In early fall, Dana Spandet and a crew of fellow pizza makers – all aproned, their skirts dusted with flour – are boxing pizzas from a traveling pie oven parked in the street outside Urban Sense florist in Washington Heights. They move in assembly line fashion but have a dance-like rhythm to their movements. Spandet, her trademark bandanna tied around her forehead, keeps an eye on the pies, moving quickly to remove a steaming hot pizza with a long spatula called a peel.
This whirring human machinery is Spandet’s new Flour Girl & Flame, a crisis-fueled reinvention that isn’t Spandet’s first.
The executive chef of West Allis-based Tall Guy and a Grill Catering originally found her niche cooking in restaurants but stepped away from those frenetic spaces after getting sober in 2013. At that point she was looking for a cooking gig that gave her 9-to-5 hours and a “normal” life. She was working in the kitchen at the Milwaukee School of Engineering when Tall Guy came calling.
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An emphasis on local ingredients and knowing her producers were always part of Spandet’s way of cooking, but they became even more pronounced when she joined the Tall Guy team. “She brought them to a whole new level,” says Tall Guy owner Dan Nowak. “I’m a firm believer in hiring people that are more talented than I am, and she can certainly cook circles around me.”
She also became active in the local sustainable-food community Victory Garden Initiative, where she started growing crops in a 4-by-8-foot bed. Her commitment grew from there. “Raising chickens and keeping bees came out of being sober,” she says. “I needed things that had meaning, to surround myself with things that are alive.”
When the pandemic hit, catered parties and weddings came to a screeching halt, and the Tall Guy team had to make radical shifts. Supplying community meals for The Tandem gave Spandet some perspective. “It helped give us a focus,” she says.
By this point, Spandet had developed another interest – wood-oven pizzas – and built a pizza oven, doing pop-up pies late last summer outside the Tall Guy headquarters at 67th and Lincoln. Flour Girl & Flame, as she calls the pie venture, uses ingredients from her garden, and each pie gets a signature drizzle topping of her own honey.
The pizzas were quickly taking over more and more space at Tall Guy and a Grill. Owner Nowak happily came on board as a business partner. “I know what it’s like to have people around you both supporting, and not supporting, a dream or passion you have,” he says.
Through an email with a hobbyist wood-oven pizza maker, Spandet was able to procure a trailer, changing the Flour Girl game plan. She started going on the road to pop-up locations like Zócalo Food Park in Walker’s Point, where the 900-degree oven turns out chewy, lightly charred pies in minutes. The pizzas are Neapolitan-inspired but use Wisconsin ingredients including organic heritage our.
But trailer pizzas in Wisconsin have a seasonal shelf-life. Spandet was thinking about bedding down for the winter, still keeping her eyes open for a base kitchen for Flour Girl. She found much more – a spot to house a permanent, stationary home for the ambulating pizza business. The storefront on 81st and National brings together elements of the food mission she started building with her vegetable beds and hives. The building, which will house a 15-20- seat restaurant, has a flat roof where she can relocate her beehives and is adjacent to city-owned green space where she’ll be able to grow edible flowers for the pizzas.
All of it came at a calamitous time in our culture, but from finding the trailer to the pie business’ eventual brick-and-mortar home, Flour Girl’s flame is being fed. “We’ve become hyperconscious about the purveyors we support and how we want to run our businesses,” Spandet says. “For pizzas, there are so few ingredients, we want to hit all the marks.”