A Columbus man is taking his traditional street-food concept into the competitive arena.
Ben Fogt, owner of Flatrock Flatbread Company, a mobile pizza business, will compete at the Hottest Kitchen Entrepreneur Challenge at the Ivy Tech Corporate College and Culinary Center in Indianapolis on July 30.
He is the only Columbus entry in the competition, where the company will be evaluated along with two other finalists in the segment highlighting early-stage businesses.
There also is a competition for startup businesses that will feature three contestants with companies still in the planning stages.
The statewide competition is designed to give contestants exposure, said Christel Henke of the public relations firm PR Works. It’s sponsored by Ivy Tech Community College and Reliable Water Service.
“It is going to be a really fun event that is open to the public,” Henke said. “Each finalist will have samples on the table and will give a three-minute presentation about their concept and why they think they have a marketable concept.”
This is the third year for the competition, which includes eight judges who are food experts from the Indianapolis area. The judges will sample each product, ask questions and provide feedback and mentoring, before selecting the winner in each category.
“That’s really a great part of the challenge because the finalists walk away with great advice from the experts that comes in handy after they leave,” Henke said.
Business on wheels
When Fogt and his wife, Deborah, moved from Fort Wayne three years ago, he brought the idea for wood-fired, brick oven pizza on wheels with him.
“In Fort Wayne, we had an interest in local food and a membership in a community-supported agriculture program in North Manchester,” Fogt said. “They do a ministry for pastors and they built a wood-fired oven in the middle of the farmyard, and every Friday in the summer they made pizza.”
People from throughout the region would bring tables, chairs and blankets to congregate to the site, have pizza and enjoy each other’s company.
At about the same time, a friend in Connecticut had purchased a brick oven and started a mobile pizza business there that was doing well.
Fogt’s wife, Deborah, had taken a job with Cummins in Columbus after Navistar, the company she had been working for, pulled out of Fort Wayne.
Fogt, who had worked in information technology and developed and sold a successful Internet venture, was looking for a business opportunity in his new town and the concept seemed a good fit.
He started working on the business in August 2011 and by the following July the Flatrock Flatbread Company was up and running.
“We looked into the ovens, and when we landed here it seemed just about right,” Fogt said. “We took the plunge, bought the oven and haven’t looked back since.”
The oven weighs about 5,000 pounds and tops three tons with the trailer and the other equipment.
Fogt said he looks forward to brainstorming with other entrepreneurs at the competition and possibly get some recognition that he can use in marketing his product.
“This confirms to our fans that we really are good and are unique among businesses in the state,” Fogt said. “It’s nice that there is a cash prize, but the publicity is also good for us.”
The grand prize winner in each category receives $2,000 from Reliable Water Services and other prizes.
Trying out a new concept
While the mobile pizza oven is relatively new to the Columbus area, Fogt said the concept has been used on the East and West coasts of the United States for several years.
Its origins can be traced much further back in time.
“The idea goes back to the beginning of pizza,” Fogt said. “They would have pizza on pushcarts in Naples. It was one of the first street foods to be cooked and not just carried around, and I guess health departments weren’t as stringent back then.”
Flatrock Flatbread Company offers Neapolitan-style pizza with dough made from scratch.
“We try to do as much local ingredients as we can and being at the (Columbus) Farmer’s Market makes it easier to source some stuff,” Fogt said. “To be authentic Neapolitan-style pizza, we would have to use imported ingredients. We are using similar ingredients from the United States, and we are trying to get them as close to Bartholomew County as we can.”
The company has a selection of pizzas that are always on the menu, and each month Fogt adds specialty pizzas that usually include one meat and one vegetarian offering.
Fogt said the business name came about strictly by chance.
“We lived in Greenwood for about three months, and my wife drove over a Flatrock River bridge every day and said it would be a perfect name for a pizza company,” Fogt said. “We get asked all the time if we live in Flat Rock, but we came up with the name before we even knew there was a town.”
The advantage of a mobile oven, Fogt said, is that he can take his kitchen anywhere there are people gathered.
In a four-day period recently, he was at Neighborfest and the Farmer’s Market in downtown Columbus, Powerhouse Brewing Company on State Road 9 for a First Friday event and First Presbyterian Church on Seventh Street following Sunday services.
“What I like and what so many people who work with us like is that I know right away what people think of my products,” Fogt said. “You’ve made something with your own hands and within minutes people have eaten it and are back to tell us if they liked it, and overwhelmingly, they do.”