Here’s what might have sounded like a pretty shaky business plan for a neighborhood pizza café: “We’ll only be open one day a week. Won’t do any advertising. No prices on the menus. We’ll serve mostly what we grow in the garden – and no pepperoni. And we’ll look on this work as an ‘experiment of faith.'”
That’s what Erin and Robert Lockridge said two years ago, when they decided to open a pizza place called Moriah Pie in Norwood, a small town part of greater Cincinnati.
The better days in Norwood, an old neighborhood of two-story houses with porches, came to a close in 1989 when the Chevrolet plant shut down. But an empty, dusty café was waiting on a street corner, and Lockridges decided to start making pizzas there.
These two shared an interest in urban farming and had been working together in Norwood. Robert was what he calls a “parish farmer” sponsored by a church. On their honeymoon, driving from Novia Scotia to Maine, they talked about what might come next.
“We stopped at … Eastport and we camped that night, and the next morning went to a very local diner,” recalls Erin. It was a busy place. And in that Maine diner, the newly married Ohio couple could see their path ahead.
“We watched all the locals come in and get their breakfast and we watched the way that the waitress behind the counter tended to all these people,” Erin says, “And it was really beautiful to watch her ’cause she was very aware of everybody there. She was almost like a pastor to them.”
Could they open a diner in Norwood? No, but there was that lonely café, just down the street from their house. What about pizza and what about just one night a week?
“Everybody loves pizza,” says Robert, “And we can be creative with the pizza. There are fruit trees — a lot of people don’t want that fruit so we can make fruit pies [for dessert]. Imagination started to come together at that point.”
Fruit pies and carrot cake. A spicy shredded cabbage salad. Pizza by the slice. Iced tea. You could bring your own beer and wine. The Lockridges were looking at taking on the challenge of making great food, keeping it it local and making enough money.
“We wanted to grow the food ourselves, because we find that to be an act of prayer, an act of making sense in a world that sometimes doesn’t make sense. It involves our bodies and it grounds us in a good way,” says Robert.
Robert and Erin are 34 and both did graduate work in Christian studies. Before the café, they already had five big gardens around the neighborhood. With the café, they especially wanted to cook for the older Norwood families, who’d been there for generations.
“We’re here every day and we’re walking up and down the street, 20 times a day sometimes with crates of tomatoes and sometimes with wheelbarrows and sometimes with plates of food,” says Erin. “People see us and they see that we work hard and they are hard-working people as well, and they’ve started to come through the door of the café and eat the pizza even if they would prefer to have pizza with meat.”
On Fridays, their café becomes Moriah Pie. They start serving at 4:30 p.m. and it’s now been open for 100 Friday nights. On one night, Robert preps the pizza toppings while he describes their selections: “This is for the fajita pizza, which we marinade peppers, squash and zucchini and onions in a cumin-cider vinegar, and then we put it on a homemade salsa sauce.”
Meanwhile Erin’s job is the whipped cream for the mulberry pie, greeting everyone and taking the orders from the servers. She also collects the money, which can be iffy: No prices are set at Moriah and at the end of the meal customers get a cloth envelope. They can put in what they like, or as some do, put in change or nothing.
There are only a few signs that the café has a purpose beyond pizza. In the kitchen just before opening, Robert gathers the Moriah staff for a prayer. On a windowsill out in the dining room there’s a bible and a prayer book.
It’s Erica Beartie and Robert Ryan’s first time at Moriah Pie. They only live three blocks away but hadn’t really noticed it before.
“The love that they put into it, you can taste that,” Ryan says. “And it’s so fresh. And you can taste how fresh it is,” chimes in Beartie. It’s amazing that it’s “grown right down the street,” says Ryan.
Nathan Myers is at Moriah Pie most Fridays, with his young family. “We were just enfolded into the community. We’re interested in urban poverty and racial reconciliation and so this community has provided that opportunity for us to find those relationships,” he says.
At Moriah Pie you’ll see young families, older couples. Most everyone is from right in the neighborhood. And kids, sitting at tables with no parents, just other kids. Erin loves the interaction, it’s what she’d hoped for. But she worries the pizza café might be seen only as a trendy, cool place to be. She believes other people have other stories and all should be welcome. They usually come later, as the evening darkens.
“We have had people come in who are drunk,” says Erin. “One time a man came in who was clearly drunk and he was carrying a chain saw trying to sell it to us. And I think it made some people a little uncomfortable but as long as he was not causing a scene or being inappropriate, I’m not going to ask him to leave.”
The café closes at 9:30 p.m. Erin and Robert have a lot of cleanup work. Sometimes, Erin says, when you get tired at the cafe you can start feeling insignificant and hidden.
“We have worked our butts off all week and all year to grow this food,” says Erin. “We get up early; Robert is out sometimes at 4:30, five o’clock in the morning to water the crops so they don’t die in the heat of the summer. And nobody’s thinking of that when they’re eating the pizza or when they’re taking a stack of pizzas home for their boyfriend who won’t come because he’s high.”
Yet, she also writes in an email, “It is after midnight when we leave. We touch each other’s backs as we walk home, buoyed by the music of crickets and the thought of splitting a cold beer. We are quiet; we are thankful.”
Erin and Robert have found they can make a living from their work on Fridays. They rent the café and pay their help. They own their house, share a car with a neighbor and take vacations.
The unlikely pizza café business plan we mentioned earlier? It actually works.