon launch lunch service, featuring personal-sized pies from noon-2pm. Head to the official site (below) for updates.
· Wy'east [Official site]
· All Previous Pizza Week Coverage [Eater PDX]