Miriam Weiskind Serves Up Creative Pies And Brings Joy Through The Za Report
Miriam Weiskind is a New-York based pizza connoisseur who started The Za Report during the pandemic and built up major media buzz by baking apartment pizzas and giving them away to anyone who need a hot meal. She likes to say she's just a small town girl from Dayton, Ohio, who moved to NYC in 2004 on a coin toss and a few hundred dollars in her pocket. Little did she know that her calling would be pizza. For the last eight years, she spent every Friday leading 16 strangers around NYC on the greatest tour NYC offered—the tour that retraced the footsteps of the evolution of pizza, it’s history and teaching the science behind cheese, sauce and crust. In 2019, she started baking pizza at home, she and quickly got a job at a pizza place to learn the ropes. Once Covid hit, she turned her passion into purpose by making 12 pies a night to give away. She encourages everyone to have a "Slice Day," and no, she's not kidding. Listen in to hear her truly inspiring entrepreneurial story and the twists and turns in her journey, plus how she comes up with her creative pies.
Below is an edited transcript from our conversation with Miriam.
Andrew: Everybody, welcome back to Stickers on the Mic, Andrew with you here once again, and I'm dialing in Miriam Weiskind from Brooklyn, from The Za Report. Miriam, welcome.
Miriam: Hello, slice to meet you. [laughs]
Andrew: That's right. Slice to meet you too. It has been enjoyable engaging with you and your brand on Instagram through StickerGiant in our channels and I just had to reach out and talk to you because you have quite a story. Give us your pizza story before we get to your sticker story. Obviously, your story is pizza. Tell us about The Za Report.
Miriam: The Za Report originally, it was this pizza review thing I started about 10 years ago, because I had my own design company. I specialize in brand strategy and marketing and I became a freelance art director and took on a side job doing pizza tours in New York City. Quite possibly the cheesiest best paid hobby on the planet. I would spend every Friday taking 16 strangers around, teaching them the complete evolution and history of pizza. The best part was they were taking advice from a girl who was from Ohio and it's always fun to be like, "Do you guys really trust me? because I cut my pizza in squares and they do wedges here in New York?" I worked to help build up Scott's Pizza Tours for eight years, and then I decided that I wanted to pursue pizza a little bit more and I traded six figures for minimum wage and started working in some of my favorite pizzerias in New York in order to learn the craft and the trade and if I could maybe become like a pizza consultant and do pop-ups. I don't know. At the time I was like, "Eh, sky's the limit."
The first pizzeria to take me under their wings was Pauli Gee's. He is like, "When can you start?" Within the first night I was able to fire up a pie in his thousand degree oven and he's like, "I'd like to offer you a paid apprenticeship." I was like, "Sold." With that, I was there for about two months. I was leading corporate pizza tours for Scott's Pizza Tours, the pandemic hit, we all got shut down. A lot of New York we were stuck inside, told not to go outside. I know we were hit the hardest initially. I started baking pizzas out of my apartment just to keep myself busy and then my mom was like, "Oh, maybe you should give them away to neighbors."
I was like, "Oh, that's a great idea." To do something good with what I'm doing, because it was too much pizza for me to eat and I didn't want to blow up to 500 pounds. I put a menu up above the mailboxes and a pizza box that had a message and it said, "Hey, pizza baking makes me happy.
I know a lot of us have lost our jobs, enjoy a free pizza on me to help make your days a little bit easier," because most people in the building had lost their jobs. There was an EMT, there was an elderly woman. I figured this was my way to help out. Somebody outside of the building was like,
"Can I help pay for supplies? I'll pay a pie forward. I want to buy the pizza for the elderly woman on first floor every week." I was like, "Sure."
Other people outside of the building started wanting to see if they could get pizza and I started documenting everything on Instagram, and I would do these things called Live at Five where people would just watch me bake pizza from my apartment. I would say within like two months of me doing this, it gained a lot of traction and the New York Times wrote me up. Then I became this coveted speakeasy pizzeria in New York City. I'm surrounded by like five pizzerias. I would put a little TV stand with two folding chairs outside of my apartment and people can request that table. I gave one group of people that table a night and everyone will walk behind me like, "Where is that pizza from?" They're like, "The girl in the apartment upstairs."
