How Andrew Dana Built a DC Pizza and Bagel Empire
Call Your Mother and Timber Pizza bring in food critics, sitting presidents and people just looking for a better version of the classics
His dad is a big-time D.C. divorce attorney, but Andrew Dana says his father was open in his yearning for a different path. “Growing up, my dad always said to me, ‘Oh, I wish I’d opened a deli.’”
While he’s been a lifetime foodie, getting to where Dana is now was as much self-discovery as it was taste-testing and tenacity. “It took me a while to have the confidence or the creativity to think I could do a business like this right,” he says. We’re sitting in the original location of Call Your Mother deli in the Park View neighborhood of the District. With its pink and blue signage, it stands out on this corner of Georgia Avenue, a bright spot in a neighborhood of row houses and brick storefronts.
Dana says the more schooling he got, the more he felt his path narrowing until there were only a few choices left: lawyer, doctor or business person. After majoring in political science, he went to business school. “I just didn’t like it,” he says. “It just never felt like it fit.” At one point, as he struggled to find his direction, he says he adopted his father’s mantra, with a little twist: “I’m going to go into marketing — but I really want to open a pizza shop.”
It was an idea that wouldn’t go away. While in grad school in New York, Dana began doing his market research, eating pizza four nights a week in a city with arguably some of the best pizza places in the world. He admits, the pizza eating was one part research, one part “I don’t want to cook tonight.” He hit all the great pizza places, including Da Nonna Rosa and Lucali in Brooklyn. “The first bite I had was life changing,” he remembers. He’d never had wood-fired pizza and was shocked that it was neither traditionally Italian nor typically New York. Dana says he ended up focusing his final business school capstone on a theoretical pizza place called “Eat On,” which served wood-fired pizza with a campy vibe. “My professor thought I was crazy for that project!” What neither Dana nor his professor knew was that he’d written about his future restaurant: Timber Pizza.
With his MBA degree in tow, Dana returned to D.C. to a job he grew to hate at a desk he couldn’t stand — and he still couldn’t stop thinking about pizza: “At the end of the day, it’s still sausage and cheese. Like how hard can it be?” Then, one day he simply said, “F it. Let’s do this,” Dana says, remembering the day in 2014 when he pulled the trigger with his Timber partner, Chris Brady. The two also own Turu’s Pizza in Virginia.
“It turns out it was pretty hard … But I think my sort of naive approach worked to our benefit,” he says. “We didn’t overthink it. We just sort of dove into the deep end and had to figure it out.” He took a 90% pay cut, gave up a bougie apartment and started squatting at friends’ apartments. “Basically I said, ‘You know, I believe in this and I think I can grow something.’”
Dana and Brady rented space at Union Kitchen, a food incubator that helps food-centric businesses launch and grow. Almost most immediately, Dana says, they needed to pivot. Owning a brick-and-mortar restaurant was more than they were ready for. ”The realtors were asking me questions and I didn’t even know what the questions meant. I certainly didn’t know the answers. So, I was like, whoa, I’m not ready to open a restaurant.” Instead, he and Brady bought a mobile pizza oven, sight unseen, for $30,000 and spent the next three months building it out, figuring out how to make pizza, experimenting with recipes at Union Kitchen and writing a business plan. And then, they hit the streets.
“Like, anybody that would have us, we would show up,” he says, with their pizza truck hitched to the back of a powder-blue 1967 Chevy pickup. They were relentless, Dana says, and his marketing degree was “zero” help. They teach corporate marketing in grad school, he says. “This was like the most bootstrap sort of grassroots thing of all time. Our marketing was basically showing up anywhere and having an insanely positive attitude, like pumping great music and trying to make great pizza.”
Neither Snow Nor Rain Nor Heat Nor Gloom of Night …
“I remember being at the farmers market, and it was, like, monsoon-y’ and we were in water past our ankles, and we were still selling pizza. Everybody else had left. In a nutshell, what we lacked in skill we made up for in grit and hard work,” says Dana, who describes those first couple of years as “brutal.” He and Brady ran “through mother-effing walls together,” he says, missing weddings and birthdays and not seeing friends for years. By 2016, Timber Pizza was part of the DMV’s festival and farmers market scene.
And then, fate stepped into Dana’s life.
Originally from Argentina and a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America (the Harvard of cooking schools), Daniela (Dani) Moreira showed up at one of their farmers market events and asked if they needed any help. “And I was like, you want to work for us? That first day we’re like, okay, cut some zucchinis — and the way she cut zucchinis, we fell over backwards.”
