Business and Operations
Smoke on the water: Nimrods’ Pizzeria in P.E.I.
How three P.E.I. entrepreneurs built a community-based floating pizzeria
By Colleen Cross
Floating in Charlottetown’s harbour amid other attractions is Nimrods’ Pizzeria. With music blasting and people dancing, it was a hit during its first summer of operation in 2019. Three young partners – Mikey Wasnidge, Nigel Haan and Jesse Clausheide – brought Nimrods’ concept to the Peake’s Quay Marina. Wasnidge walked us through the interesting process of putting a wood-fired pizza oven out to sea and creating a pizza bar and patio that draws both staff and customers to its fun-loving tropical scene from June through September.
Canadian Pizza: How did you come to operate a floating pizzeria?
Mikey Wasnidge: The Peake’s Quay Marina wanted to build a floating food court. They were really busy and they had a feeling it would work to put more businesses down there. There’s the coffee shop and office owned by the marina. There’s Zax Burgers and Shakes and there is the chip shack, which does poutine and lobster rolls, and then there’s us.
What were the first steps?
We built the building from scratch. We wanted to focus on creating that beach hut, tropical destination feel. We decided the best thing we could do was build large hatches that wrap around the entire building, build a bar around two sides of it and make a kind of tropical bar.
We weren’t able to run three-phase power so we weren’t able to run a giant pizza oven down there. Nobody will service propane on the water so we weren’t able to do a propane pizza oven. We started looking at different wood-fired options. We had to make sure it could do volume. It had to be able to hold five or six pizzas at a time. Otherwise, in such a high tourist area, we might be shooting ourselves in the foot to go too small. But it needed to be able to fit in the door of the shop. A couple of days into planning we started looking at food trucks as inspiration. In those we’d seen doing Napoli-style pizzas, the ovens were on the outside of the truck that got towed from behind. All of a sudden we realized we could put it on the outside of the building and work the pizzas from inside.
We started sourcing the oven and we found some businesses that send it modular and we build it. But we wanted something built locally and we were really lucky to find a gentleman on Prince Edward Island, John Russo, who had spent his whole career making wood-fired brick ovens. He was able to refurbish an oven he had built, replace the fire brick and the floor of it, give it a paint job and turn it around in a couple of weeks.
What were the challenges to installing the oven?
The oven weighed around 5,000 pounds, so we had to figure out how to float that. The marina replaced the wooden docks last summer with 10 by 6 PVC floating dock units and each one holds 1,100 pounds. Basically, we realized that if we had four docks tied together, theoretically it would hold it but we weren’t sure how well. We had to put the oven in a specific location so that it used all of the surrounding docks. We had a crane lift the oven down and place it onto a custom-fabricated steel frame that my partner, Nigel, built. The purpose of the frame was to distribute the weight evenly over that space rather than put it all targeted onto one dock. It was a steel frame, about a four-foot radius, the oven itself, but he was able to build a frame that distributed the weight over an eight-foot space.
The day the crane came, we had them lift the oven and set it on the dock. That was a tricky part because of the weight and the extent they had to reach. They had to position it very strategically and it was a very nerve-wracking day. There was the crane operator and four guys on the ground who were moving the oven in place once it got down and making sure it landed in the exact spot it needed to sit. Once it was sitting, you could see that the tops of the back docks were touching the water so we knew that we couldn’t leave it like that. It was basically taking down all the docks it was connected to – we could see it was making the building lean backwards. We had to get a scuba diver to take two more dock units, drill a hole in the units and fill them full of water so they could sink. Once they got to the right depth, they attached them underneath the dock, plugged the hole and pumped them full of air to give the dock something like 12,000 pounds of lift beneath it.
It was a collaborative effort between our team and the dock owners. We were always consulting with them and telling them our weights and what we were going to be doing and they were really helpful in reassuring us it should work. Once it got situated and locked into place, it didn’t move. It never really moved in the waves and we didn’t have any issues with it.
In the early days, how was the learning curve?
When we started, we had no experience in the food and beverage industry. My partner, Jesse, had spent a lot of personal time in developing the pizza. He had a real passion for making pizza dough and making pizzas from scratch. I bought a little stainless steel, wood-fired oven when we were roommates years ago. He started making us pizzas with it every day.
Because we didn’t have a food and beverage background, we didn’t know what it meant to source bulk ingredients – when to get them and who to get it from and who to hire. It was a lot of bumps along the road – a lot to learn. We worked with our buddy, Don Weir, who is an experienced chef. He helped to figure out the relationship between the prep kitchen – where we do all of our doughs and all of our topping prep. He was really helpful through every stage of that process. He’s no longer working with us but we owe him a lot. Bruce Rooney, our general manager, keeps things running every day. We leaned on Bruce really hard last summer and he made our lives so much easier, just helping in every aspect of the business – making the dough, managing the staff, figuring out the logistical challenges.
Where is the prep kitchen?
The commissary is about 15 blocks away at the Charlottetown Curling Club. The club rented out its kitchen and we have two commercial prep kitchens there that we use: one for prepping ingredients and one for prepping doughs.
