Welcome to Breaking Bread, the interview series that highlights key people in the sourdough scene! In today’s post, I talk with Kristian Tapaninaho, founder and CEO of Ooni. Kristian invented the first-ever portable and affordable home pizza oven in 2012 with his wife Darina Garland, and Ooni has grown year after year ever since.
Today, Ooni employs 100 people and their focus remains on creating high-quality high-temperature pizza ovens for home bakers all around the world. Here, we discuss how Ooni pizza ovens were born, the importance of personal connections and partnerships, and Kristian’s own personal experience with sourdough baking.
This post contains affiliate links. For more information, see my disclosures here.
So Kristian, how did you get into pizza making in the first place?
In the 90’s, my mom used to run a bakery for about five years or so when I was young, and she’s always been a great cook and great baker at home. She is still today! When we’re there in the summer, she’ll wake up really early and bake some bread. So baking has always been around in my home.
Back in 2010, my wife and I got married and then soon after I started getting into making pizza. I don’t know exactly where it came from, but I got pretty into it and wanted to get better at it all the time. Late 2010 became a lot of Friday night pizza nights, and make your own pizzas. Plus, I’ve never been super into takeaway pizza. Standard takeaway pizza is not to my taste, really. I wanted to make great pizza at home.
The thing about pizza is that it’s very quick to make pretty good pizza at home, so you can feel your progress pretty quickly, but then there’s such incredible depth to it, to really perfect it. It keeps on giving as you get better at it.
And that’s how Ooni was born: as I was getting better at making those pizzas, I was like, “There’s got to be a better way of doing it.” I was reading about traditional wood-fired ovens and how pizza was made in Italy. I learned that the temperature is an incredibly important part of baking pizza. It’s one of the variables that if you don’t get it right, it changes the product. It’s like telling somebody to cook a steak without using a screaming hot frying pan or grill. It just doesn’t do the same thing. You can’t exchange time for temperature.
I started looking into if it would be possible to create something that doesn’t cost a few thousand dollars to have built as a permanent fixture, like a backyard pizza oven. And, as I couldn’t find anything like that on the market, I then decided to make it from scratch.
I’ve always had great interest in product design and engineering. I studied photography, so I have a creative background in that way. I wanted to be a photographer or an artist at one point, but I just didn’t go that way. My wife and I started another business soon after we graduated, and that entrepreneurial part of me took over then. I’m always thinking, “Is there an opportunity here? Is there something that could be done better in this field?”
I see a lot of home bakers who struggle to make sourdough pizzas in their home ovens. How does Ooni make home pizza making easier?
Ooni gets really hot. That was the unique part that we started with. With your home oven you’re maxing out at about 450 degrees Fahrenheit. We can get to 950 degree Fahrenheit, so more than twice the temperature of your home oven. What high temperature does in pizza is that, rather than trying to slowly cook it, the dramatically increased temperature helps it cook faster. The steam forms in a different way inside and you get those puffy crusts because the steam expands and pulls the gluten up, and this creates the beautiful visual that you get on the pizza.
So, that’s where we started in the beginning. We said, “Okay, let’s start with the really high temperatures and then work backwards from there, and enable people to do a lot of different types of pizza.” So, if you want to make a great New York style pizza, you’re still going to need to be around the 600 degrees Fahrenheit level, which is still outside of reach of a normal domestic oven. It’s the ability to reach those temperatures that makes home pizza making easier.
Then the second part is the experience. It’s that this is a thing. It actually becomes an event in your weekly calendar that says, “Hey, let’s fire up the Ooni. Let’s get it really hot and get everybody involved.” So this becomes a centerpiece of that experience for our community to gather around. We know that this is what happens for our customers and we know that it happens in a very different way than it does with barbeque, for example. You could argue that barbeque is kind of a sharing experience, where people gather around. But barbeque is quite masculine in that it’s usually the man doing the grilling, and it’s quite meat-heavy. But pizza is such an incredible platform for sharing food, and also for building for each person’s own dietary requirement. For example, my wife is vegan and I’m not. The kids and I eat everything, basically. But we can all still participate in the cooking and building and creating of those foods together.
The Leavenly community is built around families and how they’re a big part of the sourdough journey. I see your two sons featured among the pizza pictures on your Instagram account (@tapaninaho). How have your boys impacted your pizza and business journey?
It’s quite funny. They’re still young, and they’ve really grown with Ooni in many ways. Our oldest son, who’s almost 10 now, was a year and a half old when Ooni was launched on Kickstarter in late 2012. And then, our other son was born about two months after Ooni was first shipped to customers worldwide.
So, they’ve both grown up with Ooni always being around. It’s sort of like how I grew up in a family business back home in Finland. From about age eight I was stacking shelves and working there, doing my best. So, that’s nice. I am looking forward to them being able to be a little bit more involved and doing things. They already are as they get older.
