About a month ago, Steve Aoki’s pizza restaurant, Pizzaoki, started delivering in Oakland. A world-famous DJ, Aoki was the fourth highest paid act in the electronic music world last year. He’s also the son of late Benihana founder Rocky Aoki and has invested in several restaurants himself. Pizzaoki’s gotten Instagram endorsements from Tommy Chong, fellow musicians and scantily clad women who love eating pizza in bed. And as any celebrity-owned business does, Pizzaoki has gotten national press since its launch in L.A. last summer. But there’s been nary a local peep since the Oakland branch started operating out of the old Lanesplitter’s location on Lake Park Avenue.
A big part of the reason may be that Pizzaoki is a delivery-only operation. There is no storefront to pay on site for slices or whole pies. Orders must be made via third-party delivery apps Grubhub and Postmates*. Because of that, the restaurant isn’t on Yelp, the yellow pages of restaurant listings. And, even weirder, the business is one of six pizza brands operating out of the Lakeshore location.
There’s also Thick & Tasty, Happy Slice Pizza, Gabriella’s New York City Pizza, Lorenzo’s of New York Pizza and Chubby Pie. The only reason I noticed was because four of the six were featured in a promotional email I received from Grubhub, touting them as new to my neighborhood. Never having heard of any them, I clicked on each business in the email and noticed they were all at the same address, 536 Lake Park Ave., and they shared the same phone number. So, I called.
“Pizza…” said a man’s voice, trailing off as if unsure what to do or say next. Was this Lorenzo’s? And Chubby Pie? And Gabriella’s? And Pizzaoki? The answer was yes, which led to so many more questions. I spoke with the manager on site, who explained that the restaurants were delivery-only and could only be ordered via third-party app, but that the space would eventually open as a walk-up restaurant under the name Lorenzo’s. Each business offered different styles of pizza, with different toppings and different styles of dough.
What the manager couldn’t explain, though, was why there were multiple operations, all under different names, but all serving pizza, under one roof. Why not just one pizza business offering a variety of pies? How was Steve Aoki involved? And why not — given his international name recognition — open the spot as Pizzaoki? I still had so many questions.
Eventually, I was able to speak with Lawrence Vavra, founder of Family Style Co., the Los Angeles-based umbrella company that operates a total of 12 pizza brands, almost all being delivery-only restaurants. As in Oakland, each location hosts several brands in one space, using third-party apps to disseminate its cheesy, carby offerings. Family Style’s first restaurant opened in Downtown L.A. in March 2017. About two years later, there are eight locations delivering its brands — most in Southern California, but one in Chicago and the one in Oakland — with six more in the works, and many more to come.
Pizza, and even food, is not Vavra’s background. If you lived in L.A. and mingled with entertainment industry types, you might know his name. He’s co-founded music management companies, like SFX Entertainment and Deckstar, he opened nightclubs in L.A. and Vegas, and even produced a couple of programs for music television networks. He’s also a private equity investor; in our conversation he called himself a “serial entrepreneur.” And, he’s a self-professed pizza connoisseur, which is how this music industry guy found himself at the head of a growing pizza empire.
According to Vavra, the “light bulb” moment for the Family Style’s business model struck him one day when he was looking to order Chicago-style deep dish pizza to his house in a part of Santa Monica that he calls “a no-man’s land for food delivery.” Even with all the third-party services out there, he still couldn’t find a decent place within range of his location. It got him thinking about businesses that used kitchen incubators or dark kitchens, for third-party delivery services, like Deliveroo in London and L.A.’s Cloud Kitchens. Vavra’s model riffs off the idea of a hub kitchen for delivery-only service, but his company only offers food (for now, pizza) from a stable of its own brands.
Customers can order thick crust pizzas from Chubby Pie or Thick & Tasty; New York-style from Gabriella’s, Lorenzo’s or Joe’s; Chicago-style from Froman’s; etc. Vavra said although multiple brands use the same kitchen, each uses different recipes and ingredients. He said sauces and doughs are made in-house, and Family Style either creates its own recipes or licenses recipes from chefs. “We look at each brand as its own company,” he said, “Every product we put out is distinct from the other product.”
