2020 has been rough on us all. But Connie Polito and Michael Nihill, the couple behind food truck Pizza Pony, were dealt a particularly cruel blow on the weekend.
With their pizza truck parked due to lockdown, the pair decided to sublease a bricks-and-mortar kitchen, where they’ve been vacuum-packing their pizzas to sell at markets and wholesale. They invested in new equipment. It wasn’t easy, but they were managing.
Then, on Saturday morning, a fire in the adjacent building spilled over into Pizza Pony’s new kitchen, destroying most of what was there.
“The dough mixer, the dough trays, Cryovac machine, the fridge – everything was pretty much ruined,” Polito tells Broadsheet. “We lost all of our stock; all our pizzas ready to sell at markets that we’d prepared during the week.”
When the couple posted about it on Instagram, it was simply to let their followers know they’d be closed until further notice. Asking for help wasn’t part of the plan.
“We have been really working so hard to get through the impact Covid has had on our livelihood, and have reinvested so much to ... reopen in a different way,” the post reads. “Not sure where we stand with our future, as we have used everything we have to get the equipment to start up again, and are feeling pretty defeated.”
But Jake Cassar, a customer turned close friend, set up a Gofundme campaign on their behalf, and 24 hours later they reached the $10,000 target.
“It’s pretty crazy – so many people who donated we know, but so many we’ve never met before,” Polito says. “It’s such a hard time for everyone to be opening up their pockets, but I guess that’s what makes this even more special.”
Donations will go towards covering the lost stock and goods, paying suppliers, and paying for the damaged equipment (which Polito and Nihill didn't own outright). The couple is still figuring out their next steps, so Pizza Pony's future is uncertain.
“It just means so much more to us than the aspect of money. It means more because of the sense of kindness and having people care about you that much,” Polito says. “We really hope that we can start up again and when that happens, we’re going to have a massive pizza party and invite everyone who’s donated.”
The couple has been in the pizza business for years, starting with a Pascoe Vale pizzeria in 2015 that they had to let go of for personal reasons. When their son passed away two years ago, Polito took a break from hospitality.
“I’ve always been a very outgoing person. Being front-of-house, I can talk for days, but after that happened, I was pretty closed off and it was a lonely and sad time,” she says.
It was Nihill’s idea for them to get back in the pizza game, and Pizza Pony began cruising around Melbourne early last year.
By 2020 they had regular stints at Melbourne Farmers Markets and private events lined up, until coronavirus forced them to change tack.
“To constantly just go through so much hard stuff, and to feel like you’re just waiting to get a break in life – it’s tough to go through, emotionally,” Polito says.
“Michael and I said that when our son Bosco – it means ‘forest’ in Italian – passed, it was such a massive grieving moment, and that grief continues. But it feels like there’s been a bridge between two years ago to today because we’ve had such amazing support.
“I think the past two years we’ve felt a bit like we were alone, and now we have so many friends that we can count on.
“I feel like everyone’s just opened their arms and caught us.”
The Pizza Pony fundraiser is still active – you can contribute here.