The whole thing with the pizza is that I gave it away for free to anyone who lost their job because, at the time, a lot of New York was unemployed. First responders and essential workers. I literally was trading pizza with people working at Key Foods in order to get extra amount of cheese, because there's like, "Oh, only four per family." Then anyone who was just feeling depressed. A lot of people had a lot of emotional-- It's like we all were emotionally very challenged at that time. I found that giving somebody a free pizza could boost their morale and give them something to look forward to. The Live at Five that I would stream on Instagram, I found that that gave people something to watch. It was going well, my parents live in Ohio and my mom had to go to the hospital for a procedure.
That was kind of went wonky, had to go back for a major surgery. At that time, she and my father both came home with COVID. By the time my brothers and sister and I realized that my parents had COVID because my dad's like, "Oh, I can't taste peanut butter," and my mom's sounded awful. I'm like, "You guys both have COVID, you need to go get tested." Within that 24 hour period, my mom had to be rushed to the hospital because she couldn't breathe and she was delirious and she was on a ventilator for five weeks and then she succumbed to it. It was very hard for us, very hard for me. During that time, those five weeks I would bake for my dad before all my Live at Fives, just to like give him some hope and distract him.
Then on the actual day that my mom passed, I had 25 pizza pickups and I couldn't cancel. I'm like, nobody knew that day. It was August 21st, 2020. Nobody knew that my mom passed, but I still made a point to bake all these pizzas and she would tell me like, "You need to give people the pizza." I would say it was like, do good, be good to your neighbors. Every pizza I bake is in honor of my mom. She never got to try it, which is hard. Even when we went home for her funeral we couldn't go near my dad because he had COVID too. It was tough. I waited and waited and then finally I was able to drive back to Ohio and bake pizza for my dad for the first time and he's like, "You're not my child." He's like, "Your mom would be so proud."
I've had a lot of good, I'd say, I don't want to call it fortune in the monetarily speaking, but fortune in gratitude and generosity. I was able to transition out of my apartment into a restaurant that was given to me for two days a week and I could do whatever I want and sold out every single night I was doing that. Now I am popping up with local businesses just on the weekends doing big events. I've got a couple of hundred people that will line up for pizza 30 minutes before my oven is even on. I guess the pizza tastes good.
Andrew: [laughs] Yes, right.
Miriam: It's funny. People go nuts over my Sicilian pizza and I created this viral pizza. It's called the Baby Butter MJ because at the time the Michael Jordan documentary was on and I was sent a very long pan and I made a red top pizza and the dimensions were 23 inches. It took 23 hours to make this pizza, and then I went on eBay and bought all these vintage Michael Jordan cards.
People were like, "You're insane to give it out with every [unintelligible 00:07:41] Everyone thinks it's insane that I give them out with every single Michael Jordan pie. This is the cheesy Valentine and they're from 1990s. People pick up pizza and they're like, "You know this is almost 32 years old." I have people that would collect them, but so, long story short, I'm also doing these out of Ooni ovens now.
I am in now in the process of opening my own pizzeria. The other really fun fact about what I'm doing aside from honoring my mom's memory is that there are only seven pizzerias owned by women out of the 2,500 in New York City and I'm gunning to be number eight. Just to be able to bake pizza in a space where people that need a meal can always come, people can pay pies forward and people can just show up at my pizzeria and they sit down and they get a free meal as an act of kindness from other people. It's all to honor my mom because she was a do-gooder, she did so much for community to help others. My dad's like, "You're a spitting image of her." Yes, that's my story in nutshell and I'm still writing chapters.
I discovered you guys through the restaurant, it's just called Number 7. They gave me their space and they had all these really cool stickers and I'm like, "Where do you get the stickers, man?" They were like, "StickerGiant." These stickers have officially become like, this is my box. One of the most coveted things that people collect and I don't give them out for free unless you're a child, and it kills me because every kid walks away with them stuck on them and the adults are, "You're wasting the sticker." [chuckles]
Andrew: Yes. That's funny, because I saw you tagged us on Instagram. You're using the stickers to give away to kids right now?
