The “fast-casual,” production-line pizza movement has been in full swing for a while now, but there’s only one game in the country that churns out Neapolitan pies in five minutes, and it’s based right here in Santa Barbara, with big a expansion on the way. Persona Neapolitan Pizzeria announced earlier this month that it signed a franchise agreement to open 20 restaurants in South Florida, and its owners said they’re aiming for 250 new shops in the next five years.
Occupying the old Taj Café space next to Forever 21, Persona opened on State Street in February 2013 and slings hundred of pizzas a day in a Chipotle-esque fashion that lets eaters choose their own sauce, cheese, and toppings before the custom creations are thrown into a wood-fired oven and seared for 90 seconds to keep the thin crust crispy on the outside but fluffier in the middle. There’s also a rotating selection of specialty, chef-inspired options to choose from along with salads, gelato, and local beer and wine.
Cofounder Glenn Cybulski — a restaurant industry vet and certified Italian pizzaiolo from the Bay Area — demonstrated the production-line technique by quickly building and baking Persona’s signature Margherita pizza for this hungry reporter. It was truly tasty. A columnist for Pizza Today magazine who regularly hosts demos at the annual International Pizza Expo, Cybulski met his partner Joe Baumel at one of the events.
They immediately hit it off, with Miami Beach native Baumel — who had recently graduated from the Culinary Institute of America — pitching his unique fast-casual pizza idea. Cybulski, noting there hasn’t been much change in the pizza industry since take-and-bake was introduced 30 years ago, said he was convinced to collaborate when Baumel explained he wanted to understand both the front and back workings of a restaurant.
The two settled on Santa Barbara to open their first pizzeria after checking out places like Pismo and Lo Jolla and realizing how much exposure and foot traffic the South Coast could offer. Listing off Sambo’s, the Habit, and the Egg McMuffin, the pair also lauded the area for its history of culinary innovation. Cybulski remains up north, but Baumel moved to S.B. to open the shop.
The pair developed their concept with franchising in mind but said they keep quality and taste as the business’s top priority. “We take our food very seriously,” said Baumel. “When push comes to shove, we’re chefs,” Cybulski explained. They pointed to their dough, which is made fresh every day without any sugar or oil and churned in an imported Italian fork mixer that mimics the motion of human hands. They also showed off all the ingredients that are made and prepped in-house, like croutons, salad dressing, fresh veggies, meatballs, roasted beats, and shredded chicken.
South Florida made sense for their first franchises because of its location and demographics, Baumel went on. With a lot of money and an active lifestyle, the community is expected to embrace their light pizzas, he said. Plus, Cybulski summed up, “We can definitely make pizza sexy.” The development rights were rewarded to Sager Management Group, a multi-unit franchisee that already owns and operates 20 Subway and Auntie Anne’s in the area.
For more info, visit personapizzeria.com.