About five years ago Tom Grim, best known as the co-founder of Thomas Sweet ice cream and candy, vacationed to the Amalfi coast in Italy and had a slice of pizza. Little did he know at the time but the essence of that perfectly-prepared slice of heaven on earth would remain in his sensory memory for years and chew on his psyche until its little tomato voice was heard. And it said: Make me here in America, in a wood-fired brick oven, on the back of a 1949 REO Speedwagon truck, and they will come.
On Saturday, June 23, at the Hopewell Train Station, they came, when Grim made the public debut of Nomad Pizza, his newest venture, at the site of another one of his “inventions,” Thomas Sweet Outdoor Cinema, a summer film series launched in 2004 (“Recreating the Drive-In, Without the Cars,” U.S.1, June 23, 2004).
Grim and his crew cranked out about 80 pizzas in four hours for a crowd of about 200 (with many pizza lovers standing by for more all the way through “Princess Bride”), each lovingly prepared by hand from homemade dough made from organic bread flour; mozzarella cheese made by Jarrod Weeks, a farmer in Ringoes who owns just four cows; organic tomatoes from San Marzano, Italy; organic basil and herbs from Grim’s own garden; and sea salt. The pizza was fired in a 2,500-pound wood-fired brick oven, also from Italy). Along with the pizza, he served salad made from produce from North Slope Organic Farm in Lambertville and Cherry Grove Organic Farm in Lawrenceville.
The story of how Nomad Pizza was born is as organic as the ingredients he works with, a story that literally grew out of one of the most archetypal tasks of all humankind: making bread. “About five years ago, I started making bread from scratch,” says Grim, whose passion for making and perseverance for perfecting homemade fudge while working as a lowly dishwasher in a motel in Blaisdell, New York, in 1967, blossomed years later into Thomas Sweet.
“There’s something spiritual about making bread. You start with nothing and make something; it’s very gratifying.” He was using a method from the book “The Bread Baker’s Apprentice,” where everything is done very slowly, and the dough rises for a long time in the refrigerator. “Slow rising makes for better, more complex flavor,” says Grim. He happened to glance at the bottom of the page and saw that the dough could be used for pizza.
“So I tried that. And I started making more and more pizza. And I started reading about pizza, and researching pizza on the Internet.” He learned that you have to make the oven really hot, about 800 degrees, for really good pizza. “Home ovens only go up to about 500 degrees. I put bricks in my oven. I had the oven lined with terra cotta tiles. On pizzamaking.com, a site full of crazy guys who like to make pizza, I read about a guy who jerryrigged the self-cleaning element of his oven to get his oven up to 800 degrees and almost burned his house down.”
Grim says he “totally destroyed” his oven, but his enthusiasm and fervor never waned. He went to a bring your own toppings pizza party at the Hopewell home of Pam Flory, the former manager of Spring Hill Organic Farm (owned by Rat’s Restaurant) whose husband, Rob, works at Howell Living History Farm in Titusville. Flory had built an outdoor wood-fired oven behind her house. Grim brought his own dough.
He left the party with one mission. “I had to get a wood-fired brick oven for my house. A brick oven holds a ton of heat, and never cools down.”
Back on his trusty cyber-horse, Grim found a company in California that imports wood-fired ovens from Italy and delivers them in pieces on a pallet. He spent $3,500 on the oven — and $10,000 on installation, working with Hopewell contractor Henry Muentner, who had to take down a greenhouse, pour concrete, and install special beams to support the tremendous weight of the oven. Grim also got help from Kenneth Carozza, a friend and former Thomas Sweet ice cream maker and manager, who now has his own company, Monkey Boy Graphics, in Langhorne, PA.
When Grim discovered a little crack in one of the pieces he called the company in California, which told him it would have to ship a whole new oven. “They didn’t seem to want the other one back,” says Grim. His friend Stalin Bedon, another former Thomas Sweet ice cream maker and manager, now owner of Buena Vista Landscaping, is also an old-truck enthusiast. He came over and said, “Why don’t we flip the oven onto the back of an old truck?”
“That’s what gave us the idea for Nomad Pizza,” says Grim, also an old-car enthusiast who owns a 1959 MGA. “Stalin has a problem where he just buys old trucks. He called me up, practically the next day, and said, `I bought a truck on eBay, a 1949 REO Speed Wagon.” Bedon spent about $9,000 Canadian (about $5,500 American) for the totally restored, cream and brown beauty. (The REO Speed Wagon Car Company manufactured some of the first “horseless carriages” starting in 1904 and one of its most popular vehicles was its truck, an ancestor of the pickup truck, capable of logging 100,000 miles without abnormal wear and tear. The REO Speed Wagon was named after its designer, Ransom Eli Olds, and the name was later picked up by the popular rock group.)