Miriam: Yes. Then my Kickstarter that I'm launching in two weeks, every donation is going to get a thank you card plus I have to order more stickers plus it's bigger. I'm a huge sticker collector. For me, when I came up with this design, the whole thing is like, I'm very cheesy. The sticker says "Have a slice day." People instantly light up. Even like passing, I'll walk in and I'll say, "Slice to meet you." People were like, "Did she just say that?" Then my friends were like, "You know they don't know that you're a pizza person." I was like, "Yes, it's okay. It's going to stop them in their tracks." I always tell people, "Have a slice day." They're like, "Yes, thank you." It makes them smile, and that's the whole point is like, creating pizza, creating memories, and bringing happiness to people in their lives.
Andrew: That's awesome. That's fantastic. When it comes to especially the Neapolitan pizza, there is a very strict certification, ingredients, process. I don't know if you're going down that road. You don't have to do that of course, right? That's the style looks like you're doing as a Neapolitan. I love Sicilian pizza as a Sicilian myself. I like the thick crust. I'm from Chicago, so deep dish is my passion. That's my passion, but you can't really get that out here and it's all chains. Anyway, enough about my pizza story.
Miriam: I love deep dish. Don't get me wrong.
Andrew: Yes, it's so good.
Miriam: 15 grams of protein in one slice. It's great for recovery if you're an ultra runner.
Andrew: That's what you said you do, so that probably helps. You're working with Ooni like you said. You also have other partners. You got Breville, Baking Steel. How did you line up these purveyors to put all this stuff together? It's called the [unintelligible 00:11:22] thing, and the story's amazing. At the end of the day too, you're like, "I'm running a business now." You have to have materials, and hardware, and a plan. You got a plan it sounds like. How are you going to grow this thing? Your marketing obviously is good because you went viral, you got the Baby Butter MJ, you got good stickers, you got a good Instagram. That following in a year at 16,000 people is a pretty fast growth. What is the growth look like, and how do the partners fit into all that?
Miriam: Breville, their PR company loaned me some ovens, and that's how I was able to transition from 4 pies a day to 20. It would take about, all set and done, three minutes to make a pizza in that oven, I have two of them. They helped me out with that. Then Ooni wrote to me and they're like, "We love what you're doing. We're sending you an oven." I'm like, "Let's be real. I live in Brooklyn, New York. Do you know what that means? That means that I can't just put an Ooni on my fire escape." I really wanted to work with that company because they represented a lot about-- There is a lot of similarities in what we do for our community.
Ooni really encourages home pizza bakers to just give it their best, and to have fun, and to really embrace the product. As a whole, everyone that I met in the company was just really nice, and the core values align with mine. I found a way to make it work where I would book outdoor venues, and I could use their ovens. My pizza completely transformed, and I became the official Ooni speakeasy in Brooklyn, New York. The way that I'm working with-- Even the pepperoni, so it's from Columbos, Ohio. I'm from Ohio. Every single ingredient, and everything I use, there's a reason for it. It's not just arbitrary because somebody said to do it. The pepperoni is from Columbus, Ohio, and that pepperoni was used on some of my favorite pizzas growing up. It's a really, really high quality pepperoni, and you only find it in some of the top pizzerias in New York City.
The owner would ship me boxes of it to use for my-- I bake 5,000 pizzas out of my apartment, which is insane because I live in a tiny-- Literally, this apartment might be 300 square feet. It's tiny.
I should've actually written to Guinness Book of World Records and like, "Can I get a world record for the most amount of pizzas baked out of a shoe box in New York City?" He would send me pepperoni. Partanna would give me oil, Stanislaus, which is the tomato company. The rep would drop off boxes to me. Everybody was paying it forward, so I can keep giving away free pizzas. Stanislaus was a tomato that was used on my favorite pizza as a kid growing up. Grande, which is a cheese. They were used on my pizza. Lioni is a cheese out of New Jersey. Love their cheese. I know them personally. There was a reason for everything. Even the way I got my flour when I started was I went to a pizzeria, and the owner gave me a clear plastic bag full of flour.