Success followed. By 2016, Timber Pizza had become a solid brand. Dana and Brady opened their first brick-and-mortar store in Petworth, not too far from Dana’s childhood home in Mount Pleasant. “Dani and I were in the kitchen every single day for the first two years. We didn’t miss a single day. We’re there making sure the pizza was exactly how we wanted it. The service was exactly how we wanted it.” Timber Pizza caught the attention of famed Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema, and, the following year, the restaurant landed on Bon Appetit’s 2017 list of the 50 Best New Restaurants in America. It was a “huge, huge, huge defining moment” says Dana, smiling. “It was like, the doors got blown off after that, exposure galore.”
What’s a Bagel?
Pretty soon, Dana says he started recruiting Moreira to run the kitchen of his future restaurant. Like his father, a deli remained his dream. “I think the two loves of my life growing up were pizza and bagels.”
Moreira, though, had never eaten a bagel. Despite that hiccup, Dana says Moreira went taste-testing with him through New York City, South Florida and even California; they shipped bagels down from Montreal and spent nine months developing a bagel recipe. Then in 2018, the Park View store opened. Moreira and Dana are co-owners, with partner Jeff Zients.
Dana calls the bagel restaurant “Jew-ish,” not unlike himself; he’s half-Jewish, on his father’s side. And the name, Dana believes, is a universal concept. “The amount of people from different cultures who have said, ‘Oh my gosh, it totally fits my culture.’ In a nutshell, it’s what this place is supposed to be. It’s not supposed to be super traditional Jewish … it’s supposed to be fun,” he says. “And trust me. Dani’s mom is the number one person saying ‘Call your mother’ — and she’s Catholic.”
What’s worked for the deli, Dana says, is a lesson he learned from Moreira: you can’t compete with nostalgia or someone’s grandmother’s matzah ball soup, even if yours is fantastic. “And she’s like, ‘Let’s play our own game, do something a little different and put a twist on things.’ Now you’re not competing with nostalgia, you are just competing with, ‘Is this delicious?’” At CYM you’ll find items like “Sun City,” an everything bagel with bacon (or pastrami), bodega-style local eggs, American and cheddar cheese and spicy honey, or “King’s Point,” nacho jalapeño cream cheese, bacon and crispy shallots on a cheddar bagel.
“If we’re going to go down, we’re going to go down together,” Dana says he and his partners decided when the pandemic hit in March 2020. After two weeks, during which Dana and Moreira made bagels themselves and delivered them to hospitals, they re-opened their doors. They’d made a decision not to lay anyone off, even if it meant not paying themselves and “taking the bank account to zero.” “[We were] ready to do that,” he says. When they reopened, they were as busy as they’d always been. Dana believes two things were working in his favor: He sold comfort food and his operation was all carry-out. But he also believes it was how CYM treats its staff and its community. The brand, he says, is laser focused on local sourcing, training their mainly immigrant employee base, offering fair wages, language classes, health insurance and life skills courses. The brand saw 120% growth during the first nine months of 2021 as compared to that same period in 2020, while their staff has grown to 150 people.They also opened five new locations: Capitol Hill, Pike and Rose (Rockville, MD), Bethesda Trolley (Bethesda, MD), West End (D.C.) and Georgetown.
Oh yeah, and the president stopped by.
It was January 24, 2021 — Sunday at 12:30 p.m.. The new Georgetown store would close in less than two hours. “What could happen?” Dana says he thought to himself. So he went home. By the time he got there, his phone was blowing up. The new president had just made first D.C. outing — and it was to his restaurant. As Dana tells it, President Joe Biden was on his way back from church with his family. “His granddaughters had been here before and as they left church and they’re all in the car, the granddaughter basically said, ‘Can we stop at Call Your Mother?’ It was very spur of the moment.” The visit went viral. “It was absolute insanity,” recalls Dana. The previous president hadn’t ventured out into The District much during the previous four years; when CYM was the first snack stop in the Biden administration, the visit became a national news story.
As he prepares to open a seventh location next month, this one in Logan Circle, Dana is able to reflect back on his success. ”We made our own luck. We were really relentless with showing up every single day.”
The farmers markets and festivals remain a feature of his business plan. Both Timber and CYM can be found at outdoor markets throughout the DMV, including Silver Spring, MD, Chevy Chase, MD and Fairfax, VA. They still have the mobile oven and the blue 1967 Chevy, too.
And now, Dana has a wife. Moreira and Dana were married last month in Argentina in a COVID-delayed wedding.
This article was featured in the InsideHook DC newsletter. Sign up now for more from the Beltway.
Suggested for you