Customers enter the shop, grinning from ear to ear as Prince’s “Raspberry Beret” blasts from the speakers. Amid all the chaos, the chef glides through the kitchen, tossing pizzas in and out of the scorching hot oven. Many of his customers have been waiting for this moment for weeks. Others have made this pizza a weekly ritual.
The chef is Benjamin Arrona, a San Luis Obispo local whose love for pizza led to the creation of Benny’s Kitchen. His Detroit-style pizzas, which he makes at a hole-in-the-wall kitchen on East Foothill Blvd., have become a hot commodity, serving crowds from all over California. The only way to place an order is through Facebook, for those quick enough to message him.
“The business is set up so you have to message me on Facebook, and that’s on purpose,” Arrona said. “It’s not only to ensure that you’re going to get the pizza that you want. I’m taking the order and we’re building a relationship.”
Arrona, 40-years-old, doesn’t run a typical pizza joint. The 1,000 square-foot kitchen space is solely for cooking — there’s nowhere to sit and eat, and you must order in advance.
Customers have the option to put pepperoni, sausage, onions, olives, green peppers, jalapeños and pineapple on their pizza. If two or three toppings aren’t enough, Arrona created the “God Damn Bro,” a pizza with all of the above, guaranteed to weigh at least five pounds. He also started baking lasagna which is even more difficult to reserve. Orders are placed the night before pick-up on a first-come, first-serve basis.
In order to get into the 2,900-member Facebook group,you must agree to a set of rules: orders must be placed via Facebook messenger and paid for with a credit card. Some customers have been buying Benny’s Pizza since Arrona opened his doors in Feb. 2020, while others are just finding out about it now.
Video by Sophia Crolla
Starting a Business During COVID-19
Back in Feb. 2020, Arrona planned on renting out the space to caterers and food trucks, as well as small local businesses. When the pandemic hit, he had to change his plans.
“I took lemons and made lemonade,” Arrona said. “I began making the pizzas and selling them out of the shop since take-out food was still allowed. Benny’s really grew organically out of necessity to pay the bills.”
While staying open during COVID-19, Arrona has complied with all restaurant guidelinessuch as making sure his employees are wearing masks at all times and only allowing one customer in at a time. The past year was certainly not an ideal time to open his kitchen, but his customers proved to be loyal, he said.
San Luis Obispo resident, Marc Carra, attempted to order for weeks and had no luck. Eventually, he tried the pie with the famous caramelized cheese-crust and now places an order at least once a week. This week, Carra couldn’t wait to eat his pizza at home, so he found a quicker way to eat— without having to leave the Benny’s Kitchen parking lot.
“I just got this motorhome and I thought, I’m gonna go pick up pizza in my new motorhome,” Carra said. “I’m going to eat it on my kitchen table, right in the parking lot. I had to do it. This is the best pizza I’ve ever had.”
On any given day, Arrona prepares around 60 pounds of cheese and sells 150 pizzas a day. Arrona first learned how to make Chicago-style pizza from a close friend, later transitioning to Detroit-style after discovering its evident popularity among his family and friends.
“We rub the dough in oil to give it that old-school, back when it was good, Pizza Hut feel — just so greasy and delicious,” he said. “I’m old enough to say that.”
Outside of the Kitchen
Arrona has created a community through his thick-crusted masterpieces, but he also created a whole other community up Highway 1. When he isn’t slinging pies, Arrona keeps busy in the classroom.
He currently teaches a remote history class at Cuesta College and is getting his Ph.D. from Oxford University in England. On days when he bakes pizza, he often has virtual class at 7 a.m. and is in the kitchen by 9 a.m.
“This morning I had a seminar at Oxford, and luckily the seminars this term are in the evening in England so the morning here,” Arrona said. “Last semester, I had an 11 a.m. English time seminar so that was 3 a.m. here. That wasn’t fun.”
Arrona graduated from Cal Poly with a master’s degree in history, then went to Columbia University for a master’s in Islamic Studies. While he often works, studies, or teaches for 10 to 12 hours a day, he reaps the rewards through great customers and students.
A Kitchen for the Community
With all the efforts to advance racial equality within the past year, Arrona has made it his mission to help small businesses. Benny’s Kitchen was started with the idea to help small businesses grow without costing them a fortune. Arrona described his kitchen as an “incubator,” allowing people to share their cuisine with the community.
“I specifically want to help people of color who want to be small business owners who have that traditional heritage,” Arrona said. “Maybe they’ve learned from their mother, their grandmother, or whatever it is.”
When he isn’t in his kitchen, Arrona opens it to others, hoping to share their food and culture with the San Luis Obispo community for an affordable rental price.
Bap Jo, a Korean American fusion pop-up, is just one of the many small businesses sharing their cuisine with San Luis Obispo. The Korean food is served two or three times a month, along with other small businesses like the Artisan Tea Project and the Hatch Rotisserie and Bar.
“This is a perfect opportunity to come and share their food with the community and make money during this hard time,” Arrona said.
While he plans on keeping Benny’s Kitchen open for the foreseeable future, Arrona also has dreams to open a late-night pizzeria downtown. In the meantime, Benny’s customers can continue to enjoy his famous pizza and lasagna — if they’re lucky enough to secure a slice.