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    Tom Edwards has his hands in the dough, naturally. If he weren’t manipulating water, flour and salt to make his artisan breads and pizzas, he might be in the basement wood shop at home building tables for his Anchorage restaurant, MozzaPi, or drawing up plans for a second location in a rundown structure he plans to renovate himself. “His hands have to be as active as his mind,” his wife Lisa says. “He doesn’t sit well.”

    Edwards is standing at a stainless-steel prep table inside MozzaPi, with a 50-pound elastic glob of dough in front of him. It’s his own blend of organic soft-white wheat milled in-house and Italian-import 00 flour, which all certified Neapolitan-style pizza makers must use exclusively in their crusts. With a small plastic divider in his right hand, Edwards makes two quick chops and separates a small chunk before plopping it onto a scale, then glances at its weight and either plucks away a few ounces or adds a few more. He rounds eight-ounce portions into balls and slaps them onto a large baking sheet, to be refrigerated overnight for the next day’s pizza crusts. In the end, Edwards will have 107 dough balls for his Friday lunch customers.

    MozzaPi is in manifest ways the product of Tom Edwards’ hands. Hands that lay brick and build wood-fired ovens. Hands that crafted the 23-foot-tall grandfather clock soaring over the dining room. Hands that mill and mix artisan flours and locally sourced cornmeal. Hands that are not scarred and disjointed, but go through the day looking like they were difficult to clean the night before.

    The pizzeria and bakery, open since mid-2017, has become a destination-dining venue, in some ways better known outside Louisville than in. Meanwhile, Edwards is busy developing plans for a second restaurant in Irish Hill at Distillery Commons, which will serve some of the same food but in many ways be as unique as the first.


    “His hands have to be as active as his mind,” Tom Edwards' wife Lisa says of her husband. “He doesn’t sit well.”

    Edwards learned self-sufficiency growing up as the only son of a mother he describes as “very nurturing, intuitive and creative” and an engineer father who was severely disabled and wheelchair-bound after a Cessna plane he was a passenger in stalled out and crashed in Colorado. They lived in Pendleton County near Falmouth, between Lexington and Cincinnati, on what he calls a “hobby farm” of 16 acres with a cow or two, a few chickens and a garden. The family, including Edwards’ three older sisters, experimented with aspects of a working farm but did not rely on them for their livelihood. “After you ring a couple of chickens’ necks and cook them up, the novelty wears off,” he says.

    At 48, Edwards is a half-dozen years into a second career that could hardly be predicted by the first. In his 20s and 30s, he was an expert in financial systems and software, running his own consulting firm for a decade and a half prior to the pivot to pizza. He’d fly across the country, helping companies implement software they’d purchased but struggled to incorporate into their existing systems. “A great place to be,” Edwards says, “because if it’s broke, you get to set the terms.” He was making a comfortable salary in the six figures and liking the work. But then came a moment of epiphany. “At the time, my daughter was eight years old and I was fast-forwarding to how she would remember me,” he says. “She would remember that I dressed nice and I left and I came back home looking like I had a day of work. She probably wouldn’t understand what I did. A lot of spouses don’t even understand what their husbands and wives do. I just didn’t want to go off and come back in memory for her.”

    Entering the food service industry required a leap of faith. “The business consultant in me says this is probably not a great business to be in,” Edwards says, snowballing dough and placing it on a tray as he talks. “There are a lot of others with better profit margins.” Edwards began focusing on the gifts he could leave his daughter, Megan, who is now 14. He wanted to teach her how to work and be good enough at it to enjoy it. He wanted to show her how to start a business. And he wanted the business to serve other people. “The restaurant business is a great culmination of all of those things,” he says. “I wanted to see if I could do it, too.”

    The family originally moved to Anchorage mainly to have access to the excellent schools there, though Megan currently is in the midst of a year of home-schooling (or, as Edwards says, “self-schooling”). She comes to the restaurant most days, does her schoolwork there and pitches in where needed. “She works like an adult and we pay her like an adult,” Edwards says. “It’s great to see her not have an objection to work.”


    The wheat Edwards' uses comes from multiple states, but he sources his corn from Kentucky farms.

