Press Articles
Interview with Brown Dog Pizza’s Jeff Smokevitch

Shawn Randazzo
Detroit Style Pizza Company

Not all of the popular tourist destinations in Telluride, Colorado are breathtaking mountain vistas, powdery ski slopes, or the magnificent Bridal Veil Falls. No, what brings many visitors to this small resort town nestled in a box canyon is Brown Dog Pizza, which serves Authentic Detroit Style Pizza.

Founded by Detroit-native Jeff Smokevitch and Dan Lynch, Brown Dog Pizza has become one of Telluride’s most popular attractions among locals and visitors alike. Their menu is legendary, and the pizza industry has taken notice: Smokevitch’s recipe took first place in the American Pan Division and second place overall at the 2013 International Pizza Expo in Las Vegas.

We caught up with Jeff this month for an interview about Brown Dog’s successes, challenges, and the response he received when he introduced Colorado to Authentic Detroit Style Pizza. Here’s what he had to say.

DetroitStylePizza (DSP): How long has Brown Dog Pizza been in operation, and when did you decide to open your own pizzeria?

Jeff Smokevitch: I had worked Pacific Street pizza in Telluride for two years, on the grill and as a delivery driver the first year and then I started making pizzas my second year, when one of the owners decided to sell his share. I bought that share in November 2003, and in May 2004 the other two owners and myself changed the name to Brown Dog Pizza.

The original location was small, with around 800 square feet. It was counter service only, and we had no liquor license. Since then we’ve expanded Brown Dog to a full-service restaurant, complete with table service, a liquor license, and everything you would expect from a full-service restaurant. We got a real good deal on a lease, but it was only for 18 months – when the property owner’s son graduated from college, they planned to open a family restaurant at the location.

I was 23 at the time, I had a ton of friends, and we were all into drinking, hanging out, and the sports bar scene. We had a liquor license, subs, salads, wings, and pastas – we had essentially retained the menu from Pacific Street – and of course we had pizza. The pizza was OK. No, the pizza wasn’t that great, but we were enjoying success. Then, the owner’s son graduated and we were out.

We also bought a night club called Fly Me to the Moon Saloon, which we had for two years. That business didn’t really work with our lifestyle, but while we were operating it – around six months after we lost our lease at the original Brown Dog Pizza – a building became available for lease across the street from our night club. We re-opened Brown Dog Pizza at that location in May 2006 and signed a 20-year lease. It’s a 125-year old historic building on Main Street in Telluride that has a lot of character. It took us awhile to build up our business again, but now we’ve become established with our locale clientèle and tourists.

DSP: How did you come up with the name?

JS: We had a couple of other names before we opened, and we had actually slated the name of the restaurant to be Box Canyon Pizza. All of our materials read Box Canyon Pizza. We never really liked the name, though, because it seems every business here uses the Box Canyon name. So in May 2004, my partner and I were painting the outside of the restaurant brown, and our dogs were sitting out there watching us paint. We both had chocolate labs – Boon and Flounder – and it was just a beautiful Telluride day, and all of a sudden were just like, what the heck, let’s call it Brown Dog Pizza.

DSP: What are your most popular menu items?

JS: Definitely the 313, which is the pizza that took first place in the American Pan division at the International Pizza Expo. We have another one my mom competed with last year in Vegas we call the Brooklyn Bridge Pizza, which is a New York style pizza. She took third place in one of the divisions; a five-foot, 100-pound little Italian lady who could hardly lift the pizza in the oven and had never made a pizza in her life. A lot of our customers come in and get half 313 (Authentic Detroit Style Pizza) and half Brooklyn Bridge.

Our regular customers come in two or three times per week, and each has their own specialty pizza they like. We probably have 15 specialty Detroit Style Pizzas, and we update the menu twice each year. What’s really cool is now that we’ve been open ten years, kids who grew up eating our pizza when they were five and six years old keep coming in as teenagers, and we’re often the first place the college kids hit when they come home to Telluride.

The XY is our most popular sub, it’s a steak and cheese sub named after an old county license plate that featured the same letters. Our salads are also popular – our menu is actually huge, but everyone in town knows it. It’s great for locals, because some people literally come in four or five times per week, and they can have a salad one day, a sub another day, and pizza a day after that. The wide variation in our menu is something local customers really appreciate.

DSP: What prompted you to add Authentic Detroit Style Pizza to your menu, and when did you add it?

JS: One of the things I wanted to do with Brown Dog Pizza was make a better pizza, so I attended Tony Gemignani’s International School of Pizza in 2010. The experience allowed us to really improve on our pizza recipe, and I started competing with it, too. I met Shawn Randazzo and the Hunt brothers on the competition circuit, and after I won my first competition Tony Gemignani asked me if I would be willing to assist at his school. I agreed, and the Hunt brothers were also assisting. They were working on Detroit Style Pizza because they wanted to serve it in their Austin, Texas establishment.

I hadn’t thought much about Detroit Style Pizza before; nobody in Detroit calls it Detroit Style. It’s just pizza. But we started messing around with a recipe at the school with Tony, and it took me awhile to figure it out, but I finally was able to craft a recipe I was happy with around 18 months later. Tony and Shawn helped me a out a lot.

About two years ago, I said I wanted to put this new style of pizza on our menu. Everyone said not to call it Detroit Style Pizza, that nobody would understand it. But I said, no, this is what I have to do, this is where I grew up, this is what we do in Detroit. I put it on the menu, called it Detroit Style Pizza, and it took off right way. Now, we sell out of Detroit Style Pizza every night, and we bake between 100 and 250 per day.

