Inside Pizza Tree’s new late-night pizza delivery window

Owner John Gilbreth: “We’re still working out some kinks, but [it’s] for the greater good of the pizza shop.”
Columbia's nightlife adapts to Pizza Tree’s recently installed outdoor service window.

In John Gilbreth's world, every day should be a pizza party.

Gilbreth is the owner of Pizza Tree, the immensely popular downtown pizza shop best known for creative, homemade "pizza art," often with witty names — Mother Chorizo, Ranch Hands, Flyin’ Hawaiian.

At 10:59 p.m. on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, the shop undergoes a transformation.

Sarah Abrams, who works weekend nights, pulls the cash register over to the front of the store, sits on the ledge and peddles pizza out the drive-through-style window facing Cherry Street.

Until a few weeks ago, Pizza Tree staff would prepare for the night rush of pizza-crazed customers by clearing out all the furniture inside the shop, waiting for the arrival of the police officer they’d hired to patrol the place and bracing themselves for a long night of cleaning up after belligerently drunk patrons.

Since the beginning of the semester, though, they’ve had to do none of those things. A few weeks ago, Gilbreth decided to install the new front window, and after 11 p.m., customers order without ever having to come inside the shop.

He says it’s been a worthwhile change.

“We’re still working out some kinks, but [it’s] for the greater good of the pizza shop,” he says.

“Come get pizza!” Abrams yells out the window. When someone orders, she’ll call it over to Brennan Rose, who’s manning the four-pizza rotating warmer. He’ll plate it up, and she’ll hand it over to the customer through the window.

Meanwhile, Gilbreth is in the back with a couple other employees making the pizzas. I catch him as he’s turning some pepperoni pizzas in the nearly 600-degree oven.

About 275 people come to the window every weekend night, he says. That’s significantly fewer than the 1,000 or so who would come into the shop during late-night hours before the days of the window.

“Who knows if they bought anything,” he says of the crowds that would gather inside the shop. “A lot of people just came in here to barf and leave. We just got sick of things getting stolen, things getting broken. … The space is just too small to allow that stuff to routinely happen.”

Gilbreth says people would spill water, steal parmesan shakers and pass out for awhile until the cop kicked them out — just to “f--- with something for a little bit … before they go home.”

“Did you tell him about the night someone tried to fight you in here?” Rose calls out from behind the warmer.

“Oh yeah, a bunch of times!” Gilbreth says. “I took a guy out in a half nelson one night. That was pretty crappy. That wasn’t fun.”

He says that surprised the staff, and it shocked him, too. Nobody, not even him, knew he could do that particular wrestling move, which involves putting your arm under their arm and locking your hand behind their neck.

“I don’t know how to do that!” he says. “But all of a sudden there was trouble, and all of a sudden I was like, ‘Oh my god, I’ve got this guy in a half nelson.’ Where did I learn how to do something like this?”

Now, though, nights are far less stressful. Gilbreth says his staff can finally hear the phones ring, and they can play music they enjoy. The music selection on weekend nights is very eclectic.

“I’m on Fire” by Bruce Springsteen changes to “Together in Electric Dreams” by Philip Oakey and Giorgio Moroder. Later, we hear “Untitled 02 06.23.2014” by Kendrick Lamar, then “Sex and Super Smash Bros.” by Kyle. And while I’m talking with Gilbreth, “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” by Whitney Houston comes over the speakers.

“When nobody’s in here, just whatever we feel like listening to,” Gilbreth says. “When people are in here, we try to find a mood.”

The mood he was trying to set tonight? Just trying to stay awake.

“Trying to keep going,” he says. “Stuff with some energy, you know what I mean? Keep your foot tapping.”

The window was installed by Koonse Glass in one day, Gilbreth says. He says he’s been hearing great reviews from customers.

“I love the new window,” says sophomore Natalie Ismert, who was standing outside the shop eating some pizza. “It’s so much more efficient, more effective, more relatable. When it comes to pizza, whatever works.”

Gilbreth says the shop goes through about 80 pizzas in a night. A typical order is two slices and a side of ranch.

“Two slices of pepperoni,” Abrams calls out as someone comes up to the window.

“Two! Slices! Pepperoni!” Rose replies in a singsong voice while pulling the last two pepperoni slices out of the rotating warmer.

“Can I get a pepperoni pizza over here?” he yells. Another employee brings over a fresh pie on a large metal plate and swaps it out.

Abrams’ shift is from 9 p.m. until the shop closes at 2 a.m. For the first hour or so, she was working the counter, but once they opened the window, she took her spot on the ledge.

Next week, though, she might bring a cushion — “my back kinda hurts,” she says. Overall, though, she says working the window is less stressful than running the cash register at the counter when the store is full of customers.

Rose also says the window system is a welcome development.

“Another good thing about these windows is that I can use the bathroom during my shift,” Rose says. “So that’s a plus. I used to have to get into fights with people.”

Things are calmer now at Pizza Tree, Gilbreth tells me. If the shop were bigger, he says he might not have changed things around. But the late-night pizza is just too popular.

“I wish it didn’t have to be this way,” Gilbreth says. “I wish we could still party real hard in here, but think what happens. It just got too ugly too many times.”

Jessi Dodge contributed reporting to this story.

Edited by Katie Rosso |

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