After a cancelled flight to Buffalo due to an ice storm in December, 2006, Bedon arranged to flatbed the truck across the border. “When we got it to New Jersey, the truck would only drive 50 feet and then conk out. We got a chain and towed it to the Car Depot in Hopewell to be fixed by Joe Nosker [Grim’s long-time mechanic]. I later learned that it is quite illegal to tow a vehicle with a chain.”
Grim, one of five siblings, was born in a house in Appalachia with no indoor plumbing — “three bedrooms and a path” — in southwestern Pennsylvania, two miles from the West Virginia border. His father drove a dump truck for a living and had a penchant for piling his kids into the truck to drive 20 miles to the nearest drive-in. “We hopped out of the back, sat on top of the cab-over, and watched ‘Old Yeller’ and ‘Flubber,’ says Grim, who graduated from the University of Buffalo in 1974 with a B.A. in philosophy. The powerful pull of community is bred in his bones, and he was determined to keep every aspect of Nomad Pizza local.
As Bedon struggled to get the truck from Canada, Grim continued to invite friends over for pizza-tasting parties, sometimes with 50 to 100 people; did more research; and concluded that the oven he had was not the best one. He discovered another company, also in California, which also imported brick ovens from Italy — the oven he really wanted. “The cracked one is still under my deck,” says Grim. The new one contains over a ton of fire brick and takes at least five hours of preheating before it is ready to cook the pizza at 750 to 1,000 degrees.
Every single laborer but one on the project is from Hopewell, where Grim first lived when he came to New Jersey. Grim first approached Terrance Johnson of T. Johnson Design in Hopewell, a high-end metalworking firm located just across the street from the Hopewell Train Station. “They recently made a $20,000 brass trellis for a $14 million home in New York,” Grim says. Johnson Design fabricated the truck body and all the stainless steel compartments, including a three-basin sink, a handler’s sink, as well as compartments to store a generator, a commercial refrigerator, and wood for the oven.
“At first they were hesitant,” says Grim, “but then they said, ‘We like to do unusual projects.’” At one point, Grim practically moved in for three weeks, while he and Johnson (along with Johnson’s dad, Tom, who is retired but still works with his son) made myriad decisions about the design and construction. Carpenters Dave Kyle and Pierre Guidi of Cristopher Enterprises in Ringoes built the wood serving tables that double as the sides of the truck, which also has a retractable awning and an on-board sound system.
Grim, ever the Googler, started looking around to see if there were any other pizza maniacs like himself out there driving around making pizza out of the back of a truck. He says he found just a couple of people in California and one Douglas Coffin near New Haven, Connecticut. Grim called Coffin, who had started as baking bread fresh at weddings but switched when his neighbor suggested he make pizza instead. Coffin invited Grim up for a visit. Grim took along his significant other, Fawn King, a registered nurse who works for an internist in Manhattan and lives in the West Village, to accompany Coffin on an event he was catering. “He gave us lots of advice. We basically lifted his design with his approval, a footprint for what we wanted to do,” says Grim. Coffin, who now has two trucks, is booked all summer with some 60 events.
Back at Johnson Design, the little pizza truck that could became something of a local icon. “Everybody would come by and watch and say, ‘When will the pizza be ready?’” says Grim.
Among the onlookers was Larry Cortelyou of Home Comfort Chimney Sweep in Hopewell. One day Grim told Cortelyou he needed a chimney for the oven. “He came by the next day with a chimney,” says Grim. Contractor Henry Muentner, who helped install Grim’s home oven, helped with the truck construction and installed the plumbing, including a fresh water system with an on-demand hot water heater. Noscar of the Car Depot fixed a problem in the truck’s gas tank, and also put in a gas line for the generator. Mike Cooper of Hopewell did the electrical work. Two days before the June 23 debut, Barry Adler, a Hopewell truck mechanic who works in a barn behind his house, restored the truck’s faulty brakes.
Needless to say, a fabulously outfitted truck does not a perfect pizza make — without the perfect recipe and ingredients. At the pizzeria on the Amalfi coast that Grim had visited, he says, “the farmers would drive up every morning and drop off fresh vegetables. The fresher the ingredients, the better the pizza. The pizza in Italy is amazing, there are a million wood-fired ovens in Italy. It makes such a difference. The pizza cooks in under two minutes, sometimes 90 seconds, so the outside is baked and crispy, the inside is moist and chewy.” Grim explains that the typical American pizzeria cooks their pizza at 450 to 550 degrees. The result? Pizza that is cooked too long. Grim says that at the pizza-tasting parties he had in his home, “Everyone said it was the best pizza they had ever had.”