Family Style’s business model relies heavily on the growing trend of ordering food online via delivery apps. According to a 2018 data analysis by The NPD Group, sales from restaurant deliveries have grown by 20% and delivery foodservice have increased by 10% in the last five years. Almost half of all delivery orders are made online.
“If you could make convenience a liquid, I’d bleed convenience.” — Lawrence Vavra
By offering several brands as a delivery-only service, without a front-of-house operation, Family Style can offer more variety at cheaper prices. Depending the brand and on toppings, pizzas from Family Style hover around $12-$15 for a 12” pie; $18-$22 for a 18” (excluding service charges, taxes and tip). They also deliver way later than most restaurants. A sign in the Lakeshore spot lists it delivers from 4 p.m. until 2 a.m., Sunday through Wednesday; and until 4 a.m., Thursdays through Saturdays (Grubhub currently lists its delivery hours until 11 p.m.).
The reason for hosting many brands out of one place, rather than just opening a single business that offers many styles of pizza boils down to convenience. (“If you could make convenience a liquid, I’d bleed convenience,” Vavra said.)
For mobile app customer, it’s way more convenient to look at a shorter, curated menu. “Too many options on a menu is clutter, it’s exhausting, no one wants that, especially in a mobile world,” Vavra said.
What Family Style brands operate at what locations depend on what’s popular in the neighborhood. Vavra said the company will start by offering many of its brands in one place through delivery apps, testing which do best. In Oakland, although there are currently six brands at the Lake Park Avenue kitchen, eventually, the company will pare it down to just the most popular. So far, Lorenzo’s is doing best with the neighborhood. And, because the area is used to having a brick-and-mortar spot to grab slices, Family Style Co. decided to eschew its delivery-only model, soon opening as a walk-up for Lorenzo’s pies (the other brands will still be delivery-only). According to location manager, Demetrius Rienzo, Lorenzo’s will open for slices in the coming weeks.
As for the Steve Aoki connection, Vavra is a long time friend, former music manager of Aoki and co-founder of Pizzaoki. The two came up with the brand together, which serves eight pizzas named that reference the musician, all made with “lit herb-infused” dough. Although Pizzaoki may not be the most popular brand in Oakland, Vavra said they’ll probably try out the brand in Berkeley, where he thinks the student population may swing the vote in its favor. Family Style is in the middle of negotiating a deal for a space in Berkeley, as well as looking at other neighborhoods throughout the Bay Area, including Rockridge, San Francisco and San Jose.
“Our future isn’t just pizza.” Vavra said Family Style is working on developing other cuisines and will likely start testing new brands offering other types of food at their locations. “I don’t know yet what [we’ll offer] without knowing the area, what kind of cuisine that area would want.”
Over the rainy weekend, I ordered three pizzas from Pizzaoki, Gabriella’s and Lorenzo’s. Based on the photos on Grubhub of the offerings, I didn’t have high expectations of any of the pies, but I wanted to verify that each were actually distinct from the other, especially the latter two which both carry “New York-style.” To give them credit, they were all different, but as expected, I got what I paid for. Aoki’s cheese pizza took me back to my days in the LAUSD cafeteria. Gabriella’s is most ideal for feeding a gaggle of hungry kids at a sleepover party. The best of the bunch, Lorenzo’s, was decent, but unmemorable — perhaps a good thing for pizza you might be eating at 2 a.m. and regretting just a few hours later.
If nothing else, it was a reminder that convenience doesn’t a great pizza make. And because I can, I will always rather pay a few more bucks, and walk, bike or drive myself to my favorite places during normal business hours for an inconvenient, but memorable pie.
*Your address must be within the delivery zone of 536 Lake Park Ave. to order from these businesses.