Three-unit Square Pie Guys opened two units during a pandemic, and still the customers keep coming. Learn how Detroit-style pizza makes the concept a standout in a crowded dining scene.
Sometimes, a concept just works from the start. Such was the case for California-based Square Pie Guys, which began as a pop-up at a wine bar in San Francisco in 2018 by founder Mark Schechter. Schechter began playing around with Detroit style pizza, and “I just got the sense that it was going to be the next popular pizza style,” he said, “because all of the pizzerias in San Francisco do a very similar 12- or 14- inch round pizza in a deck oven. Nobody was really doing a square pan pizza.”
Square Pie Guys sold out the second night they were in business, and demand grew. A local radio DJ promoted the brand on air, and a popular video game influencer Tweeted about his experience at the pop-up. That kind of grassroots marketing is priceless for a fledgling restaurant.
Schechter said he always planned to do a concept that was scalable, so in 2019, he and partner Danny Stoller began looking at leases and found a location in downtown San Francisco.
Today, Square Pie Guys has three locations, all owned by Stoller and Schechter. The pair knew they wanted to open multiple locations from the start, so they hired managers to help run the stores in order to grow quickly.
“We were pretty intentional,” Schechter said. “We had a really strong indication that third-party delivery apps would actually be our allies and would be a very important mechanism for us to grow our business.”
When Stoller and Schechter opened their first location, they spent time and money on custom packaging and how to operationalize takeout and delivery. Because Stoller and Schechter had been preparing the business for a high volume of takeout and delivery, they were well-prepared when the pandemic hit and didn’t have to scramble to figure out how to do it. They had seven or eight months of normal operations before San Francisco shut down due to COVID-19.
Business took off for Square Pie Guys, and Stoller and Schechter began looking for a second location despite the trappings of a pandemic. Since they live in Oakland, it seemed natural to open a restaurant there and it did in March 2021.
Schechter said opening a new store during a pandemic was not easy, but the brand had an established playbook they’d built to follow. “It was a huge sprint,” he said. “It was all hands on deck.”
Square Pie Guys is a chef-driven concept with a menu that’s rotated every quarter. Each season sees a new pizza, salad and seasonal vegetable side.
A much as possible is made in house, including dough, dipping and pizza sauces and wings are dredged and breaded on site. What they don’t make on-site they source locally, such as a local brand of ice cream.
Photo by Melati Citrawireja. Provided.
The Oakland location has a full liquor license, while the San Francisco and Ghirardelli Square units sell beer and wine only.
Pepperoni pizza is the top seller, and it’s baked in an 8-inch by 10-inch pan. The pizza is called the Six by Eight because it has six rows down and eight rows across of pepperoni – a total of 48 pepperonis on each pizza that cup and char in the oven.
Square Pie Guys often partners with local chefs or other eateries to create collaborative pizzas that have a charitable aspect to sales. Pizzas are baked in a gas conveyor oven.
“We do some really fun and innovative stuff on top of our pizzas,” Schechter said.
When asked what sets Square Pie Guys apart from the competition, Schechter said the brand is nothing without its team members and the people who run their stores. “The thing that really sets us apart is we, of course, love all our guests, and we value them and we love to see them, but the team is always first in our book and I think that allow us to grow in a sustainable way without much burn and churn,” Schechter said.
Square Pie Guys offers just one size pizza, an 8-inch by 10-inch, to help minimize errors, and substitutions and modifications are not allowed. “If our salad has feta cheese and you don’t like feta cheese, we’d rather tell you no up front than you wait 40 minutes for your pizza and your salad gets delivered with feta cheese and you’re upset,” Schechter said .
What you won’t find at Square Pie Guys are delivery drivers. The brand uses third-party delivery companies to deliver its food.
“It’s almost impossible for us to fulfill the number of orders that we currently do on the third parties if we were to have our own drivers,” Schechter said. “We would have to have an enormous fleet of cars and drivers and folks on the payroll, and that’s its own entire business. Maybe if we were in a different town and we had more dine-in business than we do, maybe it could work .”
These third-party delivery companies spend lots of resources, man-hours and engineering hours figuring out how to make delivery work. Why not use the work they’ve already done?
Ghirardelli Square, which opened in July, is the only Square Pie Guys that’s operating at full capacity. The other two stores are still takeout and delivery only.
Photo by Melati Citrawireja. Provided.
Future growth plans
In the immediate short term, Schechter and Stoller are working on making sure Ghirardelli Square is up and running smoothly. In the new year, the company plans to turn north into Marin County and south down into Redwood City, San Matteo or Palo Alto where the tech giants have their campuses.
After that, the goal is to look at Seattle, Portland and Los Angeles.
“We do want to grow this brand,” Schechter said. “We think it has potential to be a winner on the national scene. We have a pretty good idea of what kind of real estate and what kind of cities work for us demographic wise.”
For now, the plan is to grow organically in-house, but they’re not closed off to franchising.
“Don’t be swayed by all the noise from the market,” Schechter cautioned. “Really stick to what your original thought was because if you start changing things on the fly to make one subset of your customer base happy, you’re endlessly chasing something that isn’t accomplished. But if you know your plan and you know your model and you have a strong thesis as to why it should work, if you stick to it and you market it well, there’s a good chance it will work.”