Prepping involves chopping ingredients or making butter chicken or shawarma pizza. We do some specialty pizzas that require a bit more labour. We sous vide our chicken. We use good locally sourced ingredients. Every ingredient we use we try to make very good quality. When you’re charging a premium price, you want to let people know there’s value there.
What is a standout item on your menu?
We have about a dozen gourmet pizzas on the menu along with handmade pastas, local craft beer and tropical cocktails. Our lobster pizza was a hit last summer. At $22 it’s the most expensive pizza on the menu. It features fresh local lobster, sautéed sliced potatoes, a garlic cream base, mozzarella and is finished with a bright red claw on top and a sprinkle of Parmesan and chives. The idea of putting potatoes on it was a way of highlighting Prince Edward Island.
For every pizza we sold last year, we bought a meal for someone at the soup kitchen. We ended up donating about $16,000 to the soup kitchen.
How many staff do you have?
We have about 10 staff in the summer. We’ve tried to create almost a factory line where everyone does one thing. We have somebody stretching the doughs, we have somebody topping them, we have somebody cooking them, we have a person who does the finishing, a person who runs the bar and one person who’s ringing in orders and taking cash. Early in the shoulder season, you can run that thing pretty easily with two people – somebody working with the customers and somebody working with pizza. On busy summer days we’ll sell probably 250 pizzas. On days like that there are six people with their heads down doing the same thing over and over.
What is your human resource strategy?
When we first put a call out for hiring, nobody really knew what we were working on, because we kept our marina project hush-hush. We didn’t get a lot of experienced people. For the first little while, we put together this rag-tag crew of people who were really stoked to be part of it, just because they trusted we were building something cool. Throughout the summer as we grew and became busier, it was so much easier. Friends were telling their friends and they were putting in recommendations for their friends.
This year we found 90 per cent of our staff were coming back from last summer, which is awesome. We had no idea that everybody wanted to come back. We needed to hire eight or nine more people and we didn’t even have to put out a call for applications, we had so many people referring their friends and bringing people on.
We’ve eliminated any kind of hierarchy among staff. So the servers and cooks all get paid the same and they get tipped out the same. We pay above industry standard – a couple of dollars above minimum wage – which is rather unusual in the service industry. Everybody ended up making something like $25 an hour. It made it this really fun environment where some of our pizza cooks became our best servers and some of our servers became our best pizza cooks. They knew they could swap roles: if they wanted to be trained in a different position, we would train them and they wouldn’t feel like they were stepping out or down. With that and the soup kitchen donation we were making, it helped our staff feel like they were part of something unique.
Being in such a small, confined space, it really makes you calculate whether that makes sense. ‘Why is someone four feet away from me making more than I who am doing the same amount of work?’
Our staff are awesome and when we have a bit of down time, everybody is dancing, having a good time and enjoying each other’s company. I’ve worked in the service industry as a bartender and server and I can say I’ve never seen that kind of dynamic before. It’s very special.
How would you describe your business?
We’re really young – in our late twenties and early thirties. We came up going to music festivals together so that whole ‘work hard, play hard’ thing, we really embodied. I think we bring a little bit of that, but more than anything we encourage people to have fun and we empower our staff to handle situations the way they think they should be handled. When we decided to call ourselves Nimrods’, I think we set the tone that we meant to.
We have the luxury of being really small: we’re kind of a microbusiness. We don’t have a lot of overhead or huge start-up costs. We don’t have all of our futures riding on this. From Day 1 this was an experiment. I try not to be too critical of people who don’t have these standards because they have a lot riding on their business. We have a very lean start-up model, we have a very lean operational model and we’re really lucky to have this high-volume tourist area. But at the end of the day, we’re not putting all of our eggs in one basket: this is always going to be fun first, business second.
Tell us about the leadership team and what they do the rest of the year.
We have Nigel, who is a builder, we have me, who is the business development person and then we have Jesse and Bruce, who are really great, operationally gifted people.
Jesse owns a paintball course in the country – he works at different things all the time. Myself, I flip homes with my wife and do marketing consulting. Nigel is currently working with a video production software company designing hardware for their software and he also owns a snow blower company, Haan Tech. Bruce is a professional musician who is with several bands. We’re all entrepreneurial, industrious people. None of us have our full future laid out in front of us yet – we’re just doing whatever strikes our passion.
What are your plans for the future?
Nimrods’ started as a food truck that was going to sell baked potatoes in a Home Depot parking lot. It was a simple premise. Then it became a concept for a beer garden. When that didn’t work out, it became this floating pizza bar.
At this point, Nimrods’ is more like a concept than an actual location – a flexible community brand. We’re all really keen to make big moves and to take big risks and to jump on opportunities as they present themselves. That’s what our commitment to each other is – that Nimrods will always be this changing, evolving thing.
In the long term, I’d love to see a couple more seasonal outdoor restaurants. I’d love to see long-term year-round indoor restaurants/music venues. We definitely have hopes to keep this thing growing. We just don’t want to grow too fast, too soon. We’ll take it day by day.
This interview has been edited and condensed.