They’re really into making their own pizza. And they’re quite critical actually! There have been times when we’ve been doing some sauce testing, for example, and we’ve had some sauce samples and one of them was scraping it off because it wasn’t quite perfect. They’re tough critics! If you don’t nail it, you’ll hear about it.
It’s been fun, especially over the last 11 months. Our schools here are closed again I think for another month or so, so they’re home and they’re cooking. Cooking becomes a bit more of a social thing because they’re around, and I mean, who doesn’t love pizza? It’s a really, really fun thing to get them involved in.
What kind of pizza do you like best in the Ooni?
My favorite go-to is probably Napoletana. So, you’ll have red marinara sauce topped with anchovies, capers and black olives and a little bit of olive oil. I don’t get to have it very often because nobody else around in the house likes it! I don’t want to open anchovies all the time just for myself. So, I need to wait for there to be somebody else who wants to eat it with me. I like the sharp tastes, the saltiness of the anchovies. I think they get a bad rap. People have preconceptions of anchovies, but if you just think of them as really salty fish, I think it’s really nice. And you can make such a simple pizza with them because you’ve got all these flavors coming on their own. You don’t even need cheese on it.
Just before the lockdown began in March last year I was in Chicago and I had this awesome fennel sausage pizza. Ever since I’ve been thinking about how to make fennel sausage from scratch so that I can have that pizza again!
I kind of want to try a pizza with anchovies now! Have you ever made sourdough pizza dough?
I’ve had a sourdough starter before, but then too much time passes where I don’t feed it. And it’s like, “Okay, that’s not going to come back!” We’ve got a guy at work, Mike, who’s our head of engineering. He’s really big into sourdough and he’s on Instagram (@rosehillsourdough). I do taste his pizzas occasionally and they’re really nice. I went through a spell of making sourdough rye bread in the summer, and that was great fun. Sourdough seems like it takes more effort than it actually does!
Talk about the impact Ooni has made with home bakers around the world, and what do you see for the future of Ooni and its fans?
We really feel fortunate in that we can connect people who get into pizza making, and being that one brand that does that. The pizza making industry used to be quite disparate. It used to be like, something’s here and something’s there, and wasn’t really connected very well. And we’ve always been about this idea of democratizing it. I mean, this is something that used to cost a couple of thousand dollars, and our products start at $299, which is within reach for most people.
It’s funny to look back at this now because in 11 years, the pizza industry – at least in the UK – has come a long, long, way. It really feels like it was completely different 10 years ago. Today we’ve got a chain called Franco Manca that uses sourdough, or there’s Pizza Pilgrims in London, and these places just weren’t that big of a thing about 10 years ago.
So, we really feel fortunate in being the centerpiece of the home community when it comes to baking, but also the wider community around pizza making. And also being able to show people the variety of different types of pizza.
In a recent interview, you said that good things come from connections with other people. I saw that Ooni just did a sweepstakes partnership with King Arthur. How does partnering with different people and brands fit into Ooni’s strategy?
It’s about connecting with different communities. King Arthur Flour has an incredible reach to bread makers. They do a really great job with their content and helping home bakers make great bread at home. And so, in that way, it’s a really good match for us while we create the products that people can use to bake the bread, or bake the pizza. So, it’s a nice way of connecting with the different community of bakers that haven’t necessarily heard about us before.
Besides owning an Ooni 🙂 , what’s the best piece of advice you have for people making pizza at home?
If you’re just getting started, just don’t be afraid. I think there’s something a little bit mysterious about yeast and that process, or kneading and gluten development, and these kinds of things. But you shouldn’t know the term gluten development if you’re just getting started; just get your hands in the flour and water and a bit of salt and yeast and just get on with trying it out.
One thing about pizza is that it’s the art of cooking and the science of bread making, and those two things coming together. Try to understand both sides and start there. The science of bread making is interesting because it’s baker’s percentages and it’s time and it’s temperature, and then it’s also the art and the craft of kneading your dough. So, just watch a ton of YouTube videos and try these things for yourself!
But I would always recommend to keep note of what you’ve done, of temperatures, of time, because you can go back to it afterwards and say, “Well, I liked this dough or this pizza because I did these things, and here are the things that I would try differently next time.” I think it’s really good to follow a recipe, start from that, and then elaborate on it, and be very cognizant about what you’re trying and why you’re trying those things.
So, my go-to tip for beginners is to just try it! You’re really not going to mess things up too badly. It’s really easy to get some great results. And that’s the way to learn.
Follow Ooni on Instagram @oonihq for tons of pizza making inspiration! Kristian says they love hearing from home bakers and pizza makers and they’ll DM you back with any questions you may have!
Check out more interviews in the Breaking Bread Series:
#1: Kristen from Full Proof Baking
#2: David Kaminer from Raleigh Street Bakery
#3: Jim Challenger from Challenger Breadware
#4: Tyler Cartner from Wire Monkey Shop