What makes a really good mozzarella stick? I mean one that you dream about biting into and enjoying the creamy cheese with a nice rich marinara sauce? Big Mozz Founder Matt Gallira and Executive Chef Jimmy Warren took time out of their busy Friday as they prepared for the last Smorgasburg of the fall season to enlighten Sweet Travels on what makes Big Mozz so special.
In addition to their love of food, Matt, Chef Jimmy, and several Big Mozz staffers share a passion for crew. Having rowed in college, do you get out on the water these days?
No, not at all. My days of rowing are over for now as Big Mozz is taking up all my time.
How did you get into the culinary business and what sparked your interest in mozzarella sticks?
After graduating from Dartmouth and working in the South Sudan for a short period, I moved to Boston for a stint in sales. I quickly learned my true desire was to become an entrepreneur in the culinary industry. A foodie at heart, I decided to open Atlantic Avenue Company specializing in artisan red sauces made with ingredients such as porcini mushrooms, pancetta, and roasted eggplant. My grandmother was a wonderful cook and I always had a hand in the kitchen growing up.
Chef Jimmy, a graduate of the Institute of Culinary Education (ICE) and a Del Posto alum, joined Matt at the start to launch Big Mozz. “I really enjoy working with Matt. We work hard and we have fun. It is a great team of people we have working at Big Mozz.”
Mozzarella is the #1 most consumed cheese in the US now. We decided to focus on delivering a different level of mozzarella cheese to the marketplace. Everyone loves mozzarella sticks, but it is not something you would make at home. Hence, the foundation was built for Big Mozz.
What makes your mozzarella sticks so special?
We are committed to sourcing our cheese in a sustainable and responsible way working with local farms. Mozzarella is a stretched curd cheese. The temperature, amount of moisture and the stretching process will all determine the flavor and texture of the cheese. We have partnered with Caputo Brothers Creamery in Pennsylvania to source our ingredients. It is really important to know where your ingredients come from and how they are produced.
The Smorgasburg started back in 2011 as an offshoot of the Brooklyn Flea, a popular flea market in Brooklyn. It is open every Saturday and Sunday in three different locations in Brooklyn throughout April – November. Approximately 100 vendors are represented. How difficult is it to be accepted as a vendor at the Smorgasburg? Did you have to do “try out” with a tasting competition? Did you get help with designing your stall or is that part of the competition?
It is really competitive to get accepted into the Smorgasburg as a vendor. There is a detailed application process along with a tasting event every vendor is required to complete with only a few applicants accepted every year. There were over 300 applicants applying for a handful of slots last year. The tasting panel does review everything from your product, overall mission and business plan, to the design of your stall. In addition to the 3 locations in Brooklyn, the Smorgasburg also operates the concession stands at Central Park SummerStage and the Seaport along with Berg’n in Crown Heights.
We originally focused on mozzarella sticks only at the Smorgasburg. We would actually stretch our mozzarella cheese at the booth allowing customers to become more engaged with our process of producing the creamiest, tastiest mozzarella cheese for our cheese sticks. It was a great way to interact with our customers and bring our Big Mozz cheese stories to life. Shortly thereafter, the Smorgasburg team approached us to inquire about expanding our offerings to include pizza at the markets. This was an entirely new area for us working with dough instead of cheese and a wonderful opportunity we embraced. Our wood-fired oven pizza has been incredibly successful in the markets and now we have a 12 seat “dining bar” at the markets.
Where are your operations based? How does the shared kitchen space work?
Brooklyn FoodWorks, a shared kitchen and food incubator for entrepreneurs, opened its doors in February 2016. We moved in shortly thereafter and we really like the facility. It is a brand new operation with new equipment, plenty of space (10,000 square feet of shared kitchen space), 24/7 turnkey access, co-working services, classes, and mentoring programs. There is a host of other innovative food purveyors working here which creates a really nice and creative working atmosphere. This set-up works well for our seasonal business with respect to the Smorgasburg. During the off-season, we focus on our catering business and events. FoodWorks allows businesses to rent out space based on their specific business requirements.
How difficult is it to work with cheese and pizza dough outside in the exposed environment given the Smorgasburg is open rain or shine?
It has been a challenging but fun experience for us as we tweaked our dough recipes to withstand the humidity and high temperatures of working outdoors. Last summer, temperatures reached the high 90’s. It took a lot of work but we got it right adapting our dough recipes to withstand the environmental conditions.
The logistics of working at an outdoor market are also challenging. We have three ovens we deliver to each Smorgasburg location every morning and then we break down and return the equipment each night to a storage facility. We are also excited to be a part of the newly opened Smorgasburg in LA. We have a team of employees out West who are introducing Big Mozz to an entirely new community of foodies.
The Smorgasburg attracts 10,000 people and up to 35,000 on a good day. Do you sell out? From a planning perspective did it take awhile to get the projections right?
It is a dynamic environment, but we have really worked hard to get our projections correct as we are working with perishable ingredients and products. We do not want to have a lot of waste. Our team works diligently to ensure we consistently offer a delicious mozzarella stick or pizza each and every order.
How large is the catering and events business? You have a seasonal business with food markets (April – November). What is your focus off-season?
We have a pretty busy catering and events schedule. In fact, Jimmy is leaving tomorrow for a music festival in Florida. We have done quite a few of the music festivals, always a fun experience. Our slow season is actually a really good time from a creative perspective to work on our menus and recipes. We have grown tremendously in the last two years. It has been exciting and incredibly rewarding. We do not have any immediate plans to expand further at the moment.
I have read about a Mozz Bomb. What is it?
A mozzarella bomb is a mozzarella ball injected with fresh pesto. People love it. We have also made fresh burrata on occasions. Another favorite is the mozzarella sushi. Check out the photo on Instagram!
What is your favorite pizza flavor?
Jimmy is making a sautéed sausage, spinach and ricotta topping for our pizzas tomorrow. That is a favorite of mine!
How many pizzas are you planning for tomorrow at the Smorgasburg of the season?
We are making dough for 360 pizzas for tomorrow. We are also preparing 5,000-8,000 mozzarella sticks for the market. Our busiest day ever was 1600 orders of mozzarella sticks!
In the press, Matt was named to Zagat’s 30 Under 30 in 2015 and Big Mozz also won the 2016 Vendy Award for “Best in Market”. They have also been written up in Men’s Journal, Buzzfeed, Forbes, Gothamist, and Zagat’s. If you’re planning a party or hosting an event, contact Big Mozz or stop by the Smorgasburg to get your fill of mozzarella sticks and pizza.
On a personal note from Moira McCullough…we made it to the Smorgasburg at Prospect Park on a warm sunny day in April. Thank goodness we got there early as the lines were really long by 2:00 pm.