A New York Times article’s headline from earlier this month read: “Pizza was the Restaurant Hero of 2020,” and the gist of it was that, despite a catastrophic year for the restaurant industry, most pizza places did just fine. Something about a dish that is a comfort food, that can easily feed multiple people, and that does well in transit made it an obvious choice for a pandemic.
Marc Schechter and Danny Stoller didn’t need the article to tell them that.
Schechter and Stoller are the owners of Square Pie Guys, a Detroit-style pizza restaurant that opened in the SOMA neighborhood of San Francisco in July 2019. The business did well enough that they’re opening a second location in Oakland on Monday, March 1. The new Square Pie Guys is in Old Oakland, taking over the high-ceilinged property that most recently housed Benchmark Pizzeria, and Desco before that.
Given that both men live in Oakland, opening a location on this side of the bay was always part of the plan. And while getting this restaurant up and running is foremost in their minds, the duo says that further expansion is definitely part of their longtime plan.
Found on the corner of Washington and Ninth streets, Square Pie Guys’ new restaurant has a narrow sidewalk patio and access to an additional 1,200 square feet outdoor area, where they eventually plan to build a beer garden, but Schechter and Stoller said they’re starting with takeout and delivery only, for now. Inside, they’ve designed the entrance with COVID-safety in mind. There are two clear, partitioned pick-up windows (that can eventually be removed when the pandemic ends) — one for customers, the other for delivery-app drivers to alleviate crowding at the entrance. Little else has been modified in the space, except for a fresh coat of paint and a blue neon pizza slice hanging among plants on a wall.
Square Pie Guys can be credited for raising the profile of Detroit-style pizza in the Bay Area, though Schechter is quick to point out that Tony Gemignani of Tony’s Pizza Napoletana in North Beach was likely the first to introduce the style here.
Schechter closely watches pizza trends on Instagram — it’s what made his own pizza pop-up gain prominence before he opened Square Pie Guys — so he figured it could do well here.
“I could see this trend happening nationwide, but there was a gap here in San Francisco,” he said.
For the unfamiliar, Detroit-style pizza is a rectangular, pan-baked pizza with cheddar cheese baked into the outer crust. A certain alchemy happens when the cheese on the edges hits the hot metal pan, forming a crunchy texture and flavor reminiscent of a good grilled cheese.
For those who like to geek out on dough, Stoller said the biggest difference between a New York-style pizza dough and theirs is the hydration level. Square Pie Guys adds more water to its dough, which creates a crust that is fluffier and lighter, he said.
That fluffiness and lightness can be deceiving. While at first glance, Square Pie’s pizza looks more like deep-dish in the amount of cheese and toppings, one bite immediately dispels you of that notion. Somehow, the crust manages to retain its crunchiness despite the hefty toppings on each pie.
Which, in the case of takeout and delivery, works well.
“The advantage with a bigger crust is that it reheats better and stays warmer longer,” said Schechter, though “when our pizza sits in the box too long, that crispy cheddar edge saves us. If you leave it out room temperature, it stays.”
A funny part of their origin story is that neither Schechter nor Stoller are from Detroit. Stoller is from Seattle, and Schechter grew up in a family of pizza obsessives on Long Island, NY. At first, Schechter continued his family’s obsession by making pizzas as a hobby while he worked in tech. But after a certain point, he began moonlighting on weekends at PizzaHacker and then Pizzeria Delfina in Burlingame. He then started doing his own pizza pop-up in a bar in the city.
Meanwhile, Stoller had worked in restaurants as a youth, but had moved on to work at Culinary Edge, a consulting company that helps businesses develop their culinary concepts. Then Schechter and Stoller worked an event together, making pizza, of course.
They found they had similar values, in wanting to provide a living wage for their team members as well as positively impacting their local communities, too (They’ve already identified several Oakland nonprofits to which they’ll be donating some of Square Pie Guys’ proceeds, and many of the pizzas they made while training staff were later brought to nearby homeless encampments and community fridges). A few team members have come from training programs supporting people who have had substance abuse issues.
“They make work fun and are really in the trenches with you,” said Louise Tang, Square Pie Guys’ general manager at the SOMA restaurant who has been training the staff at the new location. “Some owners aren’t there very much and really don’t really know what’s really going on. I also love how we’re on a bigger mission to help both our communities as well as our employees.”
