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Welsh rugby folklore talks of an outside-half factory turning out great number 10s. I swear in the field of outdoor cooking there must be an entrepreneur factory somewhere, welding talented, driven individuals, dedicated to creating mould-breaking products.
One such innovator is Ooni founder and CEO Kristian Tapaninaho, native of Finland, resident of Scotland. In our 40-minute chat, he could have blasted out 40 crispy, chewy, pizzas. How I wish we could have met in person beside his wood-fired oven.
Tapaninaho had the work ethic from an early age, stacking shelves as a child in the family supermarket in Finland. A student of photography in the UK he had a creative, curious eye and with his wife, Darina Garland, Ooni co-founder and chief experience officer, also a photography graduate, they changed career ambitions and started a business in education, working with schools to create experiences and curate events.
But there was an urge to make something physical – a product, a revolutionary one that people would enjoy.
“Ooni was born of personal frustration. When you try to create something new, you wonder if it’s just you. Am I alone in wanting to make something better? Or is just that nobody has bothered to fix it before?” says Tapaninaho.
What he wanted to fix were his pizzas, or, more specifically, the oven that cooked them. He loved making pizzas. “I wanted to get good at it but kept hitting this wall. A domestic oven was simply not hot enough.”
It wasn’t just about the amalgam of temperature and time to make the best pizza, but there was nothing on the market that made wood-fired cooking accessible to all.
“I couldn’t find anything compact enough and affordable enough to put in our rental property in London at the time.
I didn’t want to spend thousands of pounds on an outdoor oven that would
be difficult or impossible to take with us.”
The target was to hit 500˚C in under 20 minutes, wood-fired – authentic, accessible, affordable. And so Tapaninaho retreated to his shed, tinkering and experimenting, trying to reduce a mountain of
heavyweight materials into a lightweight, portable ‘suitcase’ of an oven.
More a designer than engineer, he called round to a small metal workshop nearby for some help with the welding; made sure there was a hopper for the wood pellets and kept on tinkering.
“My first pizza actually came out of a prototype made of aerated concrete blocks. It wasn’t very good! But as I developed the product the pizzas got better and better and I got closer and closer to what I was looking for.”
Now it was time to check that he was not alone and that there was a viable business out there. He launched a Kickstarter funding campaign and found nearly 100 like-minded people to pre-order the product.
Next step was to look for a manufacturer and he found one in his Finnish homeland. “Orders came in thick and fast and we had 500 when we started shipping.”
Ooni, which is the phonetic spelling of the Finnish word for oven, is now manufactured in China and despite the huge success of a company founded just eight years ago, the prices remain extremely competitive, alongside relentless attention to detail, enduring quality and a restless desire to improve and innovate.
Tapaninaho grew up over the open fire. His grandparents had a farm in the Finnish town of Pyhäjärvi about six hours north of Helsinki, in an area the size of Greater London, with a population of just 5,000.
“Forests, lakes – there was nature everywhere, as we made campfires and cooked over wood. It was a big part of my upbringing, nurturing my love for the outdoors and live fire cooking.”
After living in London, the family headed to Edinburgh, where Garland is from, and the Ooni offices are in the West Lothian town of Broxburn, 12 miles from the capital.
Ooni Pro and Ooni Koda ovens are two of its models, while Ooni Karu allows for a lower, slower cook over wood, charcoal and with a gas attachment – multi-fuel options for meats and fish. The latest Ooni is Fyra, a powerful, portable, pellet-fuelled pizza oven, with the hopper allowing gravity to feed through the hardwood pellets.
“We are always innovating and pushing on. We truly believe all our products are world class and our creative energy will ensure we continue exploring a category of oven we created.”
Sustainability and responsibility are core principles of the business, with Ooni, a member of 1% for the Planet, running an impact fund, donating 1% of revenue to social and environmental causes and planting a tree for every oven it sells.
Last year, fulfilling a dream for Tapaninaho, Ooni was listed in The Sunday Times Fast Track 100, seventh overall and the fastest growing private company in Scotland.
In 2018, Ooni turnover was £10m, rising further last year and now with nearly 90 employees. “We are creating great jobs as well as great ovens.”
Earlier this year Ooni opened an office in Austin, Texas to serve its biggest market the United States and also has an office in Bonn, Germany.
Lockdown has seen many of us cooking in the garden at home and Tapaninaho and Garland were no different. Do their children ever tire of the sight of another creation emerging from the pizza philosopher’s baking stone?
“They do tease me and are my harshest critics. But they love pizza!”
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