HURON — When Huron native Rex Sawvell opened Fire Pit Pizza in February of 2020, he and his staff had no indication that a virus was about to try to derail Sawvell’s dream.
While COVID certainly altered the landscape, Fire Pit not only endured but prospered and grew.
Late last year, the pizzeria moved from its first home between Second and Third Street on Dakota Avenue, down the block and across the street to its new location in the Elks Building.
But to hear the story of where Fire Pit really got it start you need to start more than 20 years ago, according to the man who has seen his dream become reality.
“You know, I don’t even remember the name of the place,” said Sawvell recently, as he sat down during some rare quiet time at Fire Pit. “We lived in California then and I remember we were out for a drive and decided to stop at a pizza place in Tracy.” Tracy is a town of about 80,000 people approximately 65 miles south of Sacramento and 60 miles east of San Francisco.
“My wife, kids and I stopped at the pizza place — man I wish I could remember the name of the place,” Sawvell said, “because it was absolutely the best pizza that I had ever had. It was just wonderful.”
Then he went back a couple weeks later, to make sure it wasn’t just a case of ‘I-was-really-hungry-so-it-really-tasted-good.’
It wasn’t. “I went by myself and the pizza was just as good as it was before,” Sawvell said. Being an outgoing person, Sawvell said he went and introduced himself to the owner and asked if he would consider franchising his operation.
“He said he didn’t want to franchise,” Sawvell said, “but said if I was interested enough to purchase an oven and find a storefront, he would work with me and help me get going.”
Sawvell said he has always loved pizza and the idea of operating a pizzeria appealed to him. “I found a used pizza oven and went looking for a space. “That led to a bad case of sticker shock,” he said with a grin. “Real estate in California was crazy expensive.” So he sold the oven and put his dream on hold.
And it stayed there until his brother, who lives in Las Vegas, asked him a few years ago if he had ever thought about attending the International Pizza Expo (IPE). “He figured if this is something I was interested in, maybe I should come take a look. So I did.”
Sawvell said that IPE was a crazy experience. “It is literally everything pizza-related in one place,” he said. “But the best part was meeting Leo Spizzirri.” Spizzirri is an instructor at the North American Pizza and Culinary Academy in Chicago, who had been traveling to Italy to study with Graziano Bertuzzo, who is considered the master of classic Italian pizza and who had begun training pizza chefs looking to begin working in America.
“Now I have always been a pizza lover,” Sawvell said. “Heck, everyone likes pizza. It’s comfort food to me. So I stayed in touch with Leo and in April of 2018, he invited me to come to Chicago, to meet Graziano and if I was truly interested, to begin to learn about making pizza.”
So, Sawvell, who was then the Director of Building and Grounds for the Huron School System, found himself with five other guys, gathered in a teaching kitchen in Chicago, making pizza after pizza and refining their skills.
“We learned about the many different kinds of flours and how using them leads to different doughs,” Sawvell said. “For instance, there is a ’00’ flour that is for a dough you want to use that day. I wanted something different, so I began working with a flour they call ‘Oro,’ which is ‘gold’ in Italian. It really depends on what you want out of your dough.”
With a good solid base of understanding, Sawvell returned to Huron and back into his kitchen. “I had been working on coming up with just the right dough for a while,” he said. Dough is basically four ingredients - flour, yeast, water and salt - but changing any part of the balance changes how the dough reacts and tastes. And Sawvell said it’s all about the dough.
“I created many different versions,” Sawvell said with a shake of his head. “It became almost a quest, as the dough I wanted needed to ferment for three days.” Fermenting dough leads to a lighter and airier crust and a depth of flavor, he said. “So, when I changed the recipe, it would be three days before I knew if it was better or not! It was a lot of trial and error and we at a lot of pizza that I was just not that crazy about. I wanted the pizza that I had in California 20-some years ago.”
Eventually, Sawvell said he found the magic mixture and the decision to take the plunge was made. “We bought used equipment and have upgraded as we go,” he said. Today, Fire Pit has its dough custom made off-site in Minneapolis and receives shipments of 750 to 1,000 pounds weekly. Sawvell said that he found a wheat flour, primarily from the Dakotas and Minnesota works best with his recipe.
Shortly after the doors were “quietly opened,” Sawvell said, Ted Haeder, who is now the head of Greater Huron Development Corporation popped in and asked what was going on.
“I told him that we were making pizza and he posted it online,” Sawvell said. “Business just kind of took off from there and we were soon selling more pizzas than we imagined.”
Starting with a basic menu and providing great pizza and service, the word quickly got out in the area, and despite being nearly an entirely carry-out business at that time, sales grew enough that a larger space was needed, prompting the move last fall.
“We have more seating space now and I am able to add the game room that I wanted to have as well,” Sawvell said, nodding toward the large area with games and more. “I want this to be a family place and the game room is a place for the kids to play while their parents enjoy a pizza.”
With the successful start, Sawvell and his staff added to their offering, including one thing that he was really looking to have, CNC pepperoni. “It’s called CNC, which stands for ‘cupped and charred,’” he said. “I remember it from a pizza place called Shakeys when I was younger. The pepperoni cups up and the edges get charred and I just love it.”
As the business continues to grow, Sawvell said that he expects to continue to add items. Pizza-based open-faced sandwiches were added over the winter and just recently, Fire Pit began offering breakfast pizzas.
“I am so grateful to the community for its support,” he said, “and to the people who work here.” He added that Fire Pit has three full-time and about nine part timers, many of whom have been there since the beginning
But until the final step is accomplished, Sawvell’s vision remains unfinished.
“My dream has always been to have a wood-fired pizza oven,” he said “But pizza from a wood-fired oven is different and it is something that I continue to work toward.”
Like, going back to the lab and creating a new dough?
“Oh sure,” he said. “I ordered a wood-fired oven from France, which I have at my house, and have begun working on a dough that will work well in it. Hopefully, when I get it right, we can move forward with offering it here, if I can figure out how to get a commercial wood-fire oven.”
What is assured is that if wood-fired pizza appears on the menu at Fire Pit Pizza, it will have survived the numerous trial and error process that ensures it will be up to Sawvell’s standards.
“Well, I have to admit that the seven-day-a-week schedule is tiring,” he said. “I expect that getting the staff trained up will allow me a little more time away.”
Until then, however, you will generally find Sawvell at the restaurant, greeting customers or getting another pizza ready to go in the oven. He’s living his dream.