Paul Hibler started Pitfire Pizza seventeen years ago with David Sanfield, and since then they have expanded Pitfire's reach to eight locations across Southern California. In 2012, Hibler partnered up with New York and San Diego chef Jason Neroni to create Superba Snack Bar, a casual yet innovative pastaria that's won accolades for its design and cuisine. A new partnership with John Cao and Chloe Tran culminated in the launch of East Borough in Culver City, which opened just last week. And Superba Food & Bread, in the works for almost a year on Lincoln Blvd in Venice, is tracking toward an early March debut with a notable San Francisco pastry chef attached. Here now, Hibler talks about the growth of American Gonzo Food Corp., the parent company of these various restaurants, and future projects Superba Snacks & Candy, another Superba Snack Bar, and a TBA venture with Red Medicine's Noah Ellis.
How's it been setting up East Borough? It was my first time having outsiders do something on a humble scale. We've gotten great feedback from our new partners about how supportive we've been. I'm very excited and optimistic about it.
How did you find them? I walked in one day and saw their little sandwich shop in Costa Mesa. I kept going there and one thing lead to another. I've always been a huge fan of Vietnamese food since my San Francisco days. I thought wow, maybe I could make a Pitfire version of this. I still feel like Vietnamese cuisine hasn't had its day to cross over in this country. I got to know them and it's just been a great two year sleigh ride.
You talk about doing a "Pitfire version." What is that? It's the artisan casual. It's the handmade, hand-prepared, simple space, simple build out but with cool design. Moderately priced. It's about all what's relevant right now in food.
So you want to continue to grow East Borough? Absolutely. It's always what's underneath when I set up a project, trying to reproduce these handmade concepts. I'm learning about that with Pitfire right now.
How do you give each Pitfire Pizza an individual, local feel? It's messy, it's hard. It's difficult to do that but it keeps it authentic. But how you do that is to hire different designers and then you have to do some forensic work and figure out what that neighborhood is about. Costa Mesa, we figured out, is where all the surf and skate design companies are, so we kind of slanted the aesthetic that way. We're going to stick to that. I don't think we can keep creating new Pitfires. Eventually we need to group together four or five ideas that we work with.
What's the thought process behind the Superba brand? That's about an idea of aesthetics and hospitality. While Pitfire is all of the same thing. Superba is a collection of different things, kind of like Momofuku and Blue Ribbon in New York. The Snack Bar is a small, intimate, intense food place. Food & Bread is like an American brasserie with a full bakery and pastry program, as well as a corner market a few doors down. Coming after that, to be supported by Superba Food & Bread is Superba Snacks & Candy that will serve coffee and pastries. It comes from a certain aesthetic about food.
How do you feel about food? Sometimes I feel wonderful and sometimes I get sad about the state of food today. As a whole I see a lot of good work, people bringing truth and honesty. For me it's also a lot about truth, that's about being seasonal, local, and all those things are basics now. I don't need to shout about those things. I want to gather people in great spaces and feed them great wholesome food that we make by hand. I want to see where that takes me.
Why did you sign on Jason Travi to helm the kitchen at Superba Food & Bread? Jason Neroni and I are looking at another location for Superba Snack Bar. Plus he's over at East Borough right now. We couldn't have him do both because of the scope of Food & Bread, so Jason Travi is going in there. There's still going to be a collaboration and an allegiance. We're getting back to this Superba aesthetic that we're trying to evolve and bring forward. It has a high design toward food and content. It's about making a community gathering place where people can hang out.
Why do you put such an emphasis on design? When we did the Mar Vista Pitfire location. Barbara Bestor taught me the value of design. A lot of people give it lip service, but you have to fight to get great design. She gave my whole brand a refresh. She taught me that restaurants are public spaces, a place for people to come and engage, be stimulated. It can't always be about maximum dollars per square foot. Sometimes you just have to make it a cool place.
When are you looking to launch Superba Food & Bread? Probably around March 1. I'm bringing down a pastry chef from San Francisco that I haven't announced yet, but it's going to be a pretty big deal.
You seem to be building a pretty solid organization in an industry where chefs and restaurateurs are always clashing. How did you do that? We leave our egos at the door at this company and we're all working for the greater common good to create a great company. If I'm careful and I take care of these people, it's going to be a great thing. I have this idea about creating a company that has sustainable life built into it for the people that work in it instead of just a stop along the way until you get your own thing. I want this to be a thing where people can work a long time. Obviously there's a lot more that goes into a restaurant than just a chef but there's a way to do it to create a job where you don't get burned out. I see resumes where people work a year and a half here, two years there. I would like to put an end to that. I already have people that have been with us for many years at Pitfire.
So then it's more than just about money. It's way more. It's about belonging to something. It's up to me as a leader to point up at the star in the sky that we're all trying to get to. So far we've had some good success. As things evolve, a lot of talented young people have come and wanted a chance to do good work. We just had a cook leave a two Michelin starred restaurant leave there and want to work with us. We're drawing talent because Pitfire built a support system and a structure that can handle the growth. It's going to sound silly, but it's a heart-first company. The leaders, the elders of the company, are unbelievably fantastic people that have worked at places like the Hillstone Group and Patina Group.
What else do you have in the works? I have one other thing that I'm working on with Noah Ellis, but I can't really announce it. It's kind of a San Francisco-based project. It's meant to blend underneath the Superba Food & Bread concept. We're going to have a fully powered bread and pastry operation. One great strategy is to have outlets for your products. So I already have customers for my stuff, nothing wrong with that. Bread costs 60-70 cents a roll, which takes a toll on food costs, but to a bakery it's 8 cents.
Do you want to grow outside of LA? Yes, but it's deceptive because the grass is always greener. Except for NYC, which is a different animal, you're never going to beat the demographics of L.A. A lot of concepts come from here, but a lot of the time when something works in Manhattan it doesn't somewhere else. What I've learned is that if you do want to go somewhere else, you can't just do one thing. You have to go in with enough to justify management. You want to start with a place where you can work the same day. I wanted to start Pitfire to take it to the rest of the country, that's what in store. It's fools gold looking at other places when you could just go to Pasadena or Orange County. It's not sexy. When you're all over the place, you're all over the place, how good are you. You maybe lose the authentic part. You can't mass produce authenticity.
What other places inspire you? So many. I had a fifteen year relationship with Nozawa, I'm very impressed by Sugarfish. I was totally skeptical and now that I've seen it, it's really great. Better than most sushi places that have chefs right in front of you. I was really impressed by State Bird Provisions because it's such a great idea.
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