Introducing Popitos: How the Pandemic Turned a Family Passion Into a Pizza Place

When Lauren and Ray Zayas moved to Charlottesville in December 2019, they had no plans to start a pizza place. Sure, they shared a passion for pizza. “I freaking love pizza,” said Lauren. But, as parents of three young children, their focus was the food distribution business that was paying the bills and brought them to Charlottesville in the first place.

Then came COVID-19.

A Family Passion

Pizza has long been part of the Zayas family, dating back to Ray’s work at a pizza place during high school. But, the Zayas’ passion did not really take off until about a decade ago when Ray’s brother-in-law, a baking enthusiast, taught them how to make pizza from scratch. From there, pizza gradually became a bigger and bigger part of Ray and Lauren’s lives.

Initially it was just a family thing. Ray and Lauren would make pizzas for each other and their children. As their children grew – they are now 8, 6, and 3 – they joined the pizza making, and it became a joint family activity. All the while, Ray and Lauren gradually honed their craft, researching techniques, improving the dough, and refining their process. They even bought a pizza oven, and soon began making pizzas for friends, family, and neighbors, including a big meal the weekend of Lauren’s sister’s wedding.

But, pizza remained a passion project – a side hobby just for fun. That is, until late 2020, when Ray had a conversation with a neighbor that would change the direction of the Zayas’ lives. The neighbor was Scott Elliff, owner of DuCard Vineyards. As the pandemic dragged on, people were seeking safe ways to dine out, and the hospitality industry was seeking safe ways to serve them. When Elliff caught word of the Zayas’ pizzas, he asked: “Why don’t you come out to our vineyard and make pizzas for our guests?” Intrigued by the opportunity, the Zayas decided to give it shot, and committed to two weekends that fall.

As they had never sold pizzas to a big crowd before, they took several weeks to get everything in place and make sure they were prepared. What they weren’t prepared for, though, was how much they would love it. “We went out there, and we served people, and we thought: wow this is something special,” said Ray. The success at DuCard prompted them to explore launching a side business as mobile pizza caterers. They formed a business plan and bought a professional-level oven that was sufficiently mobile to be transported anywhere needed.

The Zayas’ Forno Bravo pizza ovens mean so much to the them that the ovens even have a name. Bella is like a part of the family, says Lauren.

Then things happened fast. By May, Popitos – as they called their pop-up pizza service – was fully booked every weekend. Regular gigs are at places like King Family Vineyards and Boars Head. While the quality of the pizza was no doubt a reason, it also didn’t hurt that their mobile food business was so well timed. “Anything that was outside, that was what people were seeking,” Lauren said. Business eventually grew so much – they now have three mobile ovens — that in January 2022, they decided to go all-in. They quit their food distribution job to focus exclusively on Popitos.

Brick (Oven) and Mortar

The next step came this year when they learned that The Brick Oven was for sale. As residents of nearby Forest Lakes, the Zayas found the timing and location of the venerable Rio Hill pizza place too good to pass up. “It was a no-brainer,” said Lauren. So, they took yet another leap. Their own family pizza restaurant.

Initially, the Zayas plan to keep it simple: a menu of appetizers, salads, and their signature pizza. The Zayas call their pizza style Neapolitan, Americanized. While they love Neapolitan pizza, and have learned a a lot from studying it, its parameters are too rigid for the Zayas to call theirs truly Neapolitan. Their toppings, for example, – pepperoni, sausage & peppers — are more akin to an American pizza parlor. And, their cheese  – a crowd-pleasing blend of shredded mozzarella and provolone – veers from the strict requirement of Mozzarella di Bufala Campana.

From that start, the Zayas plan to expand the menu with sandwiches and more appetizers. If all goes well, they aim for a September opening. Meanwhile, mobile pizza service will remain in full operation, serving vineyards and breweries, public gatherings, and private events. Follow along on Facebook or Instagram.