In addition to the fresh mozzarella, organic bread flour, and locally-grown organic produce, he uses just one — make that one very important — ingredient from a can. And that is the tomatoes. “I tasted a lot of canned organic tomatoes and the best were from San Marzano in Italy. They are very expensive and grown in volcanic soil. They are regarded by Italians as the best.” And, like the Italians, Grim puts the whole tomatoes right on the dough. “We don’t make a sauce, we put the tomatoes on the dough, sparingly, then cheese, sparingly. The key is less is more. In America, they use too much cheese, too many toppings. In Italy it’s very light and sparse and fresh.”
About a month ago, at a party Grim held at Johnson Design for everyone who had worked on the truck, the consensus was the same: the pizza was the best that anyone had ever tasted. Sixty people came, and Grim churned out 50 pizzas in three hours. And in a brilliant stroke of irony, metalworker Terrance Johnson attempted to make his own pizza — “and just about singed his whole head in the oven,” says Grim.
Grim and Stalin Bedon are the sole business partners in Nomad Pizza. (Both Grim’s girlfriend, Fawn King, and Bedon’s girlfriend, Tammy Denette, an organic farmer, help procure organic vegetables, prep toppings, and salads before events.) “We’re both doing this as a business but we want it to stay fun,” says Grim. The two have invested about $60,000 so far, and, says Grim, unlike a bricks-and-mortar operation, “there’s no rent.” As a food purveyor he has clearance from the Hopewell health department.
You might be surprised to learn that Grim has no intention of franchising. “We franchised Thomas Sweet, and it then becomes all about the money. Businesses need to make money but you get people who see it as an investment rather than a lifestyle. Then you’re dealing with lawyers and accountants. It’s a miserable business.” Today, Thomas Sweet has just two stores — the candy store on Palmer Square and the ice cream store on Nassau Street — and two franchises, one in New Brunswick and one in Washington, DC. Grim says the business earns about $1 million to $1.3 million a year in revenues. “It’s kept me off the streets for 20-some years,” he says. “I’m happy the way it is, I don’t want to grow. Everyone says a business should grow; I don’t see why you can’t stay exactly the same. You can have a great little business and leave it as it is.”
He cites Jessica Durrie of Small World Coffee as an example of a like-minded business owner. A few weeks ago, Bedon ran into Durrie, who invited him to bring the truck to her annual Memorial Day weekend badminton and cocktail party at her house in Princeton. The truck — and the pizza — were a hit among the 100 or so guests. “We had to park in her front yard and we had Jessica’s kids running back and forth, bringing the pizzas from the front yard to the back yard. One kid earned about $19 in tips.”
“The pizza was fantastic,” says Durrie, “but I knew it would be, because I had been to Tom’s house for pizza parties. This was their first party, and they made it look easy. The pizza just kept coming, despite some pounding rain for a bit. I knew Stalin and Tom had been planning this concept for a while. I think it is a fantastic niche, and that if you offer a unique, quality product and service around here, people will sign up. I would definitely hire them again. It is a super special treat, and everyone at the party loved it, including my kids.”
Nomad Pizza offers a simple but effective menu: salad made from local, organic ingredients, served buffet style, followed by pizza. (Soon they will have installed a commercial coffee maker on the truck and will serve Small World Coffee.) They cook pizza nonstop until everyone has had all they want, which amounts to about one 12-inch pizza per person. The dessert is either Thomas Sweet ice cream or Nutella (a European hazelnut chocolate spread) with banana on pizza crust, “which is delicious,” says Grim.
In keeping with Grim’s “green” business philosophy, he uses napkins made from recycled paper, and bioplastic plates, flatware, and trash bags made from corn and sugar cane (he keeps the refuse and composts it on his five-acre property in Pennington). The oven uses no petroleum products. Only hardwood, usually cherry or apple, which is a sustainable fuel source and gives the pizza a subtle, smoky flavor, is used to fire the oven.
Jim Weaver, owner of Tre Piani restaurant in Princeton Forrestal Village and head of the central New Jersey Slow Food chapter, was among the guests at Durrie’s party. He took one bite of the pizza and invited Grim to be one of only six or seven restaurants and food purveyors Weaver hand picks for the annual Jersey Fresh Wine and Food Festival held at Hopewell Valley Vineyards. Last year 7,000 people attended the festival; this year it takes place on Saturday and Sunday, August 11 and 12. Reached by phone, Weaver says, “I was skeptical when I looked at (the truck) but it’s really a first class thing. The pizza was amazing. Obviously they had spent a lot of time thinking it through, with attention to detail and using good ingredients. With pizza being my desert island food, this is it.”
