By 4 p.m., most of the tables in the cavernous Pizza Carrello off Highway 59 in Gillette are empty as waitstaff reset silverware and sweep underneath booths in preparation for a busy “tap night invasion” ahead, featuring Uberbrew out of Billings, Montana.
As owners Ariane Jimison and wife Rachel Kalenberg put it, pizza and beer just kind of go together, and they appreciate teaming up with other like-minded craft businesses who share their love of quality products made with heart, which they consider the hallmark of their business.
The pair are feeling uncharacteristically well-rested after taking the previous day off for Kalenberg’s birthday, their first free day in weeks. Today’s been great, Jimison said, as she’s admittedly happy to be back to work – because not only did they hire another employee “completely stoked to start work,” but they were also about to have pizza for dinner, which, after a day without, both were craving.
“We eat a lot of pizza,” Jimison said with a smile. “We miss it when we don’t.”
Their customers agree. Since opening in their new location three years ago, business continues to grow as they struggle to keep up with demand both on site and in their off-site catering business that’s currently booked through next summer.
It’s a good problem to have, they acknowledge, and despite their current success, neither has forgotten the work it’s taken to get to this point. Technically, the business began eight years ago when Jimison had a reckoning at a craft fair in Casper. Back then, she was a successful ceramicist with her own studio who baked bread in her spare time as a side business to keep her art afloat. At the craft fair, she’d been tense as she attempted to sell the pottery she’d spent the past six months painstakingly making. Across the park, she watched a relaxed and happy hot dog vendor and his family. Later, when he shared his overstock with the artists, she was struck by their conversation in which the vendor admitted how much fun he was having while making a couple thousand dollars that afternoon.
Jimison couldn’t remember the last time she’d had fun in her line of work, and decided then that she’d sell her bread on the art fair circuit, which would be a win-win, allowing her to keep one foot in the artistic world while enabling her to actually make a living.
“The evolution literally happened in an afternoon,” she said.
Between the two of them, they realized they had the skills to make a go of their own food vendor business once they tweaked their product. Nobody, after all, would likely buy a loaf of bread on the fly at a festival – they needed something they could eat right there on the spot. Hence, pizza, which she’d always loved, cooked in a wood-burning oven like the one she used to fire her pottery. That day, she sat down and sketched out a design that would ultimately take her about six months to build.
“It didn’t seem like that much of a stretch, honestly,” she said. “I always loved the process of turning mud into something beautiful and figured I could do the same with flour.”
Learning to cook pizza in an oven that heats up to 1,100 degrees proved to be trickier than firing a piece of pottery, and today, it takes up to two years to train an employee to run the oven. But through the process of trial and error, she figured it out, and she and Kalenberg, a self-described “numbers person,” opened their wood-fired pizza cart. The cart would be hauled to many parking lots and down several gravel roads over the next several years, including working through the winter. Twice, Jimison and an employee got frostbite.
When they could finally afford to rent a stationary spot, they moved their trusty wood-burning oven, Bertha, indoors in downtown Gillette, into what they describe as an uninsulated shack in a parking lot. Not long after, they would undergo a huge dip in the economy in 2016 with the first wave of coal layoffs. This nearly put the pair out of business as many people’s disposable income dwindled to a halt nearly overnight. They were forced to cut staff salaries, and they themselves went without a paycheck for nearly six months.
“We thought it was over there for a while,” Kalenberg said, “and we nearly threw in the towel.”
At this point, they put Bertha back on the trailer and decided to give it everything they had by booking as many catering gigs as possible, sometimes up to three events per day.
“It was exhausting,” Jimison said, shaking her head. “It’s hard to even look back on those days.”
Their goal had been to raise enough money to buy their current location, the small shop downtown with enough room for two tables and a drive-thru window. At the end of the summer, however, they’d fallen short and once again were about to give up, until they inquired about the dilapidated former brewery off Highway 59. They were surprised when the owner called to offer them the space.
“We thought we’d failed,” Kalenberg said. “We didn’t have enough to buy the other place but had enough to get into this one.”
“It was a blessing,” Jimison agreed.
Four pizza ovens later – these purchased, as Jimison couldn’t afford to take the time to build them herself – business continues to grow. Jimison talked excitedly about their new brunch offerings, including breakfast pizzas, frittatas, cinnamon French toast and cheesecake, all of which is handmade and cooked in the pizza ovens. This, in itself, sets them apart from other restaurants, Jimison noted, because she doesn’t know anyone else who cooks things like cheesecake in a wood-burning oven, which took her more than 200 failed tries to get just right.
Another thing Jimison thinks adds to their growing success is their emphasis on quality products and simple, fresh ingredients, like the huge 50-pound wheels of Parmesan cheese and Roma tomatoes and olives they import from Italy, as well as the ricotta cheese they make onsite. Their bread continues to be the hallmark of their product, which is made with pesticide-free, un-bromated Wheat Montana flour that’s fermented by their two-person bread team for up to three days.
“It’s stupid,” Jimison admitted with a smile when it comes to her insistence on quality and long fermentation process, but it’s also one thing she thinks makes their bread so great.
The hardest part for them as business owners has nothing to do with selling their products, which, as they say, have always just sold themselves. Rather, for them, the trick has been learning to be patient and developing the necessary leadership skills to successfully manage their kitchen and staff. Both lacked these skills at the onset and took leadership classes at Peregrine Leadership Institute, where Jimison was introduced to mentor Laurel Vicklund. Vicklund, along with greatly helping Jimison, also nominated her for the Wyoming Council for Women Woman Entrepreneur Award, which Jimison recently found out she had won.
“It’s the biggest honor coming from Laurel and other female business owners,” she said. “It’s truly an honor and just means so much.”
Instead of taking the limelight herself, however, she hopes that it’s their particular business model that catches on with other business owners: the attention to quality ingredients, tradition and owners who value and support their employees and community. They have less than 20% turnover, and when the employees leave, typically it’s to go on to do something else that furthers their education or career.
“We want them to succeed,” Jimison said, “even if that means leaving us to go do it.”
Given her background, it’s not surprising that most of her employees are artists supporting their crafts by waiting tables. This is her crowd, she said, and where she feels most comfortable.
“We also believe in promoting them within our company,” she said, which means taking the time to train them to do specialized tasks and paying for them to learn more about their products, beers and wines.
In coming months, she also plans to add pasta to the menu, after a trip the couple took last year to Italy, where they met some of their vendors, ate at top restaurants that literally brought tears to their eyes, and took cooking classes from renowned chef Massimo Bottura, who taught Jimison to make pasta Italian-style. Because it would take 12 hours a day to roll out all that pasta, they bought a top-line Italian pasta maker to roll out their homemade dough.
Sometimes, there’s a compromise, but they try to stay as authentic to the traditions as possible and don’t mind investing in top-of-the-line machinery to augment their traditional tools.
Many Italians were surprised to hear that they still use a wood-burning oven at Pizza Carrello, as most have switched over to electric, something Jimison refuses to do.
“There’s such an art to it,” she said, “and I can’t ever imagine ever giving that up.”