“No eleven year-old kid doesn’t love pizza,” says Scott Wiener. The difference with him, though, is that he managed to turn a childhood love of pizza into a successful New York City pizza tour business. As admittedly pizza-obsessive, we at Serious Eats have taken more than a passing interest in his cause.
As a pizza-loving kid in Union County, NJ, Wiener's experience with pizza was about the same as any other kid: the occasional after-school greasy slice, maybe a whole pie here and there at a birthday party. "We used to get two slices and a large soda for $2.50 at the Pizza House in Cranford [New Jersey] and play arcade games in the corner. It's a classic pizzeria," he says.
It wasn't until after he left high school that he realized “there’s a landscape of pizza out there,” and that the philosophies that accompany them are as varied as the crusts. The seed had been planted, and despite finding work in audio production and sound engineering after graduation (a solid job that “bored [him] to death”), Wiener's thoughts kept returning to pizza and it soon became his mission to discover all of the great slices in the city. "If I read about a mind-blowing slice in the far reaches of Staten Island, I'd take a day trip to check it out," he explained.
With a growing reputation as a pizza savant, soon friends and friends of friends began contacting him for slice advice until he eventually decided to rent a school bus to drive him and some of his friends around New York while eating pizza. When our own Adam Kuban, founder of the pizza blog Slice, wrote about his bus trips, Scott's Pizza Tours was born.
These days he gives at least five tours a week to visitors from all over the globe, though each trip has at least a handful of New Yorkers interested in re-exploring their own city through the lens of a pizza fanatic. Each four and a half hour bus tour takes an often sold-out group of 20 guests paying $55 each for a far-reaching ride that ranges from Patsy's in East Harlem down to DiFara's in Brooklyn's Midwood neighborhood. The styles range from traditional New York Coal-oven pies to the Neapolitan-style joints that dot the boroughs.
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Two and a half years later, his tours have achieved critical and popular acclaim. He’s been on FOX and NBC, and Trip Advisor rates his tour as one of the ten best in the country. Most of his public tours are full, and companies and groups request private pizza expeditions constantly.
With the most popular tours taking place over the weekend, it's a constant workout, but as Wiener says, "giving tours is not work. Eating and talking pizza is what I love to do." The hard part for him is running the business end. As a self-taught small businessman on a shoestring budget, he was forced to look for business education wherever he could find it. "There are no instruction manuals for this," he says, but the City offers free classes on bookkeeping, accounting and marketing, which Wiener signed up for. “I’m not a QuickBook expert, but now I can at least speak in those terms," he says.
As with any business, at some point you just have to take the plunge. “I decided to put everything into it, emotionally and financially,” he recalls. From then on, for better or worse, he was entirely dedicated to making his Pizza Tours a success.
Having an innate passion for the subject matter is surely one of the keys to his success. His enthusiasm is deep and contagious and most of the time, his guests share the passion. Though he does run into the occasional belligerent Chicagoan hellbent on declaring the superiority of deep dish pies (there are no deep dish pies on Wiener's tours), in general, the tours are more about “community, not competition.” He’s not trying to declare a pizza champion, only to understand and appreciate the vast pizza terrain.
There are about twelve pizzerias that Wiener's tours visit frequently. Lombardi’s, John’s of Bleecker, Totonno’s, and Luzzo’s are on the list. One of the best parts of Wiener's job is the great relationships he builds with the pizza-maker, “I know about their families, they know when I get a haircut.” And like Wiener, they are in the pizza business because they love it.
With scant competition from other pizza tours, Wiener has managed to discover the joys and perks of running a niche business. Pizza fans are passionate, and Wiener meets “awesome, incredible people who just love pizza,” and often return for multiple tours (his current record is a group of friends on their seventh). He makes friends and often converts tour-haters who were dragged along by loved ones.
"I'm not a pizza expert," Wiener says, despite leading dozens of people weekly through his intensive pizza workshop. "I'm just a pizza admirer." He reads furiously on pizza; the cultural history, the intricacies of tomato cultivar lineage, the science of dough, baking and ovens, but still, “The knowledge is endless, and the pizza world is changing every day," he explains. As such, nobody can ever be a true expert versed on all sides of the field. But it's precisely because of this that pizza is an everlasting, accessible, fascinating and recession proof food. It helps that it's delicious too.