    On your first trip to MozzaPi, you’ll probably pass right on by. You’ll plug the address into the GPS and navigate to La Grange Road in Anchorage, hear that officious voice say, “Your destination is on the left”…and likely miss the small placard out front. But who wouldn’t? It’s planted at ground level like a property-for-sale sign in front of a brick structure inset with large maize-and-blue barn doors. What’s inside is indecipherable from the street. You access the restaurant Tom Edwards built through a paneled-window door off the side parking lot. You’d be hesitant to enter but for a plain paper notice taped to the glass announcing the hours of operation.

    The experience of doubling back and finding your way opens you to seeing a different world, the one Edwards has created inside. “I’m not a self-promoter,” he says. “I want people to find MozzaPi in their own discourse.” MozzaPi is an artisan bakery offering a daily assortment of muffins, scones, croissants and cookies. It’s a mini-milling operation that grinds specialty and ancient grains into flour for bread and pizza, or organic corn into grits and cornbread mixes bagged and sold onsite. It’s a micro-roaster serving its own coffee. But first and foremost, it’s a pizzeria, baking fresh-ingredient pies in the oven built by — and at times tended to by — Edwards himself.

    Others have doubled back before you, including Tony Gemignani, the most famous pizza maker in the U.S. today. Currently an owner or partner in 21 restaurants, Gemignani also founded the International School of Pizza at his flagship original location, Tony’s Pizza Napoletana in San Francisco. Edwards attended the school and was certified there. When Gemignani was on a consulting trip to Louisville several months ago, he remembered Edwards and caught an Uber to MozzaPi, arriving unannounced. “It’s definitely a destination place,” Gemignani says. “We had trouble finding it. We went back and forth a few times. It almost feels like this bed-and-breakfast setting out there in the woods.

    “There’s an artsy side of him, and an independent’s side that came out,” Gemignani says of Edwards. “He’s listening to others, but he’s also doing his own thing.”

    With the help of family and especially his brother in-law Tom Himmelsbach, Edwards designed and erected the building and fitted together its finished-wood interior using maple, cherry and walnut timber he “salvaged” from various sources and fashioned into beams, paneling and other features. He made the restaurant’s tabletops and constructed its centerpiece oven, which features fired white-clay blocks imported from the French company Le Panyol and a gleaming copper hood. He created an oversized chef’s knife, pizza peel and corkscrew that are mounted on the walls, along with a chair big enough to accommodate Abraham Lincoln should he decide to leave his monument in D.C. and take a seat at MozzaPi for lunch. Edwards designed these high walls and vaulted ceiling to accommodate these leviathans, making the place look like a cross between a country church and a converted stud-farm barn. He crafted the 23-foot-tall grandfather clock and other creative pieces at home in his downstairs shop, which he calls the “hamster den” due to its tight quarters and piles of wood shavings. “I wanted something that was uniquely me,” Edwards says of the super-sized adornments in MozzaPi. “The challenge of doing some things larger scale appealed to me. I learned early on that you don’t need a lot of tools; you just need a big imagination.”


    Edwards (literally) built MozzaPi, from its walls to its oven to its grandfather clock.

    Anchorage residents driving by who observed the slow progress on the anonymous structure began to find their way in once MozzaPi opened. It took Edwards five years to get to that point, and only now, a year and a half into operation, is he ready to add dinner hours to the existing breakfast and lunch schedule. Lines now routinely form during busy days, inspiring one regular customer to quip recently, “If you put up a real sign, do you think it’ll make fewer people come?”

    While still actively working as a business consultant, Edwards started experimenting with pizza baked in an oven he built in the backyard of the 6,000-square-foot Anchorage home he constructed. (Among other personal home touches: an elaborate carved handrail of curly cherry wood; a miniature windmill house in what was originally Megan’s bedroom; and a “Drayton Hall Room,” with carved-wood elements faithful to the famous mansion in Charleston, South Carolina.) Eventually, Edwards traveled to Italy to study how to make pizza and bread. In Louisville, he dipped a toe into the business with a mobile MozzaPi, loading a smaller wood-fired oven he built into a box truck and parking it downtown on Main Street near Stevie Ray’s Blues Bar. There, he tried out his crusts and topping combinations on after-hours customers. He began perfecting the method preferred by most top pizza makers — 90 seconds at 800 or 900 degrees to produce slightly charred crusts, without overcooking the toppings.

