A call from the White House last week sent employees at Tutta Bella Neapolitan Pizzeria in Seattle scurrying to make a 40-pizza delivery to a visiting President Barack Obama aboard Air Force One.
Joe Fugere, founder and chief executive of four-unit Tutta Bella, and a small crew of company employees Friday manned a borrowed wood-fired pizza oven in the parking lot of Paine Field in Everett, Wash. Air Force One was parked there while the President made nearby appearances.
The decision to make the pizzas at the airport stemmed from Fugere’s concerns that the thin-crust pies would not be optimum for serving after a 30-minute trip by car from the Tutta Bella restaurant closest to the Everett airfield, he said.
Once cooked, the pizzas were loaded into the back of three Mini Cooper automobiles loaned by a local dealer and sent to the President’s flying command center.
“All the components just fell into place,” said Fugere, who had only gotten word that the President would be in town and appreciative of a taste of Tutta Bella on Wednesday evening.
Manufacturer Woodstone Ovens was quick to loan the oven, as was Seattle Mini Cooper, which provided the delivery vehicles, Fugere said. Additionally, the managers of Paine Field were generous in not only giving permission to set up the temporary kitchen in the parking lot, but in loaning the restaurant team the airport’s forklift to unload and move the 4,000-pound pizza oven.
Fugere had met with Obama in Seattle in 2009, when the president was seeking input from small business owners about how the government could help “main street” put people to work after Wall Street had nearly melted down and large banks were holding tight to the funding entrepreneurs and smaller firms needed to expand.
Later, Fugere was invited to the White House to watch Obama sign into law the Small Business Jobs Act that, among other things, raised the amount of money startups could seek under federal Small Business Administration loans.
Watch Fugere at the Small Business Jobs Act signing; story continues below
Tutta Bella executive chef Brian Gojdics created a pizza inspired by Obama’s reported love of spicy food, local specialty ingredients and Fugere’s family roots in the Calabria region of Italy.
The resulting Il Presidente pizza was topped with Calabrian chiles, Mama Lil’s pickled peppers, Isernio’s Italian sausage, extra virgin olive oil, mozzarella, basil and Grana Padano cheese.
Tutta Bella has made the Il Presidente pizza available to customers for $13.50 through Feb. 26.
Nation’s Restaurant News spoke with Fugere about the experience.
How did you find out that the President was coming and wanted a taste of Tutta Bella?
We were only given 48 hours notice. The news came from the White House.
The reason it was important was because at the White House, at the signing of the Small Business Jobs Act, the President stopped and pointed to me in the audience as an example of a small business that had benefitted from loans, and during that he said, “I still haven’t tasted the pizza, but he promises I’m going to get some at some point.”
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That sounded like an executive order to me, so before the next couple of trips he took out this way, I’d ping the White House to find out if there was a chance I could fulfill that promise. This time the same thing happened, but when they called on Wednesday, with what I thought would be bad news, they said the President wouldn’t be able to come to Tutta Bella, but we could bring pizzas to Air Force One.
What happened at the airport?
We started cooking at about 2:30 [p.m.] and delivered the pizzas at about 3:30 [p.m.].
The Secret Service saw three carloads of foods and so they brought out the dogs and did a sweep [of people and equipment] and let us go up to the belly of the plane.
We were greeted and escorted by the flight crew of Air Force One. They helped us unload the food and get it on the plane.
Did you see the President?
No. That was before he arrived. We did from a distance later see the motorcade pull up.
Was working with Presidential security challenging?
They are very exact in what they require, in terms of their specifications and rules, but very fine people. They are not too much into joking around, but go out of their way to accommodate you. At the same time, they didn’t relinquish their high standards; we went through strict screening.
What motivated you to make the effort to get pizzas to the President?
Obviously, it was an honor to serve the President, but I’m also strong supporter of both the President and his policies, specifically the Small Business Jobs Act. I’ve received two SBA loans, but the Jobs Act raised the line from $2 million to $5 million, which will allow me to open more restaurants. The community bank I work with has already approved my next two restaurants, and I’m looking for sites. Before the Jobs Act, that wouldn’t have been possible.
2012 has been the busiest year we’ve ever had, and I believe it is a direct result of the President’s policies, even though they have taken time to take hold. In 2008 and 2009 things were a little off. In 2010 things started coming back slowly. But from the third quarter of last year on, we’ve been breaking records.
How many people do you hire for each restaurant?
About 50. I was hoping I’d see the President [Friday] so I could personally thank him on behalf of myself and the 200 people I employ.
How are sales of Il Presidente pizzas?
Anecdotally, from the sales recaps I’ve seen and what I’ve heard, a lot of customers are coming in and asking about it, wanting to hear the story behind it, and it is selling very well.