NCASS member, mobile pizza caterer Pizzeria Bufala recently made history by becoming the first mobile pizza business in the UK to be certified by the Associazione Vera Pizza Napoletana (AVPN). We were delighted to hear about our members’ success, so we sat down with business owner Thomas Mackey to find out more about the achievement and what it means for his business.
Thomas is a man who takes his pizza seriously, and this is reflected obviously in his business, Pizzeria Bufala. Having studied at the respected AVPN on a personal course, he reveals that gaining the certification is “something I always wanted to do”. The mission is one that he strongly believed in, so much so that:
“When I bought the van in 2021, I had it sign written but I purposely left a big space on the back for this plaque. Just before leaving for Naples, people were asking me ‘why the big space?’ and I keep saying don’t worry, something is going to go there.”
Fast forward nearly two years’ worth of dough balls, and it was becoming apparent the van wouldn’t have to wait much longer. Thomas explains that “to me, this was never just about gaining a certificate, I just really wanted to come first even though I don’t really know what that was – I’m not really a competitive person! Something really grabbed me about it, the AVPN only began certifying mobile vendors a couple of years ago.”
The AVPN itself was founded in 1984 with the intention of cultivating the culinary art of making Neapolitan pizza and has been designated a denomination of control (DOC) by the Italian government, so legally it can award a special status to pizzerias meeting their strict criteria of pizza making. In the near 40 years it has operated, only 1002 (now including Pizzeria Bufala) businesses have received such accreditation.
In Thomas’ words, “with the AVPN, everything is purely science based. So the reason the pizza is cooked how it is, and for how they teach it, is all based on the science of the pizza and has come as a result of different laboratories working really hard, studying every inch of the process and the ingredients to comprehensively state ‘this is how to make the best pizza’. And that’s what I always wanted to do. I wanted to make the best pizza possible.”
He describes the formal, and completely rigorous, application process facing those with aspirations of such accreditation, with how for example the AVPN has specific certifications and categories pertaining to the type of business and the oven in question. Providing justification as to the particular methods employed to cook the pizza down to the detail of why that specific oven unit, there is no illusion to the fact that ”the application is quite long, and google translate certainly helps! But it covers everything in terms of who your suppliers are and where all ingredients have been sourced from.”
Having studied at the Associazione in Naples for his personal qualification, Thomas already had an idea of what to expect with the application process and admittedly “felt a little less pressure” as part of the live video call assessments he carried out with directors of the AVPN, compared with when he’d been assessed in person while studying in Naples: “I think having studied there, it did makes things easier just as I knew what to expect but there was certainly no favouritism or anything like that on their part.”
And after an ensuing period of anticipation as you can imagine, “slowly the good news started to come” and it wasn’t too much longer before the Pizzeria Bufala van was able to brandish the achievement proudly, as had been intended.
When discussing the potential significance of the accreditation for the business, Thomas candidly states that “I definitely think it will have a positive impact. I believe that being able to say I am the first is probably more important and powerful from a marketing perspective. The more I think about it, the better a claim I think it is – I’m sure there will be more in the UK to get certified in the future, but I will always be able to say I was the first to get certified here.”
Without doubt it is a huge accomplishment, and being the first is certainly momentous. Being in his own words “not naïve to the fact that my price points for weddings and events can be considerably higher than my competitors”, it is realised that a real practical benefit of the accreditation is to help justify that.
With the success he has found one surprising development though: “To be honest, the biggest difference I’ve noticed since sharing this news is that I’m now getting contacted by a lot of people asking for help with their pizza making – sort of like a pizza consultant, which is quite strange!”
