There is almost nothing as comforting as made-from-scratch pizza—but, to be frank, there aren’t a bevy of local eateries where from-scratch pies can be found. One local restaurateur decided to take matters into his own hands to fill the need, and Olive’s Fresh Pizza Bar in Excelsior was born. We talked with Olive’s owner Perry “Duff” Smith about his venture and what makes the lake area such a perfect place to open a restaurant.
Pilots and Pizza
At the beginning of our conversation, I ask Duff Smith if he has a background as a cook or restaurant owner. “Neither!” he laughs. “I’m an airline pilot.” Smith works for United Airlines and Delta Airlines, and is still a traveling pilot. He also works in graphic design with a family company, Koechel Peterson and Associates. “But I worked as a waiter for many years, out of high school and during college,” Smith explains. “I always enjoyed the [food] industry. My brother is a bartender and restaurant manager, so it’s always been something on the back burner of my ambitions.”
Smith knew the co-owners of Olive’s at its original location in Marine on St. Croix, which opened several years ago. “The owner of the Marine on St. Croix shop was looking to move into White Bear Lake and was looking for investors,” says Smith. Two co-owners took on the White Bear Lake location, but Smith decided to wait in the wings for a spot in the Lake Minnetonka area: “I was really interested in Excelsior.” His patience paid off, as the space on Water Street opened up and the stars aligned to make a lake-area Olive’s a reality. “This just kind of presented itself,” Smith says. “It was an extremely good product, an extremely good location, and there was a definite need in Excelsior for this sort of restaurant.” Olive’s in Excelsior opened in January 2015 to a warm welcome from the community.
Smith and his team want Olive’s to be a true neighborhood gathering spot, and so far they’re having great success. “It’s a place where you can be casual with your children,” says Smith, himself a dad of four kids (teens and young adults). “We encourage it. We love having the kids come in.” Pint-sized visitors can get an up-close view of the pizza process through a little viewing area near the open kitchen.
Olive’s kitchen manager and chef Justin Chaffee studied at the California Culinary Academy, and brings years of experience in catering and other pizza joints to the kitchen. And Smith mentions bar manager Jake Hopkins, who started working at the original Olive’s location when he was still a high schooler. “We’ve got great staff,” says Smith, noting that the team really feels like a family. “We hire a lot of local high school kids, and they’re excellent employees. It’s a very fun place to work.” This spring, Smith brought on co-owner John Marshall, who had previously been a partner in Olive’s White Bear Lake location with Jason Bailey.
“Pizza is one of those things that can make everybody happy,” says Smith. And Olive’s pies are truly customizable, including options for gluten-free, vegetarian or no-dairy diners, so customers can feel comfortable stopping by with a diverse crew of eaters.
But make no mistake—the heart of a good pizza is simple, fresh ingredients, and Olive’s hits the mark. “We don’t complicate things or try to do too many crazy things,” Smith says. “The most important part is the crust.” The Olive’s team uses a custom recipe for their from-scratch dough, and the kitchen includes a sheeter machine that rolls the dough to the perfect thinness. “That’s the thing customers comment on the most,” Smith observes. “They like the thinness and the crispiness of the crust.
Olive’s menu offers some traditional pizza topping combinations, like a classic Italian Margherita, along with more contemporary flavors. Smith mentions one pie, the Fongo, that was originally intended as a limited-time, seasonal offering. “It was so well-received during the summer, and we had so many complaints when it was taken off the menu that we made it a permanent addition,” he laughs.
At the bar, Olive’s diners can find a nice selection of beer and wine—and the staff are always ready to offer a pizza pairing suggestion. Smith says he loves the symbiotic relationship Olive’s has with its next-door neighbor, Excelsior Brewing Co.
Ask any local business owner why they chose to open up shop in the lake area, and the answer is always the same: “It’s the community.” Duff Smith agrees. “I’ve lived in Tonka Bay since 2001,” he says. “It all comes down to the people who live here.” Excelsior has a variety of ages—retirees, young couples, young families with kids—so there’s diversity. It’s just a really fun city.” Smith says the restaurant is running so smoothly he doesn’t feel the need to be there every day, “but I love to go in. I love to see so many regulars.”
Olive’s has hosted several community events, including last year’s Minnetonka school district election-night festivities. This summer, they’ll even host a wedding reception for two Excelsior natives.
Smith and his team are also involved with Minnetonka High School’s DECA business program, where students work on creating and running their own businesses. One DECA group has started a social media and marketing business called Aria Social and has partnered with Smith to run Olive’s website and social media accounts. Great pizza in the heart of Excelsior? That’s amore.
What’s on the menu?
We asked owner Duff Smith to choose a favorite dish from Olive’s kitchen. “It’s tricky, but if I had to pick an all-time favorite, it’s the Fresno pizza.” Here’s a snapshot of the Fresno and several other all-time favorite pies.
Garlic olive oil, shredded mozzarella, caramelized fig, thin-sliced red onion, gorgonzola, smoked pancetta, aged balsamic cream, fresh-sliced pear, shaved parmesan and gourmet greens. 15-inch $23; 10-inch $11.50
Garlic olive oil, oyster, button and portabella mushrooms, fontina cheese, sweet and red onion, smoked bacon and truffle oil. 15-inch $23; 10-inch $11.50
Olive’s House Pizza
Pepperoni, sweet onion, sausage, mushroom, sweet pepper, black olive, green olive, shredded mozzarella and tomato sauce. 15-inch $23; 10-inch $11.50
(Owners John Marshall and Duff Smith)