Three Wash. U. professors cook up A Pizza Story
Muhammad Alhawagri, a biologist in Washington University’s medical school’s Department of Orthopaedic Surgery, has been experimenting with baking for most of his life. This December, along with two other Wash. U. professors, he plans to expand this passion beyond the kitchen and open up a pizza restaurant.
While neither he nor his two faculty partners have any experience in running a restaurant, they all worked as waiters before coming to the University. Their establishment takes their love of food and scholastic discipline and combines them into A Pizza Story—a name the three men came up with after purchasing a space previously occupied by Jones Typewriter Company on Manchester Road.
Alhawagri “would always say that the name needs to tell a story, and when we saw the place we thought we could use some continuity by using some of the same decorations,” Sherif Nasser, an assistant professor of marketing in the Olin Business School, said. “It all came together because A Pizza Story is a name with a story.”
Alhawagri would often join with Nasser in hosting dinner parties during which they would try out different recipes. They met in 2008, when Nasser began teaching at Wash. U.
Joined by Nael Saad, an assistant professor of radiology at the University, the three faculty members decided to unite to take Alhawagri’s love of cooking into the business world.
A recurring theme in conversations between Nasser and Alhawagri when they would go out to eat at different restaurants was which things they liked and what they would change about each of the places if they were the owners. After years of these conversations, they realized they could go a step further than just talking.
“We just realized that now we think we have the perfect recipe, and we’ve been talking about having our own place for so long, so it’s time to do it,” Nasser said. After traveling to Italy a few years ago and talking with people there about their pizza-cooking methods, Alhawagri began experimenting with recipes in his own kitchen. According to him, the thought of opening a restaurant focusing on pizza was simple because he believes it to be the perfect food.
“While I was in Italy and learning the methods, I realized what an amazing process pizza-making is,” Alhawagri said. “The way that the bubbles work and how alive the dough is and the process in which the fibers of gluten accelerate and produce to combine and produce what comes out in front of you is just a beautiful thing. I think pizza is just one of the best, one of the most genius, foods in the world.”
Alhawagri began by cooking pizzas in his conventional oven at home and has been working over the years to perfect his recipe.
He “took the same approach towards pizza as he would to something in the lab,” Nasser said. “He just kept trying different combinations of dough and yeast trying to perfect it, and it just kept getting better.”
Alhawagri will be taking on the responsibilities of cooking and running the restaurant while Nasser and Saad will manage the investment aspects of the business. While the latter two will be continuing their positions at Washington University, Alhawagri will be quitting in order to focus solely on the pizza shop.
“Since I’ll be working basically more than full-time, there’s no way that I can do that and continue my job at Wash. U.,” Alhawagri said. “At the same time, I’m excited to switch careers and take some time off from research to explore the culinary world because it’s always been something I’m fascinated by and passionate about.”
Nasser said that though he currently does not plan on incorporating the external business into his marketing classes, if something comes up within it that would be relevant for his students to learn from, he would definitely use it.