Yahaira Santini is the general manager in the Oakland location. She began her restaurant career working at McDonald’s, where she worked her way up to manager before moving on to other places.
“Her career started with pure grit,” said Stoller. “She makes me really proud to have someone like her on our team, as opposed to the 21-year-olds straight out of culinary school who run their knives along their arms,” referring to a common practice amongst certain chefs to prove their knife — and bravado — is as sharp as a razor.
There’s a lot more that could be said about the team and their values, but more must be said about the food.
While Square Pie Guys offers more traditional toppings, classics like pepperoni (The 6×8) and mushroom (How Mush-Room?), some of its combinations cannot be found anywhere else. The Beet-An-Esca ($23) has beet cream and anchovy-garlic oil, for example, while the JLIN ($23), named after basketball player Jeremy Lin, adds lemon-garlic ricotta cream and Green Goddess Caesar dressing. Each pie comes with four large slices that could feed two to four people, depending on their hunger. Any of Square Pie Guys’ pizzas can be made gluten-free or with vegan cheese.
Their salads are boldly-flavored. Square Pie Guys’ most popular salad, the Chilled Bowl Salad ($12), has significant heft with Gigante beans in the mix along with kale, shredded Romaine lettuce and shaved broccoli, cherry tomatoes and spicy sunflower seeds in a sundried tomato vinaigrette.
But pizza and salads aren’t all Square Pie Guys serves. As time went on in SOMA, Stoller noticed that while the pizza ovens were constantly cranking out pies, the fryers and flattop (to make two styles of wings and fried Brussels sprouts) were completely underutilized. As the shutdown loomed, Stoller and Schechter decided to expand the Square Pie Guys’ menu beyond pizza. Inspired by a recent trip to Yosemite, and the fact that comfort food was in high demand, they created the Hetchy’s Hots concept, a brand within the Square Pie Guys brand, introducing a hot fried chicken sandwich to the repertoire. Three percent of the proceeds from the Hetchy’s Hots brand go to charity.
The Oakland restaurant will open without fried chicken sandwiches on the menu, but Stoller and Schechter plan to bring Hetchy’s Hots to Oakland in the coming days, with a menu mirroring the San Francisco offerings. There are five versions of the chicken sandwich, with flavor profiles ranging from a Mexican-inspired one with frijoles spread, cilantro cream and taco seasoning; one with Szechuan spice and sushi mayo; and one with Flamin’ Hot Cheetos and fresh jalapeño slices, the namesake sandwich, which we tried. Square Pie Guys dunks the chicken in spicy oil, but some customers made it known that it wasn’t anywhere nearly as hot as they would prefer, so now Square Pie Guys offers an option for a spicier oil with more Szechuan pepper and extra-hot cayenne.
The presence of the Cheetos on our massive Hetchy’s Hot sandwich ($14.18) caused my husband to remark that this would have been exactly what he would have wanted to eat at 1:30 in the morning when he was a college student. Now that we’re a bit older, we each ate a quarter of it in one sitting (along with sharing the Chilled Bowl Salad).
Square Pie Guys’ burger is another well-loved menu item in the city, but Oakland diners will also have to wait for it to appear at the new restaurant. A benefit of the new location is its dedicated proofing room for the pizza dough, but there’s no flattop here, and it will take some time before Schechter and Stoller do any kitchen renovations.
The SOMA restaurant serves beer and wine, but the Oakland location will be able to serve cocktails too, that is once the Alcoholic Beverage Control approves its license, hopefully by end of week. Given that most diners taking food to go may opt to purchase booze at markets to mix at home, the cocktail menu will be competitively priced, with each drink packaged for either two or four people and containing something special that only Square Pie Guys could offer.
The Bianco Di Mary ($35), Square Pie Guys’ take on a Bloody Mary, contains the tomatoes it uses for its pizza sauce. The four-person serving even comes with a spice mix to rim your glass and skewers with mozzarella, olives and a pepperoni slice for each glass. The Bold Fashioned ($30) mixes bourbon and Angostura bitters with another ingredient that makes it onto one of its signature pies — Mike’s Hot Honey.
Other pizza spots offering the Detroit-style have emerged in the East Bay within the last year, but Square Pie Guys sets the standard high. Bay Area Detroit natives have found a taste of home at the San Francisco location, and those in the East Bay will be glad to have a place even closer.
Square Pie Guys is open for takeout and delivery via third-party apps from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Monday through Saturday; 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., Sunday.