It sounds like a Bruce Springsteen song: Bourne’s Joshua Lowden, 43, started his culinary career as a high-school dropout in South Jersey, working in restaurants for extra money. He ultimately got a degree and began a corporate career working for nursing homes, dabbling in private catering on the side from a small trailer. When the pandemic hit, his full-time job was in trouble. His wife, Gina, convinced him to launch a pizza business once and for all, and Wicked Fire was born.
Now he travels from Boston to Provincetown and beyond, slinging New York-style pie from a trailer — and even converting suspicious octogenarians to the pleasures of Hawaiian pizza. (There’s some friendly competition with Wicked Restaurant and Wine Bar on Cape Cod, but Lowden’s Wicked is exclusively pop-up and catering.)
His tag line? “From suit and tie to pizza guy.”
Why start a pizza business in the middle of a pandemic?
I essentially got the business model up and running on Sept. 11, 2020. That’s when I decided that I needed to do something that I love and work for myself instead of being paid to work for someone else’s dream. My wife had been after me to live my dream.
Previous to that, I managed sales teams for nursing home companies across the country, mainly on the East Coast, but I did go cross-country many times a year. Unfortunately, my sales team, because of COVID, was furloughed. We did adult day health programs, and when COVID [hit], the programs weren’t allowed to function.
I have four kids. I always supported my family. My wife said, “You need a backup plan. Why don’t you do the pizza thing again?” I was in a tizzy. I didn’t know what to do.
Why pizza, though?
I’ve been in Massachusetts for 12 years. I was born and raised in New Jersey. I’ve lived there my whole life; that’s where my cooking began. I worked in restaurants as a teenager and fell in love with the industry. My mom was always in fine dining. She ran and managed restaurants locally in Burlington, New Jersey. We were Exit Six on the Turnpike. I always wanted to do something in the restaurant field.
The money wasn’t there right away. I was a high-school dropout. When I dropped out of high school, I decided I had to go out on my own. I was 17. It was time to do something. I started working in a restaurant. It wasn’t paying the bills as a 17-year-old, so I got into construction. I needed to get my education back. I went back to school. Then my dad, who was in health care, got me a job in one of his nursing homes.
Long story short: I worked my way up, got my high school diploma, went to community college, became a regional manager [of nursing homes], then a vice president, but while doing all this, I was still dabbling in food.
Back up: Why did you drop out of high school?
High school, for me, was always a chore. If I wasn’t playing sports or drama, I would be miserable. I hated it. I started working in a restaurant part-time. The owner got into my head and said, “You can be a full-time chef!” I made a stupid decision against my parents’ will. I was always hard-headed and independent. I’ve been working 40-hours-plus a week since I was 16 years old, and there’s something to be said for that in this day and age.
How did you get back into cooking?
I was a private chef. This was during the surge of Emeril Lagasse. Anyone could be a private chef; just put the work in! I was newly married; I just had my first child. My grandmother was a self-taught chef. My mom is a fantastic cook. I learned from them and ingrained myself in the culinary world as far as cooking shows, magazines, and any free time I had, I started cooking.
We had a big friend group in New Jersey and hosted dinner parties. It turned into people saying, “Why don’t you come to my house and cook?” We did just about everything, but primarily Italian was the biggest influence. People started hiring me. I thought, “Maybe I can make some money on the side. It’s something I can do on the weekends.”
Why did you relocate to Massachusetts from a pizza capital like New Jersey?
My wife’s from Massachusetts, but we met in New Jersey. My father-in-law got MSA, multiple system atrophy. It’s like a combination of ALS and MS. A horrible disease. They gave him five years to live, and her family decided to come home for him to live out his final days. In doing that, they moved to Bourne. We wanted to be with him. We packed up our kids and followed him up here. He died eight years ago, and we decided to stay.
When we moved up here, I was doing private beach parties, cookouts, grills. A buddy of mine said, “There’s no good pizza up here; nothing like New York or New Haven.” He was right. I began dabbling in dough-making. When I decide I want to do something, I’m in it 24 hours a day.
I bought a trailer with a wood-fired pizza oven. There was a guy on Craigslist who put himself through college with a wood-fired oven in New Hampshire. He graduated, got a job with the military in Denver, and he had 10 days to move himself out. He had to sell everything, and part of that was his external trailer.
I just happened to find this on a Sunday morning online. I contacted him. He said, “If you can come today, I’ll give it to you for $8,000.” I drove up in my wife’s minivan. I didn’t know a thing. I didn’t know how heavy it was. I didn’t know how to tow it. I pulled up to it and was like, “Holy crap! This thing is huge. How am I going to tow it with my wife’s minivan?” It was just all-encompassing but such a great learning experience.
I knew nothing about certification or inspection or commissary kitchens. I couldn’t just do this from my house? I went through all the learning curves. Honestly, it was a crash course in business 101, restaurants 101 and how to work for yourself. The town [of Bourne] was super helpful. They took us through every step of how to get certified. Now I needed to make pizza, not just for my family. I had to make it on a scale for 100 or 50 people. It was a much different beast, a ton of trial and error.
What was the initial response?
We did a free pop-up event out of my driveway on Halloween 2016 to get the word out, and people went nuts. They heard there was free pizza. I had a line of 75 people in my driveway, and I had no idea what I was doing. We were putting out slices, and it took off like wildfire. People wanted to book me for this and that. But I have four kids. The fear of the unknown kept me from doing this full-time for so long.
Describe your pizza style.
I wanted what I grew up on. My style is a cross between Neapolitan and New York. It’s got the fluffiness and the crust of a Neapolitan. It has a poofy crust, but it doesn’t get soupy or fall apart in the middle. I blend my flours so that it gets a little bit of a crunch in the middle.
What’s your signature?
Wicked Rita is our biggest seller. But we have an 86-year-old woman who’s been to every pop-up we’ve ever done. This is why I do this every day. She came to our first event — our first local pop-up. It was sleeting and windy. I just had gotten my new trailer, totally enclosed, a mobile kitchen. I was in my glory!
I make an Angry Hawaiian with whole pineapples, roasted on my wood-fired oven, caramelized to bring out the sugars, and wood-roasted bacon. She said, “I hate pineapple.” I said, “Do me a favor. Try it with the pineapple first. I’ll give you a slice.”
Then she said, “You only take cash and something called Venmo. I have no cash on me.” I said, “Venmo is really easy. Let me set it up for you.” This 86-year old woman whips out her iPhone, and my wife is sitting on the front of the trailer, setting up her Venmo. She ate it with the pineapple and said, “This is the best thing I’ve ever tasted.” I thought she was pulling my leg.
This woman comes to our next pop-up, takes down her mask, and she’s smiling ear-to-ear. She says, “I have to tell you, I’m happy on many levels — the first being I found a pizza I actually love, and the second, I realized you can use Venmo anywhere! My husband isn’t happy. I use it for everything!”
What’s your favorite area hangout?
I have four kids. Betty Ann’s ice cream is an amazing local business. They do an orange and coffee mix. Growing up in New Jersey, orange-vanilla swirl was huge. The orange-coffee swirl is to die for.
Favorite pandemic-era binge-watch?
I’m a big Food Network guy — anything Guy Fieri has his hands in, not because the food is that great, but he’s a visionary when it comes to production.
Kara Baskin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @kcbaskin.