Michael Athanasopoulos: Lessons from The Wolf

The Greek pizzaiolo behind The Lamb & The Wolf explains why running a pizza truck is a lot harder than you might think.

Hailing from Korydallos, Greece, Michael Athanasopoulos, known to his U.S. Pizza Team colleagues as The Wolf, prowls the streets of Southern Oklahoma, ready to pounce on the hungry and unsuspecting from his mobile truck, The Lamb & The Wolf, with his Greek-inspired flavors and pizza-fueled passion. Fluent in the language of pizza, both the Greek and Italian versions, The Wolf talked to PMQ about his menu and shared advice on starting your own pizza truck—and why it’s harder than it looks.

Brian Hernandez: Does your menu have a strong Greek influence?

The Wolf: Because I work the truck completely by myself, I wanted to keep it simple. My menu has five appetizers, two salads, seven different flavors of pizza, four different wraps and two Greek desserts. I also have specials, depending on the area I’m selling at. I do have a cheese and pepperoni, but that’s for the kids. As stated on my last menu, I deal in pizza for adults and “notorious” Mediterranean food, and you can take “notorious” to be bad or good. I do have a pizza for the Oklahoma crowd called the Wild West, featuring Buffalo chicken, spicy feta and diced tomatoes. That’s the closest I have to U.S. flavors right now. The rest are on the Greek side.

 Brian: Give us a couple of examples.

The Wolf: One of our best sellers is The Old Chicago. Basically, it’s everything you would find in a gyro wrap, but on a pizza. You can choose to have your tzatziki sauce on the pizza or on the side. For another flavor, which I just used at the Galbani Professionale Pizza Cup in Orlando, I transformed spanakopita into a mousse, a flaky filo dough filled with spinach and feta.

 Brian: Do you think someone should always try to transform an ingredient or dish, or just straight up throw it on a pizza?

The Wolf: There is always a way to make it interesting instead of just putting it on a pizza. The main thing to remember is, you don’t need to have a hundred things on your menu. You just need six or seven things that are amazing and that people will want to come back for. But whatever those seven things are, they need love and quality ingredients, and the results will come.

 Brian: What are some general tips for anyone wanting to start a pizza truck?

The Wolf: It’s hard. Very hard. I know firsthand….Make sure [the food-truck business] is what you think it is and what you want to do. Be serious if you try it. So many people come in thinking it’s an easy way to make money. They jump in, but they actually create damage to the market. It’s way harder than a brick-and-mortar.  You have to set up every day. You have to do all the cleaning every day, usually with little help or by yourself. I go through three times more inspections as any brick-and-mortar does.

When people go out and start losing money, they start bringing in low-quality foods and processes and give the rest of the food trucks in the area a bad name. That also drives away the limited customer base. So focus on doing one thing right to keep your customers coming back. The customer will pay for quality. Don’t buy frozen stuff. Do it all the right way with quality, fresh ingredients, and people will notice. They will come out in 100° weather or the snow to get that one thing they can only get from you. I make all my dough by hand now for this reason. I noticed how much better the dough behaves when it hasn’t been abused by a mixer. And my customers noticed, too. Now I do 50 doughs a day, and when I’m out, I’m done. But the quality makes it all worth it.

Brian: What is one piece of advice you would give to anyone who’s getting into pizza making competitions?

The Wolf: Have fun, but always try to stand out. If you don’t go to have fun or be extraordinary, then you’re just another one in the line. I read the rules, I ask my questions, and I try to do something outside of the box. Even if I don’t make it good, I try. And that’s the main thing in this business. It doesn’t matter if you’re going to win; it matters that you never give up.                

 

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Brian Hernandez