Imagine this, here comes this girl walking down the street carrying a clear plastic bag of white powder. I was like El Chapo or I should be La Chapa, walking down the street with what must have been like 70 kilos of Caputo flour. There's a story behind everything I'm using, and those are the companies I continue to work with. I am incorporating Breville and Ooni into the brick and mortar that I open up, because I'm going to offer a pizza school for home bakers. They get a two-day workshop. One day, they learn how to make dough, and all the basic fundamentals of pizza making. Second day, they actually get to use the equipment. What I found is the most important thing is showing somebody and letting them use the equipment, so that they can then buy it and take it home. Those are brands I'm partnered with them, and I'm continuing to support them because I believe in them.
For New Yorkers, electric ovens are great because you can use them indoors. If you happen to be lucky, and you have an outdoor space, that Ooni oven, their Koda 16 is amazing. You can fold it up and put it in a closet. I keep one in my car all the time. Then for Sicilian pizza, I use like an old dingy oven. I have two pieces of baking steel in there, and that's the other like-- Yes, so these are all companies that I work with because they really are superior products. At the end of the day, we're all a community. Breville loves Ooni, and Ooni loves Breville. They do different things, but they support the craft of baking pizza.
Andrew: Yes, they're very different. Ooni follows me all around Facebook. I've been on this website before.
Miriam: We need to do some Ooni stickers.
Andrew: I like their product. If I could build my outdoor pizza space here in my backyard, it would-- They're very compact looking.
Miriam: Yes. Why don't you just go and get one. You need propane [unintelligible 00:16:14]. You can use the wood. Literally, it'll just go-- You can slide it under the bed.
Andrew: Yes. These are very, very cool products. I'm glad to hear you endorse them so highly. We've covered a lot of ground. Rarely, I'll have you know that I am not asking very many questions. You are filling in aLl the blanks here.
Miriam: You ask me about VPN certified Neapolitan pizza.
Miriam: My pizzas what I call Neapolitan-ish.
Andrew: That's what I wanted to clarify because I know that I've researched it.
Miriam: Yes, there's neo and there's nea. Neopolitan is like the new age. Neapolitan is what Americans do in Neapolitan pizza. I don't believe I need to have a VPN certification to make some of the best pizza in the world. I feel that what makes a good pizza is the quality ingredients, the pizza baker, and the love they put into it. My technique and my craft is a combination of things that you see in Neapolitan pizzerias. More or less, I have my own styles and techniques. I slap the dough open, but I toss it. If you were VPN certified, you don't toss that dough. You know what? It makes people smile so I toss it. Occasionally, I drop it. It happens.
The shop I'm opening, it's going to have dine-in. There's going to be table service for the Neapolitan pizza or the Neapolitan-ish. I'm alternating, so I have nights when it's Sicilian, and that's takeout. We're going to be alternating the styles you can get. It's not either, or, or both. You have to come in for the night to get that specific type of pizza. My Sicilian is like a New York Sicilian with a slight Detroit influence on it. I do crazy things on these little 6x6 pans, where you'll get-- I do Frito pie pizza. Where I basically recreate the Frito pie on this little 6x6. Cut into six little bites, and then I put Skyline chili on it, which [unintelligible 00:18:16]
Andrew: I know Skyline chili. You can get them here too, but that's one of my-- I love Skyline chili.
Miriam: Yes. On a pizza though? People were like, "Wow." I'm like, "Just don't look at it before it does on the pizza," but it's like magic on there.
Andrew: God, Skyline chilis are delicious.
Miriam: I'm doing a pop-up Saturday, I'm teaming up with a bar for Oktoberfest. They're like, "Can you do an Oktoberfest pizza?" I was like, "Are you kidding me? An excuse to use beer cheese? Heck, yes." Every single pop up, I do a pizza where it's completely different like people never had it before. I just design a new pizza. This one is going to be-- It's the Neapolitan-ish pizza, so it's wood-fired. It has provolone and then it has crumbled bratwurst. Post-bake, it gets the sauerkraut, and then they get a little cup of beer cheese to dip their warm crust in. I'm like, "That's Oktoberfest for you."