    When Edwards decided to make his career change, the family downsized to a nearby 2,000-square-foot “cottage.” He took out a second mortgage, drained his 401(k) and “wrote checks for five years.” But he managed to launch the Anchorage location with $650,000 to $750,000 in startup costs and no business loans. “I planned for success,” Edwards says. “I was all-in, but I never thought about it that way.” His calculation included one big safety valve: By owning a building outright on busy La Grange Road, he could always lease or sell the property if the restaurant failed to take off.

    Having little debt and saving an estimated 25 percent or more on opening costs with his DIY skills “puts us in a very different operating position,” Edwards says. He could feel his way into the business, experimenting with various recipes and specialty ingredients without facing so much pressure to drive down his food costs and drive up menu prices.

    Complicating things were his simultaneous forays into bread baking. “I love bread and I love pizza, so they kind of came together,” he says. “Bakers who make pizza are different from chefs who top pizza. I’m not much of a person to get into repetitiveness, but for some reason I’m drawn to that pursuit with flour, water and salt. It’s fascinating.

    “There’s something about doing a craft and repeating it to a point where nuance appears. Then it becomes mastery, where skill and artistry take the place of repetition.”

    Edwards became a connoisseur of organic grains. He has used the Austrian-import wooden mill in his restaurant to grind the likes of hard-red wheat, soft-white winter wheat, rye and, surprisingly, corn. The wheat comes from multiple states, but Edwards sources his corn from Kentucky farms, as a way to engage Louisville chefs with an organic, locally grown crop. “I knew if I sold them flour they wouldn’t know what to do with it,” Edwards says, “but I knew that they knew how to cook grits; I knew that they knew how to cook cornbread.”


    Many local chefs use Edwards' Louismill products in their restaurants.

    The freshly milled grits and cornbread mixtures are not real money-makers for Edwards, but MozzaPi sells them by the bag at the restaurant and also ships approximately 3,000 pounds monthly nationwide under the Louismill label. Local buyers of the corn-grain products include Proof on Main, Napa River Grill, Couvillion and Royals Hot Chicken. Edwards and his sister Lori Himmelsbach also put on a five-day Artisan Bread Camp, open to both professional and home bakers, teaching students eight different styles over the course of the week.

    Couvillion chef Paul Skulas buys the cold-smoked cornbread mix from Edwards and serves it to-order, baked in small cast-iron skillets. It’s the Germantown restaurant’s top-selling appetizer. “I think they’d boycott the restaurant if I ever took it off the menu,” he says of his cornbread fans. Skulas got to know Edwards in 2012, when Edwards was a customer of his at the Anchorage Cafe. The two talk over the phone once a week or so about food and a range of other topics. According to Skulas, industry friends Andrew McCabe and Ryan Rogers, owners of bar Vetti, had Edwards over to taste their pizza when it was in development. Immediately, Edwards recognized the water they were using in dough was unfiltered. “He could tell the difference,” Skulas says. A couple of months later, Edwards returned to bar Vetti to try a pie, then walked back into the kitchen and announced, “Your water tastes a lot better.”

    In some ways, however, the baked delights at MozzaPi are more striking than the pizzas. There’s an astonishingly memorable cornmeal cookie; the corn’s natural sweetness and just-milled freshness combine with a coarser-grained texture for a wow moment. The scones have an ethereal structure that ruins you for anyone else’s versions. And the muffins and croissants are works of art. Though the pizzas ($8 for a nine-inch cheese pie, $12 for the specialty offerings) are both inventive and topped with the freshest of ingredients, it’s the lightly charred crust that lingers to the taste. Edwards’ pizzas are a distinctive hybrid between the classic thin-crust Neapolitan style and the more bready Sicilian style. The satisfying chew and rich flavor entice you to finish your meal with a few crust-only bites.

