A pizza brand is born, in a shed

A pizza brand is born, in a shed
Pizza to go. (Photo: Supplied)

A really good pizza is soul therapy. Like being licked by a puppy. Lockdown success stories are also good for the soul. And those involving the mother of the perfect pizza… that’s just beautiful symmetry.

It all began with lockdown, a garden shed and the bond between two young guys who shared a dream. We met at Pizza Shed in Cape Town’s trendy Observatory, one of two pizza outlets owned by James Williams and Tando Bavuma. They met through James’s parents 10 years ago, when Tando was barman at Fat Cactus in Mowbray.

“I started working there after high school in 2011,” says Tando. “Derek and Marine (James’s parents) used to come there quite a bit.” One day James and his sister Kimberly arrived and introductions were made. “James started working there too and that was the beginning of our friendship.”

When Covid came crashing into our lives in late 2019, unleashing seven kinds of hell across the globe, James had Rosebank Brewing Company in Rosebank, and Unfiltered in Kloof Street in the city. “Unfiltered was born of Rosebank, as a tap room for my brewery, in collaboration with Saggy Stone in Robertson,” he says. Tando was GM of Fat Cactus in Woodstock. By this time they were living in Rosebank at Derek and Marine’s home. The pandemic put paid to both of their livelihoods (although Saggy Stone still produces James’s beer) and the guys were out of work. After the “short holiday” they’d anticipated turned into five weeks, things started getting tricky financially and they found themselves “in a bit of trouble”. Time to get off the couch and be creative.

Having had Unfiltered, James was familiar with Neapolitan pizza, and the brewing businesses had given him a head start in the dough-making game as he’d experienced the temperamental vagaries of the beast that is yeast. One day he eyed the shed in his parents’ garden and said to Tando, “Why don’t we build a pizza oven?” 

Born in a shed. (Photo: Supplied)

With no money to speak of but a good dose of what-the-hell-why-not?, they got busy and within three weeks the shed was stripped, cleaned, wired and repainted, and the pizza oven was ready for the heat. 

In a Facebook post celebrating Pizza Shed’s first anniversary they wrote, “She wasn’t much to look at but she was functional, and boy could we operate in there! With a stainless steel table and one household fridge, that was older than James and shorter than Tando, all we needed was a logo. We asked our third housemate and creative wizard Matt to design something sexy, and launched our first marketing effort on Instagram.” (Their logo features the two of them with their “head of quality control”, James’s dog Lily.)

Blast-off was Friday 31 July, 2020. Mr D and Uber Eats had just been given the green light to trade again so the timing was slick. The day dawned and they had no idea what to expect, but it “kicked off and we absolutely pumped!” says James. “We must have sent out more than 60 pizzas, which was 50 more than we thought we’d sell!”

They made pizzas six days a week, from Tuesdays to Sundays, and it wasn’t long before 100 of the little treasures were flying out of that garden shed on a Friday night. Lwando, who’d worked for James previously, was stretching dough, James was cooking and Tando boxing and handling orders.

“We got strange looks from neighbours, from customers, from delivery drivers… but we had a goal to create the best pizza in Cape Town and nothing was going to stop us,” they said on Facebook.

The Southern Suburbs Tatler ran a story that tickled them. “I’ll try to summarise,” says James. “This lady said she’d heard from a friend of a friend that there’s this place in a cold, dark cul-de-sac in Rosebank where someone’s selling pizzas from their house; it’s amazing and she must go. So one Friday night she rocked up (having let Google maps lead the way). She looked around and was like, there’s no shop here, what’s going on? She was sure she was in the wrong place but then the garage door opened and someone ran out with a pizza box.” The short version is she bit into the pizza and “she was like ‘oh my god, this is the best thing I’ve eaten in my whole life!’” 

Before long, Khonji joined the team and took over some of the prep, allowing them a few hours of downtime each day. 

The boys wanted to do things properly. “I knew that there are regulations around things like pizza ovens,” says James. “I’d been approached by the city in Kloof Street so I thought let’s do things properly; let’s contact the city and say come and look at this and make sure everything’s above board.”

“They came, and they said well, first of all you’re incorrectly zoned, and second… and third… and actually you can’t do this.” “They said don’t do this again; don’t light a fire – not even for personal use!” laughs Tando.

“Had we just been quiet and not tried to do the right thing, I doubt they’d have even found us in the 10 or 11 months we were there,” says James. “But ja, what we were doing wasn’t in accordance with city bylaws.”

So their beautiful pizza oven was dismantled. The end of an era, but the beginning of a new one. They then found a place to rent in Long Street, Mowbray. Being just 66㎡, it was affordable at around R7,500 a month. They operated on a takeaway basis again for a while, but soon needed space for sit-downs, which proved more popular. They had around 20 sit-downs in a night, with people coming from all over the peninsula.

Tando Bavuma and James Williams, pizza guys. (Photo: Supplied)

Derek says initially he thought they were crazy. “It was a little hole-in-the-wall place at the Mowbray bus terminus, but on the smell of an oil rag they turned it into quite a decent place and their clientele wasn’t fazed in the slightest – the people just kept coming. The punters who support them seem to genuinely understand the authenticity of the whole thing.”

Then they found premises in Bree Street in the city, where they opened their second shop in January 2022. 

