Makeboluo, a delivery- and pickup-only concept specializing in pizza with crusts made like Chinese scallion pancakes, recently opened in Boston. Restaurateur Michael Wang operates Makeboluo out of the kitchen of his fast-casual shao bing sandwich restaurant Fóumami, which reopened after a 17-month hiatus last August.
Shao bing is a type of thick, oily flatbread from China.
Customized pizzas start at $19, and signature pizzas — including a Thai chicken pizza with red peppers, peanuts and Sriracha sauce, and the Soseji, which features sesame-soy pork sausage and sambal chile sauce — run for $26. The pies come in only one size, 16 inches, and along with a range of unorthodox pizza ingredients, most recipes do include mozzarella and tomato sauce.
Unlike Fóumami, which is open for dine-in and takeout, Makeboluo’s menu is available only for delivery and pickup via Uber Eats and Grubhub, as well as for corporate catering. Makeboluo sold 80 pizzas in its first three days, prompting Wang to add the pickup option in early February in order to reach more customers.
For the moment, the operation is skeletal: After Fóumami, which has a staff of five, closes at 4 p.m., Wang and one other staff member run Makeboluo for the next five hours.
Fóumami has relied on the Financial District’s office workers for steady business. But the onset of the delta and omicron variants of COVID significantly diminished the area’s weekday population — and consequently Fóumami’s customer base. Needing to find a new way to reach customers, Wang developed Makeboluo.
“You feel like a sitting duck, just waiting there and waiting,” Wang said. “And like a lot of small businesses, you can’t just wait so long. So I felt it was very important to be proactive and try to figure out ways to generate sales without having to depend solely on people coming back to the office.”
The Makeboluo concept originated with the scallion pancakes which Fóumami serves as a side with soups and salads. It came together almost by accident during a weekly staff meal.
“We'd try to do something fun during the day,” Wang said. “So we took one of those scallion pancakes, and then we put tomato sauce on it. We put mozzarella on it, and we put pepperoni, different toppings, and then we baked it, and it turned out to be a phenomenal pizza. Everybody loved it. It was really good. And so we started to play around with it some more. And then we thought, ‘Well, why don't we try to sell this pizza?’ Because from what I saw, pizza was one of the most sought-after delivery items during COVID. And it also travels well. And when you get the pizza at home, you can just get it in the oven, reheat it, everything comes back to life. So we decided, O.K., maybe we have something here.”
In order to accommodate the scallion pancake crusts, Wang and his staff had to develop modifications to traditional pizza making techniques. Instead of placing toppings on raw dough and baking everything together, for instance, Makeboluo’s staff first partially bake the scallion pancakes, then add the toppings, and then bake again.
“It's just to get the right texture in the crunch. The distinguishing factor of our pizza is the scallion pancake, so we had to make sure that that part was perfect,” Wang said.
According to Wang, the average margin for ingredients is under 20%. Delivery fees constitute Makeboluo’s largest expense. Wang has also invested in marketing through the third-party delivery apps and on social media.
Makeboluo is named after the Chinese pronunciation of “Marco Polo.” Wang associates his new concept with the apocryphal story of the explorer’s return to Italy from his travels in Asia. So the story goes, he missed China’s scallion pancakes and convinced a Neapolitan chef to try to make them, only to inadvertently invent pizza instead.
Wang’s plans for Makeboluo are contingent on its performance in the near future. The simplicity of the concept and its streamlined operation give him cause for optimism about the possibility of eventually franchising it.
Before the pandemic, Wang initiated an expansion plan for Fóumami, with an eye toward franchising. In March 2020, he had to shut down work on what would have been Fóumami’s second location, in Harvard Square in Cambridge, Mass.. Now, along with launching Makeboluo, Wang’s top priority is to restore Fóumami to its pre-pandemic level of business. Only then would he return to his expansion plan, which entails, initially, opening another two or three corporate-owned locations in the Boston area.
“It feels a little bit like starting over again, because now we're trying to rebuild this store so that we can look into expansion again later down the road,” Wang said