    Edwards has drawn enough attention nationally for his experiments with organic and specialty-flour breads that one of the biggest names in national baking circles, Peter Reinhart, lined up a field trip to MozzaPi for a group of International Association of Culinary Professionals attendees when they had a conference in Louisville a couple of years ago. “What I like about Tom is his commitment to values, to sustainability and to flavors,” Reinhart says. “He has that sense of artisanship, milling and baking right there at the restaurant. He uses the grains respectfully and taps their full flavor in his bread-making. I remember that everything we ate that day was really, really good.”


    The pizzas are delicious, but don't skip MozzaPi's other baked goods offerings.

    Paramount to producing these distinctive products is finding and supporting the small farmers who grow organic grains. Edwards once asked around about the price of organic corn grown locally. He estimated a figure of approximately $8 per bushel. “So I went in to our farmers and I said, ‘We’re paying $16.’ I took it double because I wanted to prove that you can have a respectful relationship with your farmers, pay them well, build great products for your consumers, have them enjoy them and have a good business,” Edwards says.

    “He’s very passionate about supporting the local economy and educating people to eat properly and take care of themselves,” says Lori Himmelsbach, who participated in recipe development and has served as a general manager at MozzaPi. “I think it’s one of the motivating reasons behind the restaurant: that he wanted to give people a place to come eat that supplied them with local and good food.”

    Edwards and his team continue to bake bread one day each week, much of which is picked up by customers who purchase subscriptions to reserve their loaves. His wife drives more bread to Rainbow Blossom on Bardstown Road, honoring a longtime relationship with the natural food store’s owners. Though Edwards has a degree in accounting from Northern Kentucky University, he keeps the ledger at bay when selecting ingredients. He purchases Chelsey’s Eggs from Dutch Creek Farm in Pleasureville, Kentucky, where the hens rotate with the cattle in the grazing pastures. He uses high-end Stanislaus tomatoes in the pizza sauce. His chicken is free-range and antibiotic-free, and he sources the pork for the house-made sausage from either an Iowa farm where all of the feed is grown onsite or a farmer in Liberty, Kentucky, who lets his pigs root through forestland on the grounds.

    Edwards says his revenues are about $60,000 per month at the restaurant and that catering adds upwards of $100,000 each year. With the addition of dinner hours in 2019, the company expects to shoot past the magical million-dollar revenue threshold and post sales in excess of $1.5 million. Edwards says his average salary for full-time employees is $14 per hour, which places MozzaPi on par with many other local independent restaurants. “We have great people now, but it’s taken a year to get there,” Edwards says of his nearly 20-person staff.

     “What we try to do with our food is interrupt people. I’d like them to eat it and then take pause,” Edwards says. “I feel like if they do that then I’ve done my job. People ask me about where I came up with the idea for the restaurant. I say, ‘Well, no one told me no.’

    “I could probably build a consultancy business bigger faster, but it doesn’t have the impact — and I already did that. I was making things better (as a consultant), moving things around, but ultimately it wasn’t having the community impact.”

     

    Edwards is as slender as a distance runner and youthful of countenance, clearly a man of action. He dresses in comfortable suburban-weekend clothing and moves seemingly tirelessly through the day. Despite the fast pace, he nonetheless can summon tremendous powers of concentration, which evidence themselves in furrows etched above his brow. “He describes himself as ADD with laser focus,” his sister Lori says.

    Edwards hopes to open a second restaurant in Distillery Commons.

    About three years ago as he was building MozzaPi, Edwards suffered an unusual cancer scare. After bouts of pain and passing blood in his urine, he was told by a doctor in the hospital, accompanied by an intern and a priest, that test results showed a grapefruit-size tumor on his bladder that would require immediate surgery — only to find out early the next week after scoping by a urologist that the hospital must have mistaken another person’s scan with his. Edwards’ bladder was normal and his symptoms were gone after two weeks. The experience, though, was life-altering. “You can’t come out of something like that and not be a different person,” he says. “I breathed the air deeply before. I really did. But I breathe it deeper now.” He says that after contemplating his mortality within a one- to five-year time frame, he came away thinking one year is way too short but that he would have been “Zen OK” with five.

    “I believe in reinventing myself every five years,” Edwards says later as he picks his way through a debris-strewn former boiler house at Distillery Commons, site of his planned second location. This red-brick structure of one and a half stories is separated from the adjacent multi-use complex at Lexington Avenue and Payne Street, which gets its name from bourbon distilling, aging and bottling that began there as early as the 1890s. Bricks are missing from the boiler house façade and the weather-beaten door is difficult to open. Inside, the floor of the mezzanine-like second story contains two big holes; rainwater has dropped through from above, rotted the wood and found its way into the basement.

