How Linda Black has brought wood-fired pizza to Rochester, and beyond

In addition to running two local eateries—Pi Wood-Fired Pizza and Tilda's Pizzeria—Black is the co-owner (with Matt Mongoven) of Smokin' Oak Wood-Fired Pizza, a fast-casual restaurant chain that…

How Linda Black has brought wood-fired pizza to Rochester, and beyond

From a young age, Rochester restaurateur Linda Black has known the bustle and excitement that comes with the business. One of her earliest memories is of standing by the ice machine at a restaurant her dad, Mike Currie, co-owned with Jerry Zubay in downtown Rochester. A busy waitress was coming through and told her to get the heck out of the way (to put it mildly).Though she scooted to avoid being run over that day, she never went too far from the family business.

Today, in addition to running two local eateries--Pi Wood-Fired Pizza and Tilda's Pizzeria--Black is the co-owner (with Matt Mongoven) of Smokin' Oak Wood-Fired Pizza, a fast-casual restaurant chain that Restaurant News recently called the 'fastest growing wood-fired pizza franchise in the U.S.'Like her father before her, Black didn't begin in a managerial role. Her dad, Mike, started in the restaurant business as a dishwasher in the 1960s. He met his future business partner, Jerry Zubay, when they both worked at the old Embers diner in Rochester.

In 1978, the pair opened their first restaurant, The Bank (which later became Henry Wellington's) on First Avenue SW, and they opened Newt's upstairs a few years after that.All four of the Currie children eventually went into the restaurant business. Though Black's sister, Denise Villeneuve, is recently retired, her brothers Mark and David Currie still run Creative Cuisine, which operates the popular City Market, The Redwood Room, The Purple Goat, and the local Newt's locations. Black credits a lot of her success to lessons she learned from Zubay and her dad.

Black started out as a dishwasher at 10 years old and began waitressing at 18. Zubay ran a class for the waitstaff, and Black recalls walking into the room and being asked to answer three questions.The answers were on a piece of paper on the wall, but she hadn't noticed. 'I always thought that I was really aware of my surroundings,' Black says, but that experience provided a valuable lesson about paying attention to even the smallest details.Black first tried wood-fired pizza in the Twin Cities.

It was unlike any pizza she had before, and she realized there was no place local to Rochester that was serving it.That awareness is part of what led her to launch her first restaurant, Pi Wood-Fired Pizza, in northwest Rochester in August 2009. Black taught herself to make pizza dough at home, testing hundreds of recipes with her small mixer before trying them out with a commercial setup.Not being afraid of failure has been a key ingredient in her success, she says. That, and, 'I'm super intense about dough,' she laughs.

The years she spent running Pi helped Black differentiate the things about the typical restaurant business model that were essential from what she could do away with, she says, so that she could focus on the things that matter most. She traveled in search of high-quality ingredients and realized that the best-tasting didn't always mean the most expensive. 'Everyone has to work hard for their money, and we owe it to our guests to give them the best experience we can' when they come in for a meal, she says. People can eat at home, but we go out to eat to be taken care of.

Part of what I love about the restaurant business is taking care of the guests.' Tilda's Pizzeria owner Linda Black with BellaBot, a restaurant delivery robot, on Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2022, at the restaurant in downtown Rochester. In 2016, Black partnered with her childhood friend Mongoven to create the franchise Smokin' Oak Wood-Fired Pizza, which was modeled after Black's success with Pi.

The first location opened in Iowa the following year.As a franchise owner, Black understands that franchisees have many concepts and models to choose from. When they meet with potential franchisee owners for Smokin' Oak, 'We don't talk about the ingredients until we are sampling the menu, because everyone says they have the best ingredients, but we want the potential franchisee to judge it themselves,' she says. 'Everyone that tries the food tastes how fresh and unique it is and how it would be a winner in their market.' 'People come to us because of the training, support, and individual attention they're confident that they'll receive,' Black says.

She is happy to jump on video calls to trouble-shoot in real-time if a franchisee has a question. 'They know we have their backs,' Black says.Even with the strain that Covid brought to many restaurants, Black says that Smokin' Oak signed deals to open new locations during the pandemic. A Smokin' Oak recently opened in Austin, Tex., and other franchise locations are set to open soon in Fayetteville, Ark., and Dallas.The franchise is looking to expand to 100 restaurant locations by 2027, and they're on track to make that number, Black says.Not one to rest for long, Black also opened a new Rochester restaurant, Tilda's Pizzeria, in July 2021.But none of her success would be possible without the 'greatest employees,' Black says.

As a business owner, she says one of the most important things is to be humble and to know that you can always learn. 'There's nothing better than someone telling you, 'This is the best pizza' or 'This is the best service' they've ever had,' she says. All of that is a team effort, she emphasizes, from the dishwashers and cooks to the servers. 'I love pizza, I love what I do, and I love my community,' Black says. And for those who've visited Tilda's or Pi in Rochester, the proof is right there in the dough.