The novel coronavirus has shuttered businesses and confined millions to their homes indefinitely. But trying times also foster creativity and bring out the best in humanity, like a wealth management executive opening a philanthropic pizzeria in his backyard.
“I woke up on Saturday morning and the idea came to me,” Tash Elwyn told RIA Intel.
Elwyn, the president and CEO of Raymond James & Associates, a segment of Raymond James Financial (ticker: RJF), a company that employs more than 8,100 advisors, is working from home during the week and limiting errands to buy necessities (while social distancing).
But knowing many others are not as fortunate as him, and with the feeling that headlines in the coming weeks or months might still be grim, Elwyn felt compelled to include others in his Saturday plans. “We could all use some good news right now.”
So, on Saturday, the executive turned a hobby into a philanthropic effort for his community. Instead of making pizzas just for his family, Elwyn converted his St. Petersburg, Fla. home into a makeshift pizzeria.
Few might be able to pull that off, but Saturday was not Elwyn’s first try at the pizza business. Through high school and part of college in Atlanta, Elwyn made pizzas at what was then a small company: Mellow Mushroom (there are now more than 150 locations). The job didn’t just pay, it sparked his interest in food.
“It’s something I just fell in love with and I promised myself I would have a wood-burning pizza oven in the backyard” someday, he said.
Three years ago, he finally “fulfilled the dream” and built a brick oven behind his home but it had never been tested under more commercial demands. On a typical evening, Elwyn makes about a dozen 12-inch pizzas for family or friends. Saturday, he had his work cut out for him.
At 8:30 a.m. Elwyn arrived at Mazzaro’s Italian Market and waited for the doors to open. On the grocery list: 10 pounds of pepperoni, 25 pounds of mozzarella cheese and dough (he often makes his own at home, but there wasn’t enough time). When the doors opened, he went in and asked how much dough they had — there was enough to make 44 pies.
“I said, ‘I’ll take them all.’ Thank god it wasn't 100 because 44 almost killed me.”
Ingredients in hand, Elwyn and his family began preparing for dinner service. They sent a spreadsheet to neighbors to sign up for pick-up times (due to the coronavirus outbreak, it was curbside service only). The list filled up with 25 names quickly.
They already had boxes — with the custom “St. Pizzaburg” logo — given as a birthday gift to Elwyn a couple weeks ago. His wife told him they had too much wine stored at the house, so the family also gave away a bottle with each order, too.
The oven was going well before the first pick-up time at 5:30 p.m. It takes about one hour for the wood to burn and the oven to reach the ideal temperature of 950 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s also better to cook with hot coals than flames. In that environment, pizzas bake in about 90 seconds and must be actively tended to. “No two fires are alike so no two pizzas are alike,” Elwyn said. To the untrained eye, a desirable char on the crust could be mistaken for an unwanted burn, he added.
But even with that cook time, the kitchen was backed up. “I got woefully behind in pizza production,” Elwyn said. St. Petersburg Pizza ran out of cheese, so they had to go back out and buy more. At one point in the night, Elwyn’s daughter, who was managing orders at the oven, texted his son and wife expediting: “Back up the orders asap. It’s all falling apart.”
There is, of course, a TikTok video of the evening.
A line of cars formed but customers weren’t too upset — free wine expands one’s capacity for forgiveness.
The pizzeria was also for a good cause. In return for dinner, Elwyn only asked that customers consider donating to the St. Petersburg Free Clinic, which provides free food, shelter, and healthcare to Pinellas County residents.
“We were so excited about Tash’s fundraiser. It was just a really generous and creative way to support us at a time when we’re seeing lots of increased need,” Jennifer Yeagley, CEO of the St. Petersburg Free Clinic, said.
Historically, about 200 clients might visit the organization’s food pantry on a busy day but thousands have already lost their jobs as a result of the coronavirus and are seeking help, according to Yeagley. Serving 200 clients is a recent norm and last Thursday more than 600 visited the pantry.
“We have had to shift every aspect of what we do to accommodate the public health crisis. The Covid-19 crisis has challenged us all,” Yeagley said. She had not checked the total as of Tuesday, but the pizzeria had already led to a “number of generous contributions” over the weekend.