The street food sector and wider hospitality sector are always looking to champion success and it’s quite the compliment to see Pizzeria Bufala recognised amongst peers for operating at such a high standard. Speaking of the scene and in particular the camaraderie that sews it together, Thomas always thinks “you’re much stronger when you work together”, and appreciates how “everyone is willing to help each other which is nice”. The world of street food is all about the people, whether consumer or vendor, at the end of the day, and is great for giving one another great strength, encouragement and support, as Thomas states:
“I’ve had it before where I’ve passed business to other traders and have had it come my way too. Similarly, from doing some of the same events you become familiar with people, with other traders and I’ve seen that people are happy to help each other out. One time I’ve borrowed some paper cups from another trader, also I’ve shared ingredients with others, it’s nice that caterers will share and help one another out.”
This is the kind of spirit that will sustain the sector, and something Thomas saw as a draw to opening Pizzeria Bufala as a mobile trader rather than pursuing a bricks and mortar venture: “During Covid, I saw a lot of seasoned restauranteurs and various other people turn to mobile catering on the back of this which was an interesting trend and did point me towards going mobile. You don’t have to worry about business rates and a lot of the costs associated with bricks and mortar, there is the freedom it provides to trade all over the place and really there is a lot of revenue in it.”
That freedom has served Pizzeria Bufala well and brought many quality pizzas to people and events, as the in-place business model has allowed Thomas to achieve a healthy balance of bringing money in to pay the bills, while being able to enjoy how he does that. “Personally I have found there can be a lot of enjoyment in it too, when I cater at a wedding event for example, it is such a joy to be able to pop up at six in the evening when everyone’s had the best day of their lives, they’ve had a drink and are enjoying themselves and you turn up to serve them the best pizza they’ve ever had. Honestly it is just a really nice way to spend an evening and there’s nowhere I’d rather be on a summers night.”
Just as Thomas experienced, the draw of setting up and running one’s own mobile business is flourishing today, and with recent years bringing technological advancements in domestic and portable ovens, he’s expecting the upward trend of mobile pizza units to continue growing, which overall points in the direction of better quality pizza available for consumers: “As it goes I think there will be a bit of saturation and the difference in quality will really show, so you’ll get more people studying or seeking professional training, which the public should see the benefit of.”
As it is becoming easier for people to start up a street food business, as it is always a popular choice in the UK many turn towards pizza, or at least what they think is pizza. As Thomas observes: “A lot of the pizza available in the UK doesn’t follow the rules! It’s all about the online fads and trendy types of pizza you see on social media, completely ignoring the traditions.
“Huge puffy crusts for example, people go mad for but to bake a pizza with these crusts is to create an inferior product because you create a sticky dough that is so difficult to work with that you have to use extra flour to try and shape it, which technically means that you reduce the hydration because you add flour at a later stage. This all adds up to make the pizza a hell of a lot harder to digest – so yeah it might look cool, but it’s not going to be a pleasant experience for the body at all.”
Even with a strong upsurge in pizza vendors across the UK and in the sector, Thomas isn’t too worried as he knows his product is far removed from a lot of what is being served up, and now he has the certification to prove that.
Of course running an independent business is not easy, and Thomas acknowledges that he’s “never worked more hours in my life” but that the reward is immense. He cites a need to be adaptable as a business in order to overcome situations and obstacles, like the cost of living crisis currently troubling businesses. “Businesses need to be able to adapt, just like spending habits of consumers do. One thing I did for example was to embrace some of the delivery apps during the week, which a lot of people can be against because of the percentages these apps can charge, but I think you’re always better off taking 75% than doing no trade at all. The point is how much more business you can do – and there is always business out there, you just have to find it.”
There is a lot of resilience in hospitality and being able to tweak a business is something the industry champions. This pragmatic approach is one shared by traders that have achieved longevity in catering, and is exactly what Thomas sees as being the future for Pizzeria Bufala, as he sees “an opportunity returning with more people going back to the office for work, for more daytime corporate work”, as it is about “trying to maximise the unit that I have, trying to add more strings to my bow rather than just duplicating what I’ve already got”.
As alluded to earlier, the AVPN accreditation is likely to have a positive impact for Pizzeria Bufala in this sense and you may well look forward to sampling some of their delectable slices at an event near you soon!
You can keep up to date with Pizzeria Bufala on socials and follow their journey here.