Miriam Weiskind Serves Up Creative Pies And Brings Joy Through The Za ReportThat's awesome. You got the Belle Margherita, the Hands Up Pepperoni, the Cheese Hater, the Truffle Amore, the Yum Yum Hawaiian. You got this Off the Record, and then you're talking about that Baby Butter MJ one too. Then you got the New York cheese, New York pepperoni, and then the Pub Pie. There's a lot of options for people too, right? Nutella, even smores, Cookie Monster.
Miriam: The smores is crazy good.
Andrew: Really? You were able to keep it classic, but then do this fashion forward tastes too. Whether it's Oktoberfest or smores.
Miriam: Yes. Last week, we did a-- The place I popped up at, their chef is from Trinidad. I was like, "You're going to give me one ingredient, and I'm going to create a pizza with it." She gave me a pulled brisket. It was a Trinidadian pulled brisket. I put that on a pizza with fresh mozzarella, some pickled garlic red onions. Then I did jalapeno and then post bake. In honor of my dad, I did Sweet Baby Ray's Barbecue Sauce swirl. It was a phenomenal pizza. He's just like, "I can't believe you took the brisket and did that with pizza." Then people are like, "I can't believe you put brisket on pizza" and I'm like, "It's all about magic."
That's one that we call Off the Record. It's like you don't have a choice, you have to take what it is. It only backfired on me in a good way once. Some girl comes to the pop-up and goes, "I don't want the Off the Record that I just saw someone get," and it was the smores. I was like, "Well, you're limited." She's like, "Well, I'll take a vegetarian pizza. Whatever vegetables you have, just put them on."
Now, at the time, I was in a restaurant that had just shut down and they were moving. I was still using this space but there was nothing in the walk-in. I said, "Okay, I'm going to make you a pizza with whatever I find in the walk-in." The result was, and this is the Ohio in me, I created a classy version of Papa John's Pizza. She got the six cheese New York blend with minced garlic all over it, and then post bake, it got banana peppers all over it. Then I put a cube of cold butter right in the middle.
As it melted, you could dip your pizza and you dip your crust into it, but it was like, this is garlic butter at its best. That's why we call it like the rendition of Papa John's Pizza. That pizza is now called the Austang because one of my brothers is a huge Mustang fan, his name's Adam so kind of poke fun at him a little bit, and he also loves Papa John's and the pepperoncini so that pizza has become his.
Everyone in my family has a nod to them. The Cheese Hater is now called the Racheese Hater because my sister's name is Rachel and she always asks for no cheese, but they all have a little nod to them.
Andrew: Nice. It's awesome. From family start to finish really, that's really awesome. Especially in a year that was so hard, you clearly not only created some buzz, but you did some good. I think that's pretty admirable, so thank you, Miriam, and good luck in this pizza journey that you're charting here.
Miriam: Thank you. I'm going to continue to have the StickerGiant stickers always accessible. I get to a point one day where it's like, "Here's your check and a sticker." Stickers are the best way to promote yourself. I feel fortunate to have found you guys because it's become such a huge tool for my marketing, and I recommend you to everybody else now too.
Andrew: That's awesome. Thank you for that. Folks, we say this on the show every time, every sticker has a story, today it's Miriam's, The Za Report sticker stories. She's given out to kids who are at the pop-ups in Brooklyn and the various events, and the future storefront that you're going to develop. A very exciting growth story for you, and we'll be following closely, and good luck as you start the brick and mortar world too, right?
Miriam: Yes. Thank you for having me.
Andrew: It's our pleasure. Good luck from 5,000 pizzas in your shoebox apartment to however many tens of thousands of pizzas to the fans of New York who are excited about your brand, so congrats to you. Thank you, everybody, as always. Andrew, it's my pleasure to be here and share these stories with everybody. Be good to each other, and we'll see you next time.
Miriam: Pizza out.
Andrew: Pizza out.