Marc Schechter (right) with his portable pizza ovens at a homeless encampment in Oakland (Photo/Alix Wall)
Marc Schechter (right) with his portable pizza ovens at a homeless encampment in Oakland (Photo/Alix Wall)

Raising (pizza) dough to help homeless Oaklanders

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Marc Schechter may have been a Jewish kid growing up in Long Island, but in his household, one of the most venerated foods — at least by his father — was pizza. And a particular kind of pizza, at that.

Schechter’s father was a college student when he became a fan of Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana, a legendary pizza parlor (and tourist attraction) opened by Italian immigrants in New Haven, Connecticut, that’s been dishing out pies since 1925.

When Schechter was growing up, it wasn’t unusual for his family to take a detour from their ski trips to Vermont to stop in New Haven.

“From a young age, it was ingrained in my family that you take a lot of extra steps to get good pizza,” said Schechter, 30. It’s no surprise, then, that he became a self-described “pizza obsessive” as an adult, “to the point where it would annoy my friends and significant others,” he admitted.

Now he has taken that pizza obsession to another level.

After making pies for friends as a hobby, he honed his craft doing evening shifts at PizzaHacker in the Mission District and Pizzeria Delfina in Burlingame, which is “where my skills took off and my pizza started to get a lot stronger,” he said. Now he operates his own pizza pop-up, and he recently made pizza on-site to feed people at a homeless encampment in Oakland.

Marc Schechter's fellow chef Danny Stoller throws (and presumably catches) some pizza dough. (Photo/Alix Wall)
Marc Schechter’s fellow chef Danny Stoller throws (and presumably catches) some pizza dough. (Photo/Alix Wall)

This year, the San Francisco resident has been the force behind Pizzaman420, a pop-up operating from two locations — since March at the wine bar Vinyl in the Lower Haight (Thursdays and Fridays from 7 to 10 p.m.) and since July at Black Hammer Brewing in SoMa (Saturdays from 4 to 10 p.m.).

Schechter’s idea to make pizza for homeless people was one he’d thought about for a while. It started when he was living in Berkeley last year and had gone through a hard breakup. With extra time on his hands, he thought giving back would help him refocus and stop feeling sorry for himself.

“I lived right down the street from the Homeless Action Center, and had just bought my first portable pizza oven,” he said. But he quickly learned that setting up shop on a corner and feeding people is not so simple.

“I tried to set it up last summer but I didn’t yet have the skills, or a place to produce the dough or the right ovens… I wasn’t sure I could pull it off,” he said.

In May, with his skills more refined, he reached out to the HAC and set up a crowdsourcing campaign. He raised over $2,500 on Facebook, and then his parents and friends back East got wind of it. He ended up raising over $4,500, all of which he donated to HAC and the nonprofit Spirit of Oakland.

He also donated the cost of ingredients and his time. “That’s the beautiful thing about pizza,” he said. “From a business perspective, up to 70 percent of the dough is just water, so it doesn’t cost that much.”

Volunteers who wanted to give back — and get a free lesson in pizza-making — came from the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals, as well as the recipient homeless advocacy organizations and people who heard about it through Eventbrite.

The group made and gave away around 100 pies on Sept. 2 outside a homeless encampment in East Oakland. It is one that is allowed by the city and houses an estimated 80 people, according to HAC staff attorney Heather Freinkel. Some temporary shelters there were built by carpentry students at Laney College, she said.

The day of the event, after a volunteer training, Freinkel stressed that it was important to “have a sensitive interaction with the residents.” She also noted that there is a lot of disability within the encampment, so some of the volunteers walked the pizzas inside to offer to those who didn’t or couldn’t wait in line.

Schechter is thinking of doing the event again, perhaps in the Tenderloin, but he acknowledged that whatever joy might come with feeding the homeless is fleeting, at best.

“It’s not like I was thinking I was going to change the world with a pizza, but obviously the problem still exists,” he said. “The thing I didn’t really realize is that there’s a whole world within that encampment. For some people living there, that’s all they know.”

Though he currently works full-time in technology, Schechter hopes to turn his pizza-making into a full-time endeavor. He’s been working on a concept called Square Pie Guys with his chef friend Daniel Stoller.

Small Bite

Berkeley kosher winemaker Michael Kaye has won seven new awards for his wines, from both the California State Fair and WineMaker magazine. We wrote about Kaye late last year. This year, the California State Fair awarded him a double-gold for his ’16 Muscat Canelli Semi-sweet, a gold for his ’16 Muscat Canelli Dry, a silver for his ’15 Malvasia Dessert and a bronze for his ’15 Petite Sirah. Meanwhile, WineMaker bestowed a bronze medal for his ’16 Muscat Canelli Dry, his ’15 Malvasia Dessert and his ’15 Petite Sirah. To try his wines, email him at [email protected].

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."