Los Angeles is not, on its face, a food delivery town. That’s surprising, given the amount of time everyone in Southern California spends in their cars, or stuck at one destination awaiting the slow recess of yet another traffic wave. But give people what they want — access to quality ingredients, a fair price, and a story — and, eventually, they'll pick up the phone and call. That’s when it’s time to get to work.
Dough Box Pizza is that none-too-rare L.A. business model success story you usually only hear about in the Arts District or Silver Lake. Fine-dining chef turns taco cart into street food sensation (read: Guerrilla Tacos). Promising jam maker turns forlorn storefront into America’s breakfast obsession (read: SQIRL). It’s a story told on gourmet food trucks every day, and dreamt about during morning prep sessions in kitchens across the city.
But with Dough Box, the upstart Chicago-style deep dish pizza pick up and delivery-only company, its commissary kitchen space in City Terrace did not immediately seem like the right sort of micro neighborhood for their needs. Pushed into a windowless building with no signage and ringed by tow yards and salvage lots, young owners Alexandra Gonzalez and Tony Hernandez saw an opportunity that speaks to the unique economics of a delivery-only restaurant in Los Angeles.
"From the beginning, I looked at it as a necessity," says Hernandez. "We didn’t start with a bunch of money." The partners had experience on their side — Tony is a carb wizard with a background at places like Proof and Bread Lounge, while Alex spent time at Hollywood Pies making deep dish herself for years. "It was pretty amazing how little we started with," she says.
Rather than present their financing challenge as a hurdle to be cleared, the two looked at the track they were on and decided to play a different game altogether. By keeping their plans focused on delivery and take out orders, Dough Box could run as a lean operation with almost no overhead and minimal start-up costs. "I like how controlled it all is," says Gonzalez, working dough from one of the two prep tables inside their 225-square-foot kitchen space. "It’s going to be difficult if we ever have to move to a different space, with all those people we have to take care of."
Maybe the best Chicago style pizza in Los Angeles
People, indeed. Labor costs are among the single highest expense for any restaurant, hovering anywhere from 25% to 45% of total overhead, depending on the business model. The lower that percentage is the healthier the bottom line, which is precisely why chain restaurants (and giant corporations like Wal-Mart) spend millions of dollars to study workflow patterns, track employee efficiency, and employ a host of other strategies to manage the cost.
At Dough Box, labor cost is about as close to zero as you’ll find. Sure, both Hernandez and Gonzalez need to pay their own rent, eat food, put gas in their car, and just generally survive, but practically any small business owner will tell you that most of the money spent on their personal salary actually stays right inside the business. The pair employs a phone guy who sits on a small stool right up by the entrance to the kitchen and takes orders for five hours a night. They pay out their delivery drivers, of course. But the vast majority of the work happens before anyone else who requires a paycheck even shows up, and comes from just four hands.
What’s the trade-off for not having a sign, or a picnic area or a bathroom or napkins or light fixtures or chairs or any of the endless other fixed-cost items that come with opening a brick-and-mortar restaurant to lure in customers and get them to spend more money? Overhead costs that sit around $4,000 a month, all in. That’s boxes, ordering pads, credit card fees, the lights, the gas, the real estate they stand on. The building even pays for their water and trash removal.
You just have to know the game and play it well to survive
And then there's permitting, a consistently arduous and often expensive dance with various municipal bodies that can sink the most even-keeled financial model. Restaurants in this town and anywhere else in America have gone broke, either literally or at least functionally, before even opening their doors thanks to cost overruns associated with code compliance, the health department, or the DWP. That’s not to say those organizations offer any malicious intent; you just have to know the game, and play it well, to survive. Many first-time restaurateurs find that out in just about the hardest ways possible.
Dough Box has their certifications, an A rating from the health department, hanging on a small cork board right above the head of the guy who takes those calls. At the top of that board is a single string that stretches across the room (it isn’t far), holding clips of orders for the night to come. Forget the need for an ADA-compliant bathroom, or for a POS system. You’re never more than three feet from the only other person you could possibly need to ask a question to.
Back at Dough Box HQ, the afternoon is fading and the two-person team has a night of cooking ahead of them. Because each deep dish pizza takes about an hour to cook all-in, the timing for getting orders in and out of their mid-sized oven in the corner needs to be precise. It’s an older model that came from Craigslist thanks to a guy in Santa Clarita who closed his own pizza shop. The refrigerator is another Craigslist find, and both sat in storage until this commissary kitchen space became available. Now they’re humming along in prep for another evening turning out what may be the best Chicago-style pizza anywhere in Los Angeles.
Eventually they will break, and need to be replaced. Eventually the guy with the headset to his ear will want more money, a better chair, or will move on to some other job somewhere else. Eventually he, and anyone else on the official payroll, will need to be paid at least $15 an hour. And eventually, if all goes well, Gonzalez and Hernandez might even leave their little City Terrace hideaway for some sit-down restaurant with table cloths and window shades and 1,000 other items that someone will have to pay for.
But for now, it’s just Dough Box. Two people in a warehouse off the 10 freeway, available only by phone while answering to nobody. And for them, business couldn’t be better.