Yet another guest, Anastasia Mann, invited Grim on the spot to cater the graduation party she was holding the next weekend at her home in Princeton on Lilac Lane, for a former babysitter who was graduating from Princeton University. “Stacy said she’s a pizza snob and she said our pizza was comparable to De Lorenzo’s,” says Grim. De Lorenzo’s is the venerable Chambersburg pizzeria established in 1936, with arguably the best pizza for miles around and near-rabid followers at its two locations, 1007 Hamilton Avenue and 530 Hudson Street. “When it gets busy, they just take the phone off the hook and put it on the counter,” says Grim.
Mann, an analyst for New Jersey Policy Perspective in Trenton, says that Nomad Pizza is way ahead of De Lorenzo’s when it comes to ingredients. “De Lorenzo’s isn’t putting goat cheese and arugula on their pizza.” She says having Nomad Pizza at her party was “fantastic. We didn’t have to stand over the grill all night. It was just like having a caterer, they served a multi-course meal. Nobody will forget it.” Her husband, Eldar Shafir, is a psychology professor at Princeton.
Grim invited Tony Oppenheim to the graduation party to take photos for the Nomad Pizza website he designed, nomadpizzaco.com. Oppenheim, the brother-in-law of Grim’s ex-partner in Thomas Sweet, Tom Block, used to make ice cream at Thomas Sweet (notice a pattern here?), and Grim considers him to be his own brother-in-law and a consummate ice cream maker. “He made chocolate chip cookie dough way before Ben & Jerry’s,” Grim says admiringly. Oppenheim now has own Apple computer business, tradenet.net based in Doylestown, PA. (Tom Block sold his half of the Thomas Sweet business about a year ago to a former Thomas Sweet employee, Marco Cucchi. Block now owns the very successful Naked Chocolate Cafe at 1317 Walnut Street in Philadelphia.)
The week before Durrie’s party, Grim says he had been driving down Hodge Road (in Princeton’s exclusive Western section) and thinking to himself, “When we do a party on Hodge Road, we’ve made it.” A mere two weeks later, his goal was met — Mann’s house is just off of Hodge. (Another guest at Durrie’s party, Linda Twining, one of the duo behind Twin Hens, the chicken pot pie company, has booked Nomad Pizza for her own birthday party in September.)
After the graduation party, Mann told Grim she had overheard a cluster of Harvard MBAs staring at the truck and chattering among themselves about “how they could capitalize on this.” Grim, however, looks at his business with a different pair of eyes — and an entirely different mindset. To him the success of a business is in its connection to the community.
“Better is better, not bigger is better. Make the business you have as good as you can; be involved in your community. No one even knows this but we have a program with Princeton hospital, where if you donate a pint of blood, you get a coupon for a free pint of Thomas Sweet ice cream. We do a reading program at Princeton Public Library for kids; if they read 10 books, they get a coupon for a free ice cream sundae. At least we’re connected. A lot of (business) people are not connected. I haven’t even appreciated enough what a good position it is I’m in. When I think about the guys who work at the credit card companies who come up with ways to raise the fees to maximize profit, I know they are supporting their families but I think, what are they contributing to the world or even to their community? There isn’t much there.”
Like many entrepreneurs Grim says “it is fun starting a business.” But he is driven not by the prospect of making a lot of money but by the quest of creating the food itself. When asked what the biggest challenge of starting Nomad Pizza was he says, “The hardest part for me was making sure we had the best pizza. Making the dough is the hardest part of pizza-making. It’s different than making ice cream.” Harking back to the pure and simple act of making bread, he says, “You take very simple ingredients and make it into a simple, wonderful substance. When you’re making bread everyone smells it, and they love it. I’ve made hundreds of pounds of bread and thrown it out. You get to know it and understand it. I don’t want to do it if it’s ordinary. “
Nomad Pizza, nomadpizzaco.com. Nomad Pizza will cater a party for four hours, including one hour set up, and has one lunch and one dinner slot available each day. Catering includes salad and pizza served buffet style, coffee, and dessert. Water or soft drinks available for an additional charge of $1.50 per person. The rate for a party of 50 is $1,500 plus tax; $500 for each additional 25 guests. Travel is within 30 miles of Hopewell; parties outside that area incur an additional charge.
Nomad Pizza will participate in these upcoming events:
Harry Potter Block Party, Friday, July 20, Hulfish Street on Palmer Square. Sponsored by Jazams.
The Jersey Fresh Wine and Food Festival, Saturday, and Sunday, August 11 and 12, Hopewell Valley Vineyards. For more information visit newjerseywines.com and click on Festivals.
Hopewell Harvest Fair, Saturday, September 29, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Hopewell Elementary School, 33 Princeton Road.