“You can’t eat a photo, but you can eat a pizza,” Lewis Pope, Ooni Experience Manager, tells me halfway through my chat with him. Out of context, it’s a pretty eccentric-sounding sentence; the kind your gran might make after one too many Christmas sherries. When you’re chatting to a completely sober Lewis though, a man with an infectious enthusiasm for pizza, it all just seems to make sense.
Lewis is talking me through how making pizzas for friends and family is about so much more than just heating up some dough with cheese, tomato, and pepperoni on. It’s about making memories. After over a year of frequent lockdowns and being stuck inside doing Zoom quizzes, there’s something to be said for just being with other people, in an outside space, firing up a pizza oven and seeing what you can all create. Also, photos taste rubbish don’t they?
“You can’t eat a photo, but you can eat a pizza”
Amongst his many responsibilities, Lewis is now in charge of managing the Ooni Community Facebook Page. It’s a place online where passionate pizza makers come to share recipe ideas, and connect with likeminded people. For Lewis, who can be found on Instagram @unholypizzauk, his journey in pizza started just four years ago when he treated himself to an Ooni oven for Christmas. He fired it up on Boxing Day and the rest, as they say, is history.
“Instantly, I was just hooked,” he tells me. “It ignited a passion in me for pizza, and I knew right away this was going to be a hobby for me. I’d say dangerous hobby but it’s actually been an excellent one.”
From an Ooni at Christmas, to the creator of Ooni Enthusiasts UK on Facebook, to Ooni Ambassador to full time member of the Ooni team, Lewis’s journey since 2017 seriously underlines the magnetic pulling power of Ooni’s products.
Founded in 2012 by husband-and-wife team Kristian Tapaninaho and Darina Garland, the Kickstarter beginnings of this outdoor pizza company based in Edinburgh and subsequent rounds of successful crowdfunding illustrate the extent to which Ooni is a people powered business.
“It’s open to all walks of life, and there’s room for everyone within it”
I ask Lewis what his favourite thing about the Ooni Community is.
“For me, it’s the people. It’s always the people,” he says. “One of our core values here is kindness and the Ooni Community is just so, so, supportive of each other. It’s open to all walks of life, and there’s room for everyone within it. Seeing everyone help each other out, and help newcomers get through what can be a steep learning curve with their pizza oven, is absolutely amazing. Of course, it’s also just great seeing what everyone else is creating.”
Creativity and community, community and creativity. During my conversation with Lewis, it becomes clear that these are two of the pillars upon which Ooni has built its success. When it comes to ideas around mixing it up with the toppings, for example, it seems that not much is off limits for Lewis and the Ooni network. Ideas feeding into other ideas, and all that.
“Banana and bacon works surprisingly well. I’m not afraid to try anything though,” says Lewis. “People probably see my surname and presume I’m religious, but I’m into the naughty things when it comes down to food. I like turning things on its head, and just being a little bit out there.”
“Banana and bacon works surprisingly well. I’m not afraid to try anything though”
What about pineapple though? Where does Lewis stand on one of the world’s most divisive issues?
“It belongs on pizza. End of, as far as I’m concerned,” he tells me, matter of factly. “No, look, it makes me laugh because some people just get so passionate about pineapple not belonging on pizza. And they really voice that quite angrily.
“One thing I’d say is if you’re putting pineapple on pizza, always go fresh. It’s so much nicer than canned especially when it gets all chewy and caramelised.
“My view is if you want to put something on a pizza, go for it. That’s absolutely fine. There’s no judgement from me. Do what makes you happy and if that’s putting a crazy topping on a pizza, you do it.”
It strikes me, during my conversation with Lewis, that with the world still finding its adventurous feet again after the pandemic products like Ooni’s pizza ovens are well placed to offer people the chance to have new experiences outdoors without the uncertainty of booking flights and hopping on a plane to somewhere far flung. I ask Lewis about this, and it’s clear this thought has already been on his mind.
“With travel so uncertain at the moment, and maybe quite limited in terms of where people can go – especially abroad – staycations, and going out and camping within the UK, is going to be, I think, immensely popular,” says Lewis.
“A lot of people think it’s just a pizza oven but it’s so versatile”
“Having an Ooni as your companion is going to be absolutely key. A lot of people think it’s just a pizza oven but it’s so versatile, and they are capable of doing so much more. A good friend of mine actually went on a camping trip with his Ooni and baked a lasagne in it, which looked absolutely incredible. He was using it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner as well. They’re extremely portable, very easy to move around, and very easy to set up also.”
By the time my time talking to Lewis comes to an end, it’s fair to say I’m fully on the Ooni wagon. Going from someone with no intention of buying a pizza oven to someone who suddenly couldn’t shake himself free of the idea, all in the space of a single conversation.
“Ooni started something for me, it started a passion,” Lewis tells me, near the end of our call. “I like to see my work as a way of giving something back to the Ooni Community.”
This summer, you sense, that community is going to grow a fair bit.