Carmel, Indiana, is one of those towns skirting a major metropolitan city that has nearly doubled in size in the past 10 years.
With its population of more than 79,000 and a median yearly household income of more than $90,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, Carmel became a prime spot for an urban concept pizzeria.
Enter Neal and Lindy Brown.
How Pizzology Pizzeria & Pub’s owners found their place in Carmel is not a fairy tale. Instead, failure, stubborn will and opportunity has made the Browns operators of a young pizzeria generating $1.3-million net sales a year. Today, Pizzology is a fixture in its neighborhood with its Neapolitan-inspired craft pizza.
Both Browns have fine dining backgrounds — Neal as a chef and Lindy as a sommelier. In 2006, they opened a high-end, locally focused restaurant, L’Explorateur, in Indianapolis’ urban, trendy neighborhood of Broad Ripple. But “when the recession was in full bloom, we just got killed so we closed that in 2009,” Neal says.
Soon after L’Explorateur closed, property owners of what is now Pizzology came to Neal with a proposal. “It has this great Wood Stone oven,” Neal says. “We agreed to come in and rebrand the thing.”
Opening Pizzology in November 2009, the Browns came into the venture cautiously. “I think we were very stubborn at L’Explorateur and said that we wanted to be out there and do things differently,” Neal says. “I think we toned that down because we did fail at that the first time.”
From upscale fine dining to a pizzeria … an odd leap? Not for Neal. He spent his teenage years working in a number of pizzerias, and he had a different vision in mind than the traditional Midwestern pizzerias he had worked in as a kid.
With L’Explorateur closing, Neal sought to break away from a white tablecloth restaurant, but incorporate similar philosophies. “People still need thoughtfully prepared food,” Neal says. The Browns, along with Pizzology’s chef Erin Smith, created a menu built on local, seasonal produce and items they could make in-house like their fennel sausage, pancetta and mozzarella — and at reasonable prices.
Pizzology pies are what Neal calls “Neapolitan inspired.” The crust, for example, is “not as wet as you would find in a traditional Neapolitan restaurant,” he says.
Pizzas are 13-inch, most priced at $13. A best seller is the Homemade Sausage (fennel, onion, fennel sausage, Peppadew peppers). Other favorites include the Carni (house-made porchetta, mortadella and pepperoni with an Eden Farms Arugula Salad); The Saint (wood roasted wild mushrooms, onion, Peppadews, provolone and sea salt); Lombardy (prosciutto, arugula, smoked mozzarella, Parmigiano-Reggiano); and the Old Kentucky Rome (Kentucky cured prosciutto, roasted figs and Taleggio).
Popular starters include Grilled
Romaine ($8) with tomatoes, fresh mozzarella and an herb-yogurt dressing; Fresh Burrata ($10) with fried green tomato, herb salad and citronette; and Tony’s Fritters ($8), zucchini fritters with Parmigiano-Reggiano and truffle oil.
Getting customers in the door to try a style of pizza that many Hoosiers were not accustomed to was no easy task. “It’s just now becoming something that is not a foreign concept in this part of Indiana,” Neal says.
With their location surrounded by upper middle class neighborhoods, and with little commerce around, they focused their marketing efforts on what Neal calls the “ladies that lunch crowd.”
“Whether it’s in the summer with their kids or when their kids are in school, it’s ladies in a group that come in and eat together,” Neal says, adding that offering a lunch special has been successful in drawing in the neighborhoods. “It’s $9 for a nine-inch pizza, a salad and a drink,” he adds. “I think the price point of the lunch special really helped.”
In the beginning, Lindy says, “Neil’s reputation as a chef fueled our initial surge. We had a lot of our former guests from other ventures making the drive just simply to see what we were doing. And they found that it was worth it to make the drive continuously.”
Early on, Pizzology sparked a wave of positive reviews from Indianapolis’ weekly alternative Nuvo to the Indianapolis Business Journal. In the restaurant’s infancy, Indianapolis Monthly voted it one of the city’s best new eateries.
Pizzology’s popularity out of the gate posed some initial challenges. For the first eight or nine months, it was swamped on the weekends, with little weekday business. “It was certainly not unusual to do 300 covers on a Friday or Saturday night in an 80-seat restaurant,” Neal says. With a small dining room, waits hovered well over an hour, which the Browns didn’t like to see.
But as business settled into the end of its first year, busy nights took a shift as neighborhood customers began coming on weeknights. “We’re doing really good numbers on a Wednesday and Thursday, almost as good as Friday some days,” Neal says. “In a suburban area, that is a little unique.”
The restaurant concept was
designed for its neighbors. “We put the word ‘pub’ in here specifically because we wanted to become a local place for people to congregate,” Neal says. “We love that you can walk in here and see your neighbors.”
A well-trained staff and a designated bar section have helped the operation run smooth during its high-volume times. There are 20 front of house employees, with 35
total. Lindy says the service staff is well versed on Pizzology’s philosophies, menu and they share the restaurant’s story with its guests.
For the Browns, it’s important for their staff to share their love of food. That passion is evident when a new seasonal pie debuts. This summer, an Indiana sweet corn pizza became a top seller. Servers began recommending that guests add sausage to the pizza, which wasn’t initially intended on the pie. “It’s really fun to watch the servers take something and tweak it,” Lindy says.
Hiring is vital to Pizzology’s success. “We try to hire people who really love food and really love the experience of dining itself,” Neal says.
Lindy adds: “Our top interview question, or at least the most telling for me, is: ‘Describe your best dining experience as a guest.’ That really tells me what they are looking for and what they will bring to the table.”
Staff knowledge is also important when it comes to upselling with the bar offerings. Lindy says staff members know the wine, beer and cocktail lists and are trained to make recommendations. The 40- to 50-bottle wine list is comprised solely of Italian wines.
“We find our wines by the glass fly out the door,” Lindy says, adding that the more expensive wines by the bottle do not sell as well. While wines are of Italian origin, the draft beers are all local.
Since opening, the Browns have looked to Pizzology’s growth potential. Three months in, they hired a company to document their entire operation and its systems and procedures. The result became a 160-page living document that Lindy updates regularly. “We made that investment because we knew we were going to grow,” Neal says. “We are still mastering things here. We are going to grow, but there is a time and a place.”
Denise Greer is associate editor at Pizza Today.