Rick Schaper strides across his new pizza factory, a man unaccustomed to space.
Schaper's company, Dogtown Pizza, recently graduated from a shared production facility in midtown to a relatively massive 12,000 square feet on North Broadway, giving him a lot more ground to cover these days.
"My feet," he says, heading toward tables where two employees are grating butter-colored blocks of cheese. "They've been killing me for two months."
Not that he's complaining.
In 2006, Schaper and his wife, Meredith, launched Dogtown Pizza out of the kitchen of their bungalow. The business started modestly, with a couple of hundred pizzas a week. Today, with sales having grown 75 percent each year since then, Dogtown Pizza turns out 20,000 pizzas a month. The Schapers now employ seven people and plan to hire two more now that they have the room.
"Moving into this place," Schaper says, surveying the new digs, "at 44, I feel like my dream has come true."
Dogtown Pizza began just as the economy started heading south, which, for many start-ups, might have spelled collapse. But the Schapers, knowingly and unknowingly, got a couple of things right — and had some help along the way.
The couple, who grew up in Dogtown, were known in the neighborhood for their pizza parties. In late 2006, when Rick was rehabbing houses for a living and Meredith was tending bar, a friend and neighbor hit on a career change.
"My neighbor said, 'You make really good pizza. Why don't you saran-wrap it, freeze it, and sell it?'" Schaper remembers.
So the couple decided to hold a fundraiser of sorts. They took what little money they had at the time, made 100 pizzas and sold them, getting orders for 40 more. Then they started selling the pizzas door to door. "I just pounded the pavement," Schaper said.
Today, the pizzas are sold at small specialty stores, as well as large grocery chains in the St. Louis region.
Schaper said he believed the pizzas flew out of store freezers partly because of the shaky economy.
"For the first year we were in business," he said, "people stopped going out to restaurants."
And they bought more pizza.
Since 2006, the sales of frozen pizza have risen, with 66 percent of American households buying frozen pizza in 2010, up from 62 percent, according to the American Frozen Foods Institute. In 2010, sales totaled $3.2 billion, posting the highest one-year dollar growth of all frozen food categories, up $124 million, a 4 percent increase over the preceding year.
"Continuing economic uncertainty is leading consumers to search for budget-friendly meals, with frozen pizza proving to be a particularly attractive option," said Corey Henry, a spokesman for the institute. "The recent introduction of a wave of new, high-quality frozen pizza meals allows consumers to enjoy dine-out and delivery-style pizza, but at a more affordable price-point."
The Schapers also hit on another trend: the growing consumer appreciation, and spending, on locally grown and produced foods.
"Our No. 1 philosophy is sourcing our ingredients locally," Schaper said. "We gave people local, and with the economy, it starts at the local level. You have to go out and support each other."
Dogtown Pizza itself got significant support from the St. Louis County Economic Development Council, which offered the fledgling company discounted and shared production space at one of its four business incubator centers. The one that housed Dogtown Pizza, on Washington Avenue behind the Fox Theatre, is the only one with a food facility.
"They can watch their business grow, but be smaller about their requirements for equipment and space," said Dennis Breite, vice president of the St. Louis Enterprise Centers, part of the council. "They get their space, but it's more of a strategic process. They weren't forced to sign a five-year lease."
"In Rick's case, his business has grown and he needed more space," Breite added. "We're very proud of their success."
Their success has not gone unchallenged, however.
Three years ago, Raeffele Boccardi, whose father ran Lou Boccardi's on the Hill, launched a frozen pizza brand called Luigi & Raeffele, named after his father and grandfather. Based in St. Peters, the company makes similar St. Louis-style thin-crust pizza with locally sourced toppings — about 4,000 or 5,000 a month — and also has a gluten-free variety.
"I definitely think it's competitive in St. Louis," Boccardi said. "But it's competitive anywhere. I don't run into too many people who don't like pizza."
(Both new frozen pizza start-ups are dwarfed in production size by another regional company, Mama Lucia's, which launched in 1981 and makes roughly 10,000 pizzas a day.)
Schaper, standing in his new space, says he's not all that worried about the competition.
"There will always be competition," he said. "I don't want to own helicopters. I just want to help my kids. I just want to pay the bills. I don't want that much."