Business was so brisk that they cancelled deliveries after five or six months. “In an ideal world we’d lose takeaways,” says James, “and as things stand we’ve discontinued Mr D and Uber Eats in Bree Street because we no longer need them.”

They’d only signed a 12-month lease in Mowbray, and after Bree Street’s roaring success they ended that lease and signed a new one for a building up the road that had more space for sit-down. So the Obs branch was born, and it’s proved just as popular as its predecessors.

So what makes their pizzas so special? Sometimes pizza (or something that claims the name but can’t prove the lineage) is a sorry excuse for a base topped with watery mush under rubbery cheese. What you get at Pizza Shed is a thing of beauty and deliciousness. The base (a contemporary form of Neapolitan called canotto, which is Italian for a little dinghy or raft, after the shape) embraces the toppings graciously. There’s no competition, just coexistence, and the result is an exquisitely melded work of alchemy, each ingredient fused with the next to create something that is so much more than the sum of its parts.

“Not everyone appreciates our pizza,” says James. “We’re never gonna make everyone happy.” The menu is simple, with just nine toppings from which to choose. So if you’re the ground beef, salami, chicken, tuna, pineapple, sausage, ribs, oysters, ham, ketchup, and the kitchen sink kinda person… let’s just say not your style.

The dough takes two days, on average, to “make”, but that’s a really pedestrian term for such an intricate process. “It’s crafted one day,” says Tando, “then goes for a bulk ferment. Next day we make balls; it’ll go in the fridge and then the following day we’ll use it. Making dough every day is really interesting. Everything affects it. The weather, even the temperature of water coming out of the tap.”

“People see something that isn’t the norm and they think this must be sourdough,” says James. “But it’s not. It’s a specific recipe – actually I’d say a continuous work in progress as we learn, because we like to play around a bit too.” 

Eskom’s rolling blackouts also have to be factored into the equation. “People say, oh wood fired – fantastic!” says James. “But part of the fermentation takes place in the fridge and sometimes we don’t have electricity in Obs for six hours a day, so all of our dough over-proves. Managing it is an absolute nightmare.” 

What led them down this particular pizza road? “We were inspired by what we’d seen overseas online – modern forms of pizza that we feel are pushing the boundaries of what pizza can be,” says James. “It became an obsession, to try to get the perfect base, the perfect shape, the perfect aeration in our crusts – the crispiness and soft chewiness.”

“James and I have the same views on not compromising on quality,” says Tando. “The cheese we use, the tomato, prosciutto, salami – the base ingredients… we use the best possible ingredients. Even the flour we use is imported from Italy.” 

“Supporting small local businesses was a strong consideration when it came to our flour,” says James, “and there are some great local flours available. But the supply is not consistent enough, and with flour our most important ingredient, we cannot risk not being able to source a flour all year round, which is why we’ve chosen to go with international groups.

Another slice, please. (Photo: Supplied)

“Our tomatoes are San Marzano style [more the shape of a plump jalapeño than that of your common or garden tomato] but they’re not from the volcanic soil of Mount Vesuvius. Those are available, but they’re about six times the price of the tomatoes we use – which are already double to three times the price of normal tomatoes.”

There are a few other magic bullets in their small arsenal of ingredients. The cheese they use is Fior di latte (“flower of the milk”). Like mozzarella, it has its origins in the Campania region of southern Italy on the Amalfi coast. It’s similar to Mozzarella di bufala but is made with cow’s milk, not the traditional buffalo. Then there’s nduja paste (pronounced en-doo-ya). Known as “the queen of Calabrian tables”, it’s a spreadable Italian sausage made from herbs, spices, pork, fat and chillies, and a Google search reveals its near godly status among Italian foodies.

“For strict Neapolitan-style pizza you should be using Mozzarella di bufala,” says James, “but it’s around R450 to R500 per kilo in this country. That would put the cheese cost at around R50 to R60 per pizza and you’d have to charge about R300 for a Margherita. So we use Puglia Cheese from Davide Ostuni, which is all hand made every day from fresh Jersey cow milk. It’s really, really good.”

Do they have any thoughts about franchising? “We do have a goal to grow; we’d like to offer more of the country our pizzas,” says James. “But that’s contingent on us being able to manage the quality. There’s no reason there couldn’t be two or three more of these in Cape Town and five in Joburg. Right now there’s a strong momentum and people are knocking on our door and calling us all the time. But we also need to manage ourselves. Quite literally, we’ve worked 300 days straight sometimes, many of them 16 to 18 hour-days, and both of us have girlfriends…”

“We’re both quite hands-on,” says Tando. “We’re in the restaurant, not watching everything from a laptop.”

These guys are amped and it’s contagious. 

The quality of the ingredients plays a big role in the excellence of the product, sure. But the quality of the people involved is just as crucial. Tando and James are clearly passionate about their craft and unbudging on standards and quality. Their highly skilled pizzaiolos put love and care into every hand-stretched base (and make more than 4,000 pizzas each a month). Their serving staff are a joy to deal with and clearly take justifiable pride in their work. And Lily is a dog of most discriminating taste. DM/TGIFood

Pizza Shed prices range from R95 to R180. Frozen dough balls are available at R25, and frozen pizza can be ordered in advance. Pizza Shed



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