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Business Observer Friday, May 12, 2017 1 year ago

Slice of success

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Danni Bleil and Tom Baril built a buzz early on with their pizza business, run out of a 1951 Ford farm truck. Now they strive for a bigger slice.
by: Grier Ferguson Staff Writer

There hasn't been a single job Polpo Pizza Co. owners Danni Bleil and Tom Baril haven't worked themselves.

It's been almost four years since they started the Sarasota-based business, and, as Bleil says, “time flies when you're making pizza.”

Bleil and Baril take their restored 1951 Ford F5 truck on the road to serve pizza at event venues and other locations throughout Sarasota and the surrounding area. But they usually don't go farther than 30 miles from the office. That's because the truck can't go fast, and they have to avoid the interstate. Plus, trips to more distant locales take more time and eat into profit.

The husband-and-wife business team first served pizza at a wholesale event for chefs in October 2014, where Bleil says they formed instant fans. Says Bleil: “Buzz started pretty quickly.”

Today, Polpo Pizza averages five events a week during in-season months, generally from October to March, and two to three events per week during off-months.

Polpo has become known for its vintage vehicle, but it's technically not a food truck. Florida only grants mobile food dispensing vehicle licenses when cooking and preparation is done inside a vehicle's contained kitchen. Polpo's oven is on the side of the truck, so it operates as a catering company.

Polpo caters weddings, rehearsal dinners, graduation parties, birthdays and, as Bleil says, parties thrown for the sake of having a party. She says they have repeat clients who discovered them at parties or see them weekly at Polpo's two longstanding gigs — Phillippi Farmhouse Market during season and Mandeville Beer Garden in Sarasota's Rosemary District.

For two years, Bleil and Baril have driven the Polpo truck to Mandeville on Tuesday nights, when the restaurant hosts a trivia game.

“I read an article about them, and I just loved everything about them,” says Mandeville Beer Garden founder and owner Rebekah Mandeville. “I hadn't tasted the pizza at that point, but the look of the truck and the look of the pizza — I just thought they would be a good fit for Mandeville. As an added bonus, the pizza is fabulous.”

Since then, Bleil says they've doubled the amount of dough they bring to Mandeville to keep up with demand. Overall, sales are three times what they were during Polpo's first year. Bleil declines to disclose specific revenue figures.

Before they were pizza entrepreneurs, Bleil and Baril lived in New York City. Bleil was a food stylist working with celebrity chefs and major food brands. She also launched her own boutique catering company for small high-end parties. Baril was a fine-arts photographer.

With some of Baril's family in Parrish, they'd come to Sarasota on vacation, so they were familiar with the area. They were looking to do something new, and they wanted to work together creatively. “We saw pizza as a blank canvas for creative expression,” Baril says. “And we knew what we were doing would be unique here.”

Bleil trained with Roberto Caporuscio, U.S. president of the Association of Neapolitan Pizza Makers, who taught her the art of Neapolitan pizza making.

Now the duo seeks to make the leap to a permanent space, not serve only out of a truck. They are working with restaurateur Mark Caragiulo, who is behind Sarasota restaurants Caragiulos, Owen's Fish Camp and Veronica Fish & Oyster, to help find the right space.

“We were talking brick and mortar two years ago, but we wanted the catering to stand on its own two legs,” Bleil says. “Now that it's done well, we can focus on brick and mortar.”

Bleil and Baril may need to sell the truck to finance the restaurant build out. They are also looking for investors.

“We're pretty optimistic about success because the truck has a tremendous following,” Baril says. “Going into brick and mortar, that's unique. The truck has been a good jumpstart.”

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