During the pandemic, there was one constant Americans could rely on: pizza. Stuck at home, Americans not only ordered record amounts of pizza delivery, but they started making their own pizza pies in earnest (how else to use all that sourdough starter?) And as COVID-19 surged worldwide, Ooni, a Scotland-based maker of sleek pizza ovens that sell for as little as $349, suddenly saw its sales explode. In 2020, revenue increased by more than 300%, say married cofounders Darina Garland and Kristian Tapaninaho. Garland estimates the pandemic accelerated the company’s growth by about three years, and business continues to boom, with annual sales at £52.7 million (or about $70 million) in 2020, growing from £13.7 million in 2019, according to the company. “We were out of stock for four months at a time—of everything,” says Garland. “People were willing to wait, which was amazing.”
The device attracted a new set of hobbyists—and turned out to be suited perfectly for the imperfect times. “It’s interactive, it’s a safe thing to do, people seemed up for learning more skills,” she says. “As much as I absolutely hate being separated from people and the devastating loss that has happened—I would definitely have preferred to grow more slowly—people write to us going, ‘I’ve got this Friday ritual with my son now’.”
Ooni got its start back in 2011, when Tapaninaho got really into making pizza. He and Garland were in their 30s and had a small child. They lived in a rented house in Central London, running the education consultancy they’d founded. “We had this nice hybrid way of working, where we were looking after our son three days a week each,” Garland remembers. “So comparatively, we had so much time.” But as hard as Tapaninaho tried in his spare hours, his home-cooked pizza was just okay. The trouble was the temperature: Domestic ovens don’t get hot enough to make great Neapolitan-style pies. And the at-home pizza ovens available were “elitist, huge installations,” Garland says, that could run you $2,000, a ridiculous amount for a permanent fixture when you don’t even own your home.
But Tapaninaho, who is Finnish, comes from a family of entrepreneurs: His parents ran a supermarket, and his mom ran the bakery. “He’s got baking and business in his soul,” says Garland. “If he has a hobby, he thinks of a business opportunity for it.” He set about building a prototype oven the size of a carry-on suitcase that used wood pellets to heat the device up to 900 degrees Fahrenheit in about 10 minutes. “It was very rudimentary, very Frankenstein-esque,” Garland says. “It’s so cute to see the footage, because the piece honestly looks so rubbish compared to now. But we were just like, ‘We made a pizza in 10 minutes!’”
They recruited a local metal welder for help and took their product to Kickstarter in 2012, promising an oven to those who pledged £160, or about $214. (At the time it was called Unni, Finnish for oven; in 2018 they changed the spelling to make it easier to pronounce, and so wouldn’t be confused for “Uni”—like university.) For that first campaign, they set out to raise just £7,500, not much more than $13,000. In just 30 days, they made almost three times that. They found a Finnish manufacturer and started selling the ovens in brown shipping containers, without “any real branding or anything,” recalls Garland. The London department store Selfridges got in touch, and “sales just kept coming in thick and fast.”
The company, which is privately held, consisted of seven people for the first few years, six of whom are still there, says Garland. She and Tapaninaho have since grown their team to more than 270 people across offices in Bonn, Germany; Austin, Texas; Shanghai, China; and Edinburgh, Scotland, where the family moved in 2015 after having their second child (Garland is Scottish). The couple has since expanded their product offerings, developing a range of ovens that run on different fuel sources, including gas, wood pellets, wood, and charcoal. “Kristian decided really early that he wanted to operate like a tech company, so iterate often and make new versions, which is quite unusual for a hardware company,” says Garland. Ooni would release at least one oven a year, retiring old ones as they improved features for updated versions—the most recent, the Ooni Karu 16, has multiple fuel options, reaches a temperature of 950 degrees in 15 minutes, and costs $799 to start. The ovens are now sold in more than 90 countries and through a growing list of retail partners, including REI and Bloomingdales.
As Ooni has expanded through the pandemic, the company has honed its focus on its ideal customer: the folks a rung down from the professionals—the gadget lovers and dinner party hosts and foodie types who are probably already making pizza. “We learned that we didn’t have to teach them how to make pizza,” said Garland. “They wanted to geek out over sourdough or hydration levels or how much salt is important.” And what if the company could provide those folks with absolutely everything they needed to have a great pizza night? Ooni just launched online grocery shopping via its website, a one-stop shop to purchase your flour, your yeast, your San Marzano tomatoes. They also offer pizza-related accoutrement like peels, stones, and cookbooks, and “pizzawear” like aprons and gloves.
The year 2022 is a big one for the couple, who just turned 40: It’s their 10-year “Ooniversary.” Garland, who recently wrote a pizza-themed children’s book called Jo and the Dough, has dreams of a staff-wide festival day and bringing everyone together for a proper black-tie party. There’s plenty to celebrate: “We created this category. We’re creating a market, which is exciting. There’s lots of competitors coming, but we’ve hopefully got this leader’s advantage,” she says. “And even though we’re doing well, we don’t think we’ve done it, much like that analogy about how you’ve not yet made your perfect pizza. We think everyone deserves great pizza. We’ve got so much to do.”