    Where many would see a prospect for the demolition ball, Edwards sees great bones. He envisions a restaurant that will serve a pizza-inspired menu in the basement and on the mezzanine, and a Japanese-style noodle restaurant on a roof garden. Now that he owns this major fixer-upper, he has already drawn up preliminary plans for a rectilinear update to the squat architecture, and is beginning to think about a reimagined interior. Edwards expects he’ll decorate it with a large kinetic sculpture. In his current vision, he’ll construct an 18-foot clock with a huge round wheel that releases marble-like spheres on the hour, one ball for each hour of the day. They’ll roll from the top to the bottom and trigger an hourly chiming.

    The colossal amount of work necessary to bring life back to the boiler house does not faze him. “I don’t have limits because growing up my dad was in a wheelchair. His limits were so much different, and he always challenged his limits. So I’ve always thought out of respect for him that I’ve got to do as much with my hands as I can because I’m gifted with the ability to do that,” Edwards says.

    A self-confessed nerd before nerds were cool, Edwards was a bored kid at Pendleton County High School who “graduated second in my class — that is second from the bottom.” He and a few friends bought any new computer they could, assembling systems and writing programs for them. Oddly, he supplemented his tech-geek activities by reading and listening to motivational tapes from the likes of Tony Robbins, Earl Nightingale and even Andrew Carnegie. “I knew I had to have a skillset that would make me successful,” he says. “I don’t know why I knew this. Even at that age, I knew a healthy self-esteem was important, so I kind of reprogrammed myself at an early age to have traits like successful people.”

    He worked partway through college driving a forklift, then put his accounting training to use at Louisville Gas & Electric and, for a time, at the Ernst & Young firm. He was also, he says, one of the earliest employees of the company that brought the popular prescription drug Adderall to market, though he left when he says he was cut out of an ownership share. That’s when he began his consulting career.

    “He majorly challenges himself,” says Lisa, his wife of 21 years. “He can envision it all. It’s his puzzle and everything goes into place.” Lisa, a Louisville-area native and former elementary and middle school teacher, describes herself as MozzaPi’s “go girl,” as well as a “mad scientist” in the kitchen who helps inspire recipes for the restaurant.

    The challenge of a second location has sunk many a previously successful restaurant owner. “It’s a very treacherous step,” says Jim Laube, founder of RestaurantOwner.com and a sought-after expert on the business of running independent restaurants. “Often the first unit is spectacular because the owner is there all of the time. His personality and skills infuse everything about the place.” The owner cannot be on location as much while dividing time between two restaurants. And often plans for the second one are bigger and more expensive than the first. “It really boils down to systems and people — having the right managers create that same experience whether he’s there or not,” Laube says.

    “Why are we opening a second location?” Edwards says. “Because I need to give my employees upward mobility. I recognize that if I cap out at one location, I’ll always have employee turnover. So I’ve got to build a hierarchy in the company where I can provide opportunity to employees.” He knows it’d be easy to speed up the opening by writing checks to contractors, but, he says, “I’d rather spend the extra time on it, generate something that’s very personal, very unique, but also fits within our cash-flow requirements. I’d rather not go to a bank and pay on it for 30 years and have a different experience with it.”

    Edwards expects to spend about a year getting his new space ready. If his vision comes to pass, the long-neglected boiler house that once supplied electricity for whiskey making will transform into an Irish Hill hangout and earn a place on Louisville’s must-try list. Some day, he thinks it would be “really cool” to become an employee-owned company. “I originally thought when I opened the first restaurant that I’d turn it into a working retirement,” Edwards says, “but what I really realized is that I enjoy creating things with my hands and with my mind, and creating concepts and businesses. After that, I realized that I shouldn’t stop.”

    This originally appeared in the January 2019 issue of Louisville Magazine under the headline "Pi Maker." To subscribe to Louisville Magazineclick here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

    Photos by Jessica Ebelhar, jessicaebelhar.com

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