VIA 313: Defining Pizza, Designing Detroit
Marc English and the Hunt Brothers conjure some real Motor City magic
By Wayne Alan Brenner,
10:45AM, Mon. Jun. 29, 2015
Everybody else is talking about the food, but right now we’re gonna talk a bit about the look of the place. About the gorgeous interior of the restaurant venue itself, about the signage, the whole menus-and-business-cards-and-collateral branding of this dining establishment called VIA 313.
[Note: this popular and critically acclaimed dining establishment called VIA 313.]
But let’s get the food part out of the way first, okay?
Not that you can actually just “get the food part out of the way” when you’re talking about the Detroit-style pizza purveyed by Zane and Brandon, the Hunt Brothers. Because, listen, I haven’t checked to see what the Chronicle’s main food writers have to say about the subject in general, but, to me, there are several different kinds of pizza in this town and I have my favorites among them.
I’m originally from New York, and when I’m looking for a pizza that’s like those perfect pizzas that nostalgia recalls from my misbegotten youth on Long Island, I go for Home Slice. I’ve been in Austin for more than 25 years now, and when I want pizza that’s not only great but also kind of screams We Are Funky & Cool & As Fucking Local As A Pizza Can Be, you’ll find me picking up something from East Side Pies. And when I want some hightoned, bona fide, ur-pizza authenticity that’s, like, haunted by the ghosts of ancient Sicilians and as delicious as a hedonist’s treasure and equal to the hype radiating from the hides of milling foodies, I’m in line at Bufalina or Backspace.
Oh, there’s more, yes – of course there is – but let’s knock it off here and get back to VIA 313 and their Detroit-style pizza.
[Note: 313 is Detroit’s telephone area code.]
“Calling it Detroit style, that’s something we came up with,” says Brandon Hunt. “It was just ‘pizza’ when we were kids. You either got round or square pizza, and that was it. But when we moved down here, we saw that there was no such thing like what we grew up eating in Detroit. So I always say we started that, but you’re starting to see it pop up here and there. There’s one in San Francisco, one in Denver, one in Kentucky – and they’re calling it Detroit Style Pizza now. We tried to trademark it, but you can’t really trademark a style of pizza, you know?”
Before heading to Oak Hill to check out the design of this new bricks-and-mortar place the Brothers have opened, I asked a couple of friends if they’d tried VIA 313 yet. I asked two different people, at two different times. Both of them said, almost verbatim, “You know, I don’t think they put enough sauce on top – but it’s the best damned pizza I’ve ever had.”
Now that I’ve sampled some myself, I’m inclined to agree. And I’m suspecting that it’s something about the crust, especially, something about the dough that’s baked in a square pan with whatever toppings go on it, that makes the sharpest difference here. Because as good as the whole thing is, at least as good as any other pizza I’ve had, it’s the only one where they could take every last delicious, mouth-watering topping off and I’d still be happy eating the crust: It’s simultaneously thick and light and almost crumbly inside, loaded with flavor, redolent of olive oil – it’s like the crust that must be created in Pizza Heaven by specially trained, elaborately mustachioed Seraphim.
[Note: For you Lord of the Rings fans, it’s like all other crusts are cram, but this VIA 313 stuff is lembas-bread, you know what I’m saying? Elen sila lumenn' omentielvo.]
But never mind the food. We’re talking about design here.
Which is where Marc English enters the picture.
“Marc has been a longtime customer, but we actually didn’t know who he was at first,” says Brandon Hunt. “Our first trailer was open for about two or three days, and here comes this guy. And at the time he had a huge beard, bald head, and he was on his motorcycle. And we didn’t know who he was, he just looked like this meat, he looked homeless. And he came up with his Boston accent, and he’s like, ‘Who are you and what are you doing here?’”
“I was going down Sixth Street one night,” says English, self-proclaimed Design Shaman and the brains behind identities for the Austin Film Society and Girlstart, the man who’s responsible for the way a sizeable chunk of The Criterion Collection looks.
“And I was hungry,” says this English, “and I saw a sign that said PIZZA. I didn’t care about Detroit, I just wanted some pizza. But I went to this place, and by the time I was done, I – I’d never had anything like it. So I went up to the window and I was like, ‘Who are you guys?’ And the next day I sent them an email.”
Brandon Hunt smiles. “He sent us an email, saying ‘Great job with the pizza, you guys are doing good work, keep it up.’ But we still didn’t know who he was. So we move on, we’re open for about two years, and we started working with Craig Primozich – who owns Javelina, but who also does commercial real estate on the side – and he was helping us find our next spot. And we’d started working with Designtrait for architectural stuff, with Becky Jeanes and Tray Toungate, but Craig was like, ‘I’ve got a guy you have to meet. He’s kind of a character, don’t be turned off by him because, you know, he either wants to work with you or he doesn’t wanna work with you – and he’s pretty cut and dried about it, so don’t be offended.’ So Craig sends an email introduction – ‘Marc English, VIA 313, you guys should know each other’ – and my brother and I were like, ‘Are you fucking kidding me?’ We were like, ‘Craig, we don’t need you, we know this guy!’”
So of course they hired him instantly?
“No,” says English. “They did their due diligence.”
