Copper Top Ovens: Building Community One Pizza at a Time

MJ Paul Espinoza, CUESA Intern
July 28, 2017

While visiting a farmers market in Seattle in summer 2009, Tom Gerstel and Kathy Mausshardt strolled past a wood-fired pizza oven, and immediately fell in love with its design, function, and beauty.

Upon arriving home, Tom set to work on making his own oven and began ordering parts from Italy. The couple crafted a business plan and embarked on a new venture building artisan pizza ovens. They named themselves Copper Top Ovens. The initial plan was to make and sell the ovens to restaurants, vendors, and home chefs, but the success of their first account inspired them to start making pizzas at farmers markets instead.

Both Kathy and Tom had careers in social work, leading programs to provide vocational training in food service and gardening for at-risk youth, while helping them find jobs in the community. Copper Top Ovens would help them put those values into practice as an employer. She and Tom remain passionate about “helping people land on their feet,” Kathy says.

The Heat Is On

Over the years, Tom has honed his dough recipe and technique to create a pie reminiscent of thin-crust pizzas from New York and Italy. The temperature inside the pizza oven exceeds 800°F, cooking a pizza in 90 seconds. This high temperature sears the crust and keeps the dough pliable on top. Barring the line on a busy day, the wait from order to pie is usually around three minutes.

The oven is made of refractory cement and fire brick, similar to ceramic kilns. The wood used to heat the oven is a mix of almond and oak, sourced locally from Manteca, giving the pizza a distinct smoky flavor.

During the summer months, Kathy and Tom make 350 pounds of dough per week, so keep up with the demand, they rent the largest commercial mixer in the East Bay. They mix, weigh, and cut the dough in the commercial kitchen and then allow it to warm and rise at the markets. 

In addition to farmers markets, Copper Top provides catering for weddings, private parties, and events all over the Bay Area, offering a dramatic and functional backdrop. Copper Top’s most memorable job was aboard the USS Jeremiah, when their oven was hoisted by a crane onto the WWII freighter ship, and cruised around the Bay for a day.

A Pie for Every Season

Arriving at the Jack London Square Farmers Market in Oakland around 7:30 am, Copper Top operations manager Joe Buenafe (pictured above) peruses the farm stands, making selections for the day’s pizza toppings. He’s been with Tom and Kathy since the fledging days of their pizza business and has deep roots in the farmers market.

In addition to their more traditional pizza offerings, Copper Top Ovens creates seasonal pies throughout the year known as their “market special.” This offering starts with the same base of ingredients: mascarpone, honey, truffle oil, walnuts, and dates. Fresh-from-the-market stone fruits may be added in the summer, squashes and root vegetables in the fall, and apples and pomegranates in the winter.

Joe picks up mushrooms and spinach from J&M Ibarra Farms, berries from Medina Berry Farms, root vegetables from Swank Farms, hot sauce from Lucky Dog Hot Sauce, and honey from the Honey Ladies.

For the early market-goers, breakfast pies are available with eggs, sausage, prosciutto, and herbs. You can also build your own pizza, choosing from the day’s toppings. A “frequent pie-er” card is a fun way that Tom and Kathy thank their loyal customers, with every tenth whole pie on the house.

The Community Hearth

As a member of the Jack London Square Farmers since 2009, Kathy (pictured at left, above), Tom, and other members of the Copper Top team consider their customers and fellow vendors “an extended family.” Each Sunday, regular customers gather around the oven to catch up not only with the employees but qurg each other as well.

Each pizza is served with a smile and a side of humor, deepening the relationships along the way. “We really get to know them,” says Joe of the regulars who have made Copper Top part of their weekly ritual for years. “They tell us about their lives, problems, and families. It’s a great community.”

“It’s more than making pizzas,” says Kathy. “It’s about fostering meaningful relationships beyond the normal customer interaction. It’s connecting with people.”

Find Copper Top Ovens at the Jack London Square Farmers Market on Sundays.

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