Lockdown has brought with it countless problems; from having to adjust to a new reality and being stuck at home to redundancy and businesses struggling to stay afloat. But through dark times, there has been light too – as communities pull together to support each other.
This is particularly true for Sam Corban, owner of 400° Pizzeria who is spreading joy in his hometown of Cambourne by feeding pizza to hungry customers.
Lockdown has encouraged the savvy entrepreneur to find new ways to operate his business. As people rushed to buy staple goods, Sam saw an opportunity to help locals by launching a delivery service of essential items that he delivered on his bike.
“I’ve been embraced by my local community and it’s really important to me that I give back what I’ve been given,” says the 39-year-old, who has two daughters with girlfriend, Nicola. “When the first national lockdown was imposed, everyone was scrambling for flour and pasta.
“So, in addition to opening the pizzeria for takeaway every Friday, I was also running a dry goods store. As a trader, I was still able to get hold of flour, yeast and pasta. My first delivery was of 2.5-3 tonnes of flour and I sold out in pre-orders before the goods even hit my doorstep.”
The business owner, who used to work in project management for Boots, first started 400° in February 2017, working out of a gazebo. A few months later, he bought a custom-built van but as demand grew during lockdown realised that he would need a smoother set-up.
And so, in June 2020, the pizza wagon was born.
But setting up a remote business has its challenges – such as being able to offer speedy and seamless service. Thankfully, there was an easy solution: Square.
“I found it challenging to find a payments system that would work where I was located as it was often remote spots like a carpark or a field,” he says. “Square is brilliant because the system is connected to my ticket machine in the van.
“It gives me a lot of time to plan and allows me to limit how many orders I can take per hour, so I don’t have to worry about missing anything. I want to make my customers’ life easier and not put any barriers that could stop them from ordering my food.
“For a customer, they’ve got two options; they can either order online, they can pick their collection time at check-out, and it just prints a ticket for us and they turn up, pizza is ready.
“Or if they order sort of face-to-face at the hatch, we get the same ticket print-out and we use customer displays so they can see exactly what they’ve ordered, check it and then pay with their contactless card.”
Throughout the past year, 400° has only been closed for two weeks. Thanks to the nature of the food industry, hygiene is already a top priority, with surfaces cleaned down regularly and handwashing the standard.
But Sam has implemented a few new measures to keep customers safe, including a perspex screen and extra space around the van for social distancing. Running his business through Square helps here too, as it has kept the pizza maker cashless since day one – limiting contact and unnecessary risk.
Cambourne has around 12,000 residents and it’s a close-knit community, with regulars popping by to get their specials and often staying for a chat. It was exactly this sense of togetherness that inspired Sam to approach the local council in 2017 to get an agreement in place to offer street food in the area.
He began running a Friday night pop-up and brought on two other traders, Kerief Catering, a South African/Jamaican fusion brand, and Nanna México. The trio were later joined by Cambridge Fish Bar and guest traders were also invited down during summer.
“Although we’re technically competitors, it’s a great vibe – everyone is so supportive of each other and there’s a very positive atmosphere every night,” says Sam. “I even end up eating the Chef’s special from Kerief Catering every Friday, which is a little bit of everything including beef brisket, pork shoulder and jerk chicken.”
To show their appreciation for key workers, the team of traders had a special deal offering teachers and support staff 25% off from every truck. Both Kerief Catering and Nanna México use Square too, after Sam – who runs an online store for takeaways and deliveries through the system – recommended it to them.
“It’s great, you’ve got this one little box that you can pop on your counter and your orders can print straight off from one device and customers do notice when it looks a little bit sleek and works better,” he says.
Using Square has also helped Sam grow 400° by utilising the different features such as the online store – where he, along with the other traders – can showcase their food, even selling through Instagram or Facebook if they want.
It comes complete with a website builder, so there’s no complicated coding required either. Meanwhile, the Order Manager feature takes care of the sales and ticket print-outs – so Sam can focus on making pizza, not managing payments.
The pizza maker, who brings out the truck to feed the lunch crowd on Wednesdays as well, offers specials every few weeks to spice things up. Quite literally, one of his fiery dishes features sriracha, tabasco, ’Nduja and jalapeño. But the fan favourite is the classic pepperoni.
The chef credits his success to his special slow dough, which took him six months to perfect and takes 24 hours to make. Those with a sweet tooth can dig into the delicious gelato on offer, made in Tuscany and served with triple chocolate brownies and caramel sauce.
Customers often assume that Sam is Italian, which he says is the biggest compliment anyone could give him as the business owner is actually born and raised in Nottingham.
“I haven’t been to Italy but I love when people ask me what part of Italy my family is from – it shows I must be doing something right with my food,” he says. “It still makes me smile when regular customers come out when it’s snowing or raining. Some of them even have pizzas named after themselves.
“I will talk pizza to anybody. The more pizza you can eat, the better.”
And there are plenty of people to talk to as Sam often sells out of dough on pre-orders before even opening the doors. It seems lockdown has not curbed people’s appetite for delicious food.
Like many other food businesses, when discussions around free school meals for children began, Sam decided to do his part too. With donations from customers, he provided £1,000 worth of food vouchers for families struggling to feed their kids, which were distributed by local schools.
“Knowing that I had the support of the community behind me, meant that I could do this without going bankrupt,” he says. “It’s been amazing to be able to pitch in and help others.”
The business owner used to cater for weddings and local fairs, and had been looking for a permanent space for 400°. Unfortunately, the pandemic has put the breaks on these plans for now – but Sam does have plans to launch a drive-through service for bad weather days.
He currently employs one team member, a 17-year-old student named Megan who has been with the business for the past 18 months.
“Megan started out in a front-of-house role and as a bit of a labourer, but I soon discovered she makes kickass pizza,” Sam says. “Having her on my team means that I can spend more time chatting to customers, which I love doing.”
But the student isn’t the only woman behind the pizza counter; Sam’s two daughters, Erin, five, and Freya, two, also like to roll up their sleeves and work the dough. Erin even has her own chef’s outfit and has affectionately named the pizza wagon ‘Karen’ – after her preschool teacher.
“Both of my girls come with me to work on Wednesdays,” the proud dad says. “Once I’ve finished for the day, they’ll make their own pizza. “It’s nice because they both enjoy it. They’ll have fond memories of pizza and us being here together, which feels amazing.
“Launching 400° helped me become myself again, instead of just being a dad. But while my business is important, family is everything to me. Thankfully, my girlfriend and daughters are all pizza fans.”