One of Houston’s most well-regarded food trucks will realize its brick and mortar dreams thanks to one of the city’s most accomplished hospitality veterans.
Pi Pizza will be the first new concept from former F.E.E.D. TX (Liberty Kitchen, BRC) partner Lee Ellis, via his new company Cherry Pie Hospitality. The restaurant will take over the space previously occupied by Ogden Hospitality’s Funky Chicken. Plans for renovations to the space have been submitted to the City of Houston for approval with an eye on a fall opening. It joins dessert shop Petite Sweets and Lee's Fried Chicken and Donuts under the Cherry Pie umbrella.
Ellis tells CultureMap that his history with Pi Pizza owner Anthony Calleo goes back more than seven years to when Calleo was selling commercial real estate. About a year-and-a-half ago, Ellis introduced Calleo to investors who wanted to help Calleo open a restaurant, but the deal never came together. When he left F.E.E.D. TX to start Cherry Pie, Ellis says he contacted Calleo about working together.
“He’s a good fit for us, and I wanted to give him a break,” Ellis explains. “He’s been busting his ass for a long time in that truck. It’s a miserable fucking life trying to survive in a truck. It’s really hard to make money in a truck.”
Calleo has talked about wanting to find a brick and mortar location for Pi Pizza several times throughout the years. When he closed his Sandy Witch Sandwich Company inside Grand Prize in 2014, Calleo said it was to focus on opening a restaurant. This location keeps Calleo in close proximity to both the following he built when serving in Montrose at Catbirds and in the Heights at Johnny's Gold Brick.
“When (Ellis) approached me with this, it was the right fit. He’s always been there, in the background, interested in what I was doing,” Calleo explains. “I felt like there was a sincerity there I could believe in, and he’s got a hell of a track record. He knows what he’s doing. I can learn a lot from the people who are part of that group.”
The good news for Pi Pizza fans is that the restaurant’s menu will be similar to what’s made the truck successful, specifically Calleo’s use of as many high-quality, housemade ingredients as possible. A few staple pizzas will always be available, and seasonal options will rotate on and off quarterly. Calleo says he’s optimistic that being able to make and rest his dough in a climate-controlled environment will further enhance its flavor.
Both the meatball and the chicken parm sandwich from the Sandy Witch days will return. Calleo also has plans to supplement the pizzas with starters and salads.
“There’s no reason not to do salads,” Calleo says “We have all these really great ingredients that go on pizza. You take them off dough, you put them in a bowl, you rearrange them correctly, you have a really good salad.”
Triniti veterans Rob Harvey and Laurie Sheddan Harvey are handling Cherry Pie’s beverage program. Look for Pi Pizza to offer draft wine, craft beer, and frozen cocktails.
At some point in the future, Ellis says he’s going to pull Calleo’s truck off the streets to allow him to work with Cherry Pie culinary director Jim Mills on developing the systems and procedures necessary to make the transition to a restaurant kitchen. The exact date when that will take place is still up in the air, but Ellis emphasizes he wants Calleo to be as prepared as possible for the transition.
“Since the day we sat him down, that’s the first thing we told him. Our goal is to get you out of the truck with plenty of lead time, and more lead time than most, to work on this,” Ellis says. “We feel like we’re going to pull Anthony out of this — to give him the opportunity to really see and get some education under his belt.”
Turning to the future, the Funky Chicken space isn’t the only former Ogden Hospitality property that Cherry Pie has taken over. Ellis says he’s also working on a new concept for the former home of Bradley’s Fine Diner but says the specifics, including the name and the menu, are still pending approvals from the landlord and others. Those details will emerge in time, but, for now, Ellis says he’s focused on getting Calleo open and helping him grow Pi Pizza.
“One of the things we think with Anthony: We’re super-excited about doing this project,” Ellis says. “We’re excited about the fact that I think this is something that could be expanded. I think Anthony’s product and the marketing we’re going to give him is going to have some good wheels on it that can go other places.”