“Being who we are,” explains Hunt, “we were like, we can’t just use Marc because he’s the obvious choice – we have to get some other recommendations, too. So we checked around town. We called Christian Helms at Decoder Ring, who did Frank and all that, but, ah –” he laughs “ – he was way beyond our budget. And then we called Paul Fucik, he works over on Cesar Chavez, and he was a little cheaper. I should say a little more inexpensive. But it was still more than we’d expected, you know? Because we’d had zero budgeted for marketing and branding before.”
And now, with the bricks-and-mortar shop coming up, it was necessary – right?
Hunt smooths his full brown beard, brushing absentmindedly at it with one hand at the end of a heavily tattooed arm. “We kept debating back and forth,” he says. “Like, do we really need it? Because we’d been using the license plate logo, the driver’s license thing, for the trailers – and it worked. But the task of building a restaurant and making it feel like Detroit without feeling like a, uh, Planet Hollywood – without beating you over the head with it … how do we accomplish that, do it more subtle? And we were talking to Doug Guller from Bikini’s – he’s been a good mentor to us – and we asked him what we should do. And we told him the concerns about the budget, and he was like, ‘Well, never mind the money for a minute. Who do you want to work with?’ And we were like, ‘Well, Marc English. Because we know him, he’s got great energy, he’s from Boston – which is our ‘hood, kind of, even though we’re from Detroit.’ And Doug was like, ‘Well, then use Marc. You’re gonna look back at that money and never regret it, but if you spend less, you’ll always be looking back at what could have been.’ He was like, ‘Just go with your heart – your heart’s always right.’ So we went with it. We hired Marc.”
And then they took him to Detroit.
“My brother and I thought it was crucial for Marc to come to Detroit for a couple of days, to really see the city,” says Brandon. “Because how does somebody who’s never been to Detroit or spent any time there – how can they relay the message, besides from what they see on TV, on the news or in books? There’s more shit than just, you know, murder and buildings falling down. There’s a lot of great things going on in the city, there’s a lot of great architecture, and I think that gets overlooked by negative reports. And, obviously, there’s a lot of great history. It’s an incredible city, if you’ve got a tour guide. And that’s what we did – we were Marc’s tour guides for three days. We took him to all of our spots, showed him around the city. We took him to our grandparents’ house and he met them.”
And what’s come of this immersion in the Motor City’s graphic vernacular? What’s the result, as filtered through the fierce acumen of a design shaman? You can see for yourself on their website, and you can see it in person at VIA 313’s main store, there in a little strip at 71 and William Cannon, right before the Y in Oak Hill.
You can see a vivid evocation of the history of Detroit pizza places – a history resonant with other Northeastern pie joints of the same era: old places in Boston, Connecticut, parts of New Jersey – see it retrofitted into a soaring industrial-warehouse-looking space gone aromatic with what drifts in from the kitchen’s blazing ovens and wafts over from the tile-bordered bar’s beer taps. There’s black wainscoting halfway up the walls, the rest of each wall painted a shade of olive green popular in the early half of the 20th century, one stretch of green obscured by framed photographs from back-in-the-day Detroit, another entire wall given over to a floor-to-ceiling photograph of a neighborhood-defining bridge, booth-backs constructed from wooden planks stained in colors that reiterate the greens and reds and blacks that make the menus so distinct …
“The only thing this place is missing about who we are?” says Hunt. “Is having some old bowling trophies in the bar area – because that’s what you see in all the old bars back home.”
“Yeah, bowling,” says English, a grin brightening his gray-scruffed mug. “Tell Brenner about featherbowling.”
“In Detroit, there’s a place called Cadieux Cafe,” explains Hunt. “It’s a small hole-in-the-wall bar, and you walk in and you can order clams or French-inspired food. Or you can go to the right, and they have these featherbowling lanes. And what it is, it’s like a dirt pit, it’s nice and rounded, and you roll a ball – it was traditionally played with cheese wheels that weigh about 20 or 30 pounds – and you roll it, and it kind of goes up and down the banks of the lane. And there’s a feather at the other end of the lane, and you try and get the ball to fall onto the feather – and you get a point for it.”
He’s kidding, of course. Hunt and English, couple of wise guys, they’re just fucking with an old journo?
“No,” says English, “it’s a real thing.”
“It’s kind of like playing shuffleboard,” says Hunt, “but in the dirt. What’s funny is that we spent 30 years in Detroit and I had never been featherbowling before. I’d heard about it, I’d just never gone over there. And, not wishing bad to anybody on either side of us here, but if one of them, I don’t know, if they do so well that they wanna move on instead of going out of business? We wanna take those spots.”
And put in featherbowling?
“Yeah,” says Hunt. “We’d have Marc design us a featherbowling lane over there. We wanna do featherbowling, we wanna do bocce ball, do like a small arcade kind of thing. Our trailers are great, you know, but we never wanted to be the Sixth Street drunk-slice hangout. It was always supposed to be a family pizza place. Because that’s what we grew up with, family places. We’d play baseball, the pizza place had paid for our uniforms, and after the game we’d go to get pizza and our parents could go and drink and we could play video games. Austin is such a big city, and growing fast, and you can lose that sense of community. I want a 16-year-old to come work here, graduate college, then come back and visit us when we’re in our sixties and be like, ‘Yeah, this was my first job …’ We don’t have that history here yet, but that’s what it was like in Detroit.”