Pizza has taken chef Jason Winters to a lot of places. From celebrity mansions to drive-in movie theaters, to children’s birthday parties—such is the nature of his pizza business, Speak Cheezy (formerly Urban Pie), a popular mobile pizza catering company known for its wood-fired, naturally leavened sourdough pies and, more recently, its unconventional set-up: Their pizzas are baked in a van.
“Pizza goes everywhere,” Winters, 43, said. “Speak Cheezy has a lot of stories. Urban Pie too.”
But now, the roaming pizza van is embarking on a new chapter with the opening of its first brick-and-mortar, a move a decade in the making for the venerated chef and a bright new edition to the Belmont Heights area.
Speak Cheezy moved into the closed former Scratch Bakery on Fourth Street and Termino Avenue, a spot Winters said he’d had his eye on for years taking his kids to and from the elementary school across the street.
In August last year Winters spontaneously stopped by to inquire if the owner would like to sell and discovered that Scratch’s owner was retiring. Three months later, Winters penned his name on the lease.
“It was definitely a Kismet moment,” he said.
Winters is in the final stages of preparation for his new space and anticipates Speak Cheezy will see its first round of customers April 15. Once open guests can expect the same quality-focused, naturally leavened and freshly stretched sourdough pies that have made his business a regional hit, but with expanded options for catering and take-home consumption.
For eight years Speak Cheezy/Urban Pie operated out of a costly 3,400-square-foot industrial catering facility in Commerce to prepare his four-day fermented sourdough starter. Now, with his new space, he can centralize production, allowing Speak Cheezy to continue operating its vans for catering and parties and to churn-out fresh pies for locals.
His not-so-secret weapon is his new PizzaMaster electric deck oven, able to reach over 900 degrees and mimics the baking effects of a wood fire oven. Meaning Speak Cheezy’s pizzas will still be marked with the much-admired spotted, leopard-like char on the crust—a sign of a well-cooked dough—without the hassle or carbon footprint of a wood-burning oven.
“It’s kind of the Tesla of pizza ovens,” Winters said. “It’s very, very efficient and we’re not polluting the environment, there’s not fire and smoke and ashes everywhere. It’s just very clean.”
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It’s also an efficient move for business. By having his crew come in during the early morning hours to par-bake their dough, Speak Cheezy’s pizzas can be produced on demand. Winters said the par-baked pies only need two minutes in the high-powered oven before they’re ready to be boxed and doled out to customers.
At the back of the restaurant, curbside pick-up will function almost as a drive-thru, “they’re going to get their pizzas that quickly” Winters said. Patrons will also have the option to support local delivery services, such as Alley Cat Deliveries and Maritime Bicycle Courier whom Winters has partnered with.
But perhaps the most exciting part of the expansion, Winters said, is a new hybrid catering model he’s concocted, one where patrons will be able to pick-up batches of par-baked pizzas and rent a portable Roccbox oven to finish the pies on location.
“And you can do that for like $450 as opposed to $750 for the van to come out. So, it’s a whole new market for us,” Winters said, noting that this catering service won’t be available until six weeks after opening.
Winters is also hoping to make a lasting impact on how consumers approach pizza. In addition to offering par-baked pies guests can take home, Speak Cheezy will also sell frozen versions that will come with instructions on how to bake in your own kitchen. Each pizza box, Winters said, will include a QR code that guides viewers to an instructional video showing a few different baking methods patrons can play around with.
“My method is in a nonstick pan with a little olive oil. Put the pizza down, spin it, it sizzles, then you pop it under a broiler or a really hot oven for a couple minutes,” he explained of his at-home par-bake method. “So it will be easy for people to do for sure.”
A self-proclaimed sourdough “pizza nerd” Winters has spent the last 10 years fine-tuning his craft. Before launching his wood-fired pizza pop-up, Urban Pie, in 2012, Winters worked at Brick in San Clemente, an Italian restaurant, where he came to appreciate the popular wood-burning method.
“When I started it was all about double zero flour and wood-burning ovens from Italy. That was what everyone was doing, it was the new thing at the time,” Winters said. “Now the narrative is sourdough, naturally leavened, no man-made yeast. And we’ve been doing that for seven years.”
Why sourdough? Winters just preferred it.
“There is so much more flavor to it…you can taste the grains, it’s a little more buttery,” he said. “People actually love eating our crust and that’s not always the case.”
But beyond the chef’s own sourdough fascination is his creative spirit, evident in his ingredient-focused “Cali style” recipes and informed by his decade-long career as a professional chef before pizza would become his obsession. As a line cook in his early twenties, Winters cut his teeth in the Vegas fine-dining scene, at Julian Serrano’s Michelin two-star restaurant Picasso and Alessandro Stratta’s namesake restaurant, Alex, both of which received five-star Mobil travel honors, Winters said.
When Winters returned to California, he hopped around myriad Orange County and Los Angeles restaurants, earning head chef credits at L’Opera in Irvine, where he was later introduced to Long Beach, and sous chef honors at Lucques, the now-defunct West Hollywood restaurant led by James Beard award-winning chef Suzanne Goin.
Eventually landing at Brick, Winters was yearning to start his own enterprise, when he struck a deal with some former customers who loaned him $60,000 to purchase a five-ton wood-burning Mugnaini oven built out of a mobile trailer and Urban Pie pizza pop-up was born.
“I quit my job…my wife was six months pregnant, and I just started hustling pizza on the streets,” Winters said. “We would stretch fresh at events…it was just a really big production.”
Eight years later, Urban Pie would undergo an evolution under pandemic-related pressures. Though par-baking pizzas is now an integral part of Winters’ business model, it wasn’t before the pandemic. In 2020, low on staff required to fully bake the pizzas on site, Winters was scrambling for a way to supply a 150-person event for Octavia Spencer. He and his sous chef decided to par-bake the required pizzas early in the morning.
“And we went out and we just had to finish the pizzas,” he recalled. “It was kind of like, wow, we should just continue doing this. We ended up falling in love with it because of the new element of customer service it gave us.”
The idea for the oven-rig van came later, Winters said, while he was working a drive-in movie theater gig on Sunset Boulevard. It was windy that day, so windy that he had to turn away customers because the flame underneath the portable Roccbox oven he was using to finish the par-baked pies kept blowing out.
“So I put the Roccbox in the van and made the pizzas and I’m like, this is so much easier,” he said. “[Later] we piped in the Roccbox and insulated everything.”
It wasn’t a kosher operation for a while, Winters admitted, and while trying to fly under the radar before legitimacy Winters came up with the name Speak Cheezy, a nod to the underground drinking establishments during the Prohibition era.
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“And for two or three weeks we just went on tour. We would make pizzas in the morning and then we would drive around. We would do it guerilla style where we would just pull up on Hollywood Boulevard next to Spider Man and make like 10 pizzas and drive off,” he said. “So it just took off. Urban Pie was pretty much dead and Speak Cheezy was the new thing.”
Now, Winters can’t help but feel like everything is falling into place, just how it was meant to happen and he’s grateful for the journey.
“I’m blessed that I had 10 years of experience on the street with no brick and mortar to figure it out,” Winters said. “If I had opened a pizzeria prematurely, even with 20 years experience in great kitchens, it wouldn’t be what it is now.”
Speak Cheezy at 3950 E. Fourth Street is expected to open April 1. Follow Speak Cheezy on Instagram for updates.
Editors note: This article has been updated with the correct cross streets of Speak Cheezy on Termino Avenue, not Ximeno Avenue as previously stated and updated opening date to April 15.