By Kara Dudas Bellone and Elizabeth Blackstock
Millennials are shaping more than just the bar scene in Oxford. If they are going to make this city their temporary home for several years, they want good pizza.
Just in the last two years, several craft pizza joints such as Dodo Pizza, St. Leo and Fergndan’s have popped up in Oxford.
Dodo Pizza, a franchise based out of Syktyvkar, Russia, has two U.S. locations, both in North Mississippi. The store makes fresh bread daily and only uses fresh herbs.
Less than a year after opening, Italian resturant St. Leo was a semi-finalist for the James Beard Foundation’s “Best New Restaurant Award.” They were one of 27 finalists from over 24,000 entries.
Fergndan’s has brought a new concept to Oxford, with a mobile wood-fired pizza oven that pops up at different locations around Oxford.
For a while, though, Oxford lacked options for pizza lovers. Student options were limited to using Flex dollars from the university to purchase a personal Papa John’s pizza when the craving hit.
With the rise in the popularity of craft pizza and the opening of several new pizza restaurants, that is finally starting to change. This change, while more costly than traditional pizza chains, is also shifting what it means to eat “good” pizza.
“There’s sort of the old stereotype of the broke college kid that indifferently survives on ramen noodles and pizza, but I think even college students with tight budgets want better food these days,” Daniel Perea, Media Producer at PMQ Pizza Magazine, said.
According to PMQ Pizza Magazine, a trade publication that tracks changes in the pizza industry, only 25 percent of Mississippi pizzerias are independently owned. Oxford’s thriving craft pizza joints are the exception to the rule.
Rick Hynum, Editor-in-Chief at PMQ Pizza Magazine, is not surprised by Oxford’s demand for better, non-chain options.
“Oxford is a foodie town; it’s only natural that you’re seeing more high-quality craft pizza here,” Hynum said. “If you travel to other parts of the state, you’ll see Domino’s and Pizza Hut still accounting for most of the pizza sales, but Oxford is different from other parts of the state.”
The large millennial population in Oxford contributes not only to demand for craft pizzas, but also to the social media culture that surrounds “good” food and the aesthetic that can be found on foodie Instagrams.
Hynum noted the importance of utilizing the various social media platforms available to business owners today.
“Take lots of good pictures of your food and put them out there every chance you get,” Hynum said.
Although many would think that a college town would have less options for high-quality food because of the student mentality, this is not the case. In fact, some of the most popular chains such as Papa John’s sales are down.
“Americans are somewhat more health conscious than they used to be and they are also more concerned with quality ingredients, local meats and produce, and seasonal foods than ever before,” Hynum said.
Nationwide, independently owned restaurants are thriving because Americans are paying more attention to the ingredients of their food. As ingredient quality and trendiness becomes more significant for consumers, Hynum also says the whole trip to a restaurant is key.
“Don’t just serve a meal- create an experience,” Hynum said. “You can get a good meal anywhere. A great experience is harder to come by.”
A different experience for Oxford residents is the emergence of mobile wood-fired pizzas crafted by Fergndan’s. Diagnosed with Celiac Disease, John Ferguson, owner of Fergndan’s, noted that the business got started for personal, health driven reasons.
“We use the ingredients that we do because we want to make sure that they’re safe for everybody and that they’re as natural and as fresh as absolutely possible,” Ferguson said.
These natural, fresh ingredients include whole milk mozzarella with added Buffalo milk, all-natural cured pepperoni with no nitrates or preservatives, as well as purchasing locally grown produce as often as possible.
With Oxford’s recent track record of following pizza trends, Perea zealously described what he called the next big wave, Roman-style Pizza al Taglio. This pizza is a rectangular, doughy, dense pizza that is carefully crafted over 96 hours, resulting in a complex texture of spongy crust with an outer crunch.
“I can’t wait till I can get that in Oxford whenever I want,” Perea said. “If nobody else opens a pizzeria that does Pizza al Taglio, maybe I’ll have to.”