We’ve got it down to a science now. We know when it’s going to be busy and when it’s not, we know when tourists are coming to town, when the beds will be full, down to the day, dinner service, and hour. The entire Detroit Style Pizza preparation process takes four to six hours. We do a morning, lunch, and dinner proofing for Detroit Style Pizza. In the morning, we place the dough in pans to proof. We then push the dough to the corners, and let it proof again. Then we do a parbake.

We close at 10 p.m., and we usually run out between 8 and 9 p.m. Now, we have people coming to Telluride just to come to Brown Dog Pizza, so we have a policy that if we run out of it we’ll save one the next day for our customers, which is great for them because we can guarantee they’ll get to try our Detroit Style Pizza, and it’s great for us because they come back.

DSP: What is it about Authentic Detroit Style Pizza that makes it special?

JS: I try and do it the most authentic way possible. I learned from Shawn, the Hunt brothers, and pizzerias I grew up with in Detroit. Every single step involved with baking Detroit Style Pizza is important to do in a certain way, starting with the deck oven, which we use at Brown Dog Pizza, the temperature of the oven, and the hydration, the square steel pans, for example. I do a two-day, triple rise, and we have to use wet, sticky dough. Having brick cheese in your blend, or using all brick, putting the sauce on top, everything that we do to make it authentic is for a reason and it’s stuff I’ve learned through other people.

Of course, I’ve put my own little twist on things, like the cheese blend and the parbake. A lot of guys don’t parbake. The sauce, different spices, what toppings go under the cheese, what go on top. I was back in Detroit in October to watch a Michigan football game, and a friend there told me his pizzeria dices the cheese, so that’s something new I’m doing as well.

DSP: How did Telluride residents react to Authentic Detroit Style Pizza? Do they ever wonder why you serve a pizza style from Detroit?

JS: They love it, it’s crazy, out of every 1,000 Detroit Style Pizzas we make, I’ve maybe had only one or two complaints. I can’t believe the feedback I’m getting on it. We’ve never gotten this kind of feedback for any other menu item. Here in this tiny resort town, we’re the only ones in Colorado doing Detroit Style Pizza, so it’s new to everybody. They’re trying it for the first time and they’re blown away by it.

Even thin crust people who say they’ll only eat thin crust, I say try this one, it’s light and airy, it’s not heavy, but it’s crunchy. They try it and they love it, and they come back for more.

Detroit Style Pizza isn’t all we do, either. Our customers can get round regular, round thin, Detroit Style gluten-free, Roman style gluten-free, and now we’re adding Chicago deep dish to the menu. We’ll be the only pizzeria in the U.S. under one roof making Detroit Style Pizza, New York, and Chicago – all authentic.

DSP: Congratulations on your recent win at the International Pizza Expo! What was the biggest moment of the competition for you?

JV: I went up to my mom after I baked it and presented it to the judges, and I said, Mom, just tell me, honestly, is it good or not? She said it was great and literally, at that moment, they called my name. She was there to hear it, and that was the best part of it.

DSP: What has been your greatest pizzeria business challenge, and how did you overcome it?

JS: There have been so many, but it’s always being able to do stuff that people are saying that’s not going to do well here. I’m always going to try. Some might not work, but some are home runs – like the Detroit Style Pizza. Nobody supported me in it, so it’s cool to see when things like that happen. I knew myself it was a great pizza, and I had to block out the negatives. I’ve been able to achieve success through people doubting me.

In regards to baking Detroit Style Pizza, there were certain challenges I had to overcome. Telluride is located at 8,750 feet above sea level, and using yeast at high altitudes is a lot different than using it at sea level. Proofing is difficult, and if you use lax the dough rises faster but dies faster. The rise is really important to Detroit Style Pizza, so I had to figure that out. Also, in Michigan there is a lot of humidity but in Colorado it’s dry, and it’s important to keep the dough moist. I struggled with that until Shawn told me he sometimes uses plastic bags to keep the dough moist during Michigan winters, and now I use them all the time for my proofing.

DSP: What advice would you give to pizzeria startups?

JS: Work on your recipe. I probably did 300 recipes, and Shawn probably hated how much I was emailing him for help. Half the time he said he couldn’t answer, because it’s their secret at Detroit Style Pizza Co., so I did over 300 recipes in two years to come up with ours. Even when I put it on the menu I was tweaking it a little bit. I still do now, and I know exactly how it’s supposed to look and feel, how it’s supposed to rise, I can look at the dough and tell if it’s good.

You’re not going to come up with a magic function over night. It takes time. If you really believe in something, do it. Don’t listen to everyone saying it’s not going to do well. I’m big on authenticity, too. I wouldn’t put a conveyor oven in here or use aluminum pans or not use brick cheese.

If you want to do a certain style of pizza, pick the style, go research it, go to the pizzerias that are the best at baking that style, figure out how to make it authentic, then put your own little twist on it, too. Figure out what differentiates you from everyone else.

DSP: At the end of the day, what is the secret to Brown Dog’s success?

JS: Not being complacent. You’ve got to be on top of it. Just because I won first place doesn’t mean everyone’s going to come to Brown Dog Pizza. Day to day, hour to hour, consistency has to be here. Our customers expect to get the same pizza tonight as they did last week. Being able to train our staff: our kitchen staff, our servers, our bartenders, the person who answers the phone. You have to take care of the people who have been here, some for five years now. I have a lot of respect for our employees. Having a great team and being able to make the same thing the exact same way every night are the most important things.

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