Pizza By the Streets

Chad Gieb with is pizza operation StreetZza LA.

During most business hours Downtown resident Chad Gieb is knee-deep in social media. A consultant by trade, Gieb’s main source of income is working with international social media teams, localizing content for an American audience.

His side-gig however, couldn’t be any more different.

Turn the page to most Fridays and Saturday nights and Gieb can be found behind a cart, no bigger than a trashcan on the corner of Broadway and Fifth streets in Downtown Los Angeles, serving pizza, a slice at a time, out of his mobile pizza oven to a collection of regulars and passerby’s.

The business, named StreetZza LA, developed rather organically over the course of half a decade through his love for pizza, taking a hobby, and flipping it last April into something that he hopes will eventually become big enough to lead into multiple locations, or even a brick and mortar restaurant.

“I’ve have had guys literally come back and yell at me because they were like ‘this is so good, how are you selling this on the street?’” Gieb said. “I’ll get New York guys who will come and stand there and argue with me for 15-20 minutes before they even buy a slice. Then they’ll try it and walk down the street telling people they need to try it.”

I’ve had guys who have literally stood on the street corner like, ‘hey man, you guys need to go try this pizza’ it’s kind of crazy. It’s weird, it’s not the reaction I was expecting.”

The business is largely word of mouth, with Gieb and his wife using Facebook and Instagram to tell followers when he will set up and when he runs out of pies. City Councilman José Huizar was one of his earliest and most prolific supporters, heaping praise on StreetZza’s specialty al pastor pizza and sharing the slices on his personal accounts. That sort of native advertising is important. Gieb estimates that close to 70% of his business, has been repeat customers, or customers who were told to check out his stand by a friend.

“I had this little old lady the other day who was not sure about it and bought a slice,” Gieb said. “About an hour later she has all of her little old lady friends coming back and they’re taking notes and asking questions. These experiences, I love them, but I would have never expected it. People are talking about it, people are really liking it.”

StreetZza is typically open anywhere from 6-9 p.m. to 1 a.m., depending on how quickly the pizzas sell out, a time period that can be hard to estimate. Gieb said that on some days, he’s sold out within an hour, and on others, he’s remained behind his cart until the bars start to empty out at 2 a.m. or even into the 3 a.m. territory.

The pizzas that Gieb sells are grandma style; pizzas that became popular in Brooklyn around a decade ago. The pizzas are typically square or rectangular and covered with a thin layer of mozzarella, with a crispy thin crust and topped with ingredients. Each pizza costs $5.

“I just want people to feel like they are getting a deal,” Gieb said. “Making pizza is an economy of scale, the more you make, the better you do. Where I’m at right now, I’m not making any money. I’m from Ohio, I’m big on the value thing.”

The slices extend past the traditional flavors like pepperoni and cheese, into more eccentric offerings on occasion, like the interest-piquing kangaroo meat pizza or the garlic butter crab.

“All the things I’m trying to do are really gourmet,” Gieb said. “Even though it’s a Brooklyn-style pizza, I’m trying to top it with local ingredients from L.A. I’m always looking for what’s fresh.”

While Gieb’s made and delivered pizza in high school and college, his hobby took on a whole new life in an area not exactly known for its pizza, South Korea.

While living abroad, Gieb quickly learned that if you wanted anything similar to what you enjoyed back in the United States, he would have to learn to make it himself from scratch, and that is exactly what he did.

“There is just not good pizza in Korea,” Gieb said. “It’s terrible pizza, they like weird things like corn with [a small amount] of cheese on it. It’s really not good pizza.”

Then, a Korean restaurateur returned from a stint in Rome and opened up a pizzeria next to his Seoul home which took his interest to another level.

“I was thrilled, because finally there was something that resembled pizza,” Gieb said. “I think that sort of had me latch on to it.”

Now, a resident of the Historic Core, Gieb became known in his circle of friends for baking pizzas for birthdays and other events. Over the course of five years, the pizzas would become a hit, sparking questions of whether he would consider catering or pop-up outfits.

By that time, Gieb said he was already leaning toward creating his business, visiting local markets to find the best ingredients that meshed well with his volatile budget. Then came the cart itself, which took nearly three months to design and build.

Mobile pizza outfits are becoming more popular, like Ines Barlerin Glaser’s Lupa Cotta becoming a popular pop-up at Mandrake Bar in Culver City and Jack Ramunni’s Earth Pizza pop-up, however, those outfits typically use a more expensive, single pizza oven like the Roccbox. A basic set up would run someone at least $700.

Gieb’s cart is less expensive, and consists of a half-sized bakery rack, custom fabricated a dough warmer. Gieb also handled the artwork on the cart itself, adding a stencil of the Downtown skyline and the phrase “got fat slices?” on the side.

Now going on his ninth month of selling, Gieb said that he’s in the process to comply with the city’s new street vending laws, filing the proper paperwork to be legal by the end of the six-month grace period.

He’s also exploring ways to improve his social media output to further grow his business.

He said that he has been approached in the past about investment opportunities, but didn’t like the idea of selling away a majority stake in his business. He also has avoided paying social media personalities (otherwise known as influencers) to advertise his business on their pages, a common tool for restaurants.

“I understand that I probably should be doing that, but I just want to sell good pizza,” Gieb said. “I really want to bring a quality product and just sell it everywhere. My goal is to have carts all over. I want to make Los Angeles known for having great pizza overnight.”

StreetZza is open on most Fridays and Saturdays from about 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. on the corner of Broadway and Fifth streets.

sthomas@timespublications.com.