The best pizza in southern California might not come from a restaurant, a counter or even a truck. Especially for those partial to New York-style “Neapolitan” pie, there’s a chance that the best pizza within a day’s drive of Los Angeles can be found at the Spicy Pie stand at Empire Polo Club in Indio, Calif, over the two weekends of the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival.
It is only during that time (and on the same grounds a week later, during the country music-themed Stagecoach Festival) that Spicy Pie slings its slices. Husband-and-wife team JJ and Chris Parent have been making the big, floppy slices of pizza since 2000, serving them exclusively at large festivals. At Coachella alone, the Parents operated four different stands inside the Club and one at the festival’s campground. There’ll be no rest for the weary, either; after three straight weekends in Indio, Spicy Pie gears up for a summer season that involves stops at Sasquatch, Bonnaroo and Outside Lands, among other festivals.
Pulp Lab caught up with JJ Parent during Coachella to talk pizza, festival life and the panic that ensues when witnessing the crowds gather outside a festival’s gates.
PL: Tell me about the origin of Spicy Pie. How did you and Chris get started? And how was the
decision made to be a festival-only business?
JJP: We grew up snowboarding in Vermont. One winter we decided to take a road trip in a 1969 Dodge camper van instead. There was rock climbing in Joshua Tree and surfing in Mexico. Every day was an adventure. We wanted our lives to reflect everything we had discovered so we tried food vending. The seasonal aspect of it left room to continue our road trips.
PL: What’s the best part about working a festival like Coachella?
JJP: The best part about working at festivals is seeing the transformation from field to festival back to field. The amount of energy it takes to make it all happen is simply amazing. The one collective goal for everyone involved is to make sure the ticket holders are blown away and have a fantastic time.
Coachella is our first festival of the season so we have two months of preparation. There is grinding, welding, repairing, replacing, oil changes, permits, problem solving and organizing.
PL: How big an operation is Spicy Pie? Is it you and Chris, and then you pick up booth workers at each individual festival?
JJP: My husband Chris and I started Spicy Pie in 2000. It was just the two of us until our first All Good Festival. When long lines of cars started arriving we panicked and called a local employment agency for extra workers. One of those workers went to Virginia Tech and that was the beginning of the Spicy Pie team. As we went along that one worker brought in his band mates, fellow students and family members. Then those people brought in their family members. We pretty much created our own extended family. Once you have suffered through a muddy east coast festival together you can pretty much get through anything. Our success is because of our team.
PL: I’m sure you get a ton of requests for a food truck or a brick-and-mortar restaurant. Why has Spicy Pie never opened its own storefront or truck?
JJP: A Spicy Pie storefront restaurant? I don’t know about that. If we have a bad day at work, it’s okay because you know all the hard work will be over in a couple days. If you have a bad weekend you have a whole year to get over it till the festival happens again. I’m afraid it would zap all the good right out of us. We also home school our daughters (ages four and six) and that takes a lot time and effort.
With four different stands within the venue itself and a fifth at the campground, Spicy Pie continued to be one of the most sought-after food options at Coachella. The pizza itself is the perfect fuel for a music-and-booze-fueled party, and the generous size of the slice makes paying the inflated cost of concert food (a plateful of Spicy Pie cost $7 at Coachella) less traumatic.
Various festivals throughout the summer