Then, something weird happened: After just four months, they closed the business and listed the property.
The reason: They never could find reliable help; Arillo was burned out.
“It was excruciating,” said Ralston, who handles the business side of the operation. “It was really, really hard for a long time there, because Eric was just chained to the oven, just had no life at all.”
They had a toddler and a second child on the way. “We had to be honest and just say, ‘We can’t do this anymore. It’s not working,’” Ralston said.
As it turned out, 2020 was not a good time to sell a commercial space retrofitted to accommodate a bakery. The couple got such low-ball offers that they decided to stay put and come up with another business model.
Today, Arillo, 43, and Ralston, 38, are recovering bread makers who’ve switched their focus to pizza. Where customers once queued up for loaves of olive bread and sweet orejas, they now stop by for hand-crafted pies, sourdough bread sticks and vegan cookies.
Open since late April, the newly minted La Calavera Pizza has been a hit from the get-go. Ironically, at a time when restaurants everywhere are struggling to find workers, La Calavera has snagged a couple of hard-working young employees who want to learn the art of pizza-making.
Arillo and Ralston — who both grew up in Atlanta and spent about four years in Arillo’s native Mexico after they married — are feeling better about life. They have predictable hours, and time to spend with their two small children.
And, Atlanta has a new destination for artisan pies, which can be built on white, organic local whole-wheat or gluten-free crusts. The kitchen makes its own simple tomato sauce (“it’s not even cooked; that’s all I can say about it,” Ralston said) and a vegan, cashew-and-sunflower-seed cheese sauce.
La Calavera uses flour from DaySpring Farms in Danielsville, cured meat products from the Spotted Trotter and hot sauce from Grant Park-based Pulp. The Homeboy pie incorporates ingredients from all three.
The only by-the-slice option is the cheeseless Ladrillo (aka grandma pie), with a thick crust that’s close to foccacia. Ladrillos are baked in sheet pans and cut into rectangles resembling bricks. (Ladrillo is the Spanish word for brick.)
“We are messing around with sandwiches,” made with Arillo’s sourdough rolls and stuffed with the same meat and veggie toppings as the pizzas, Ralston said.
When I asked Ralston if they ever would sell bread again, I almost could hear the tension in her voice.
“We get asked that every week,” she said. And, yes, they have considered it.
“At the same time, that was what we were doing for so long, and what eventually became unsustainable. I don’t know. It’s a possibility.”
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LA CALAVERA PIZZA
Menu: artisan pizza
What I ordered: slice of Ladrillo; Homeboy pie, with bacon added; Mercado pie with a gluten-free crust, plus onions and mushrooms; vegan chocolate chip-oat-coconut cookies. I loved the Homeboy, and was super-impressed with the longevity of the whole-wheat crust; after two days, the crust of a leftover slice was still moist and delicious. The Ladrillo, which comes with sauce, but not cheese, had a nice foccacia-like chew and the delicate aroma of basil and tomato — lovely. (Cheese and toppings can be added your Ladrillo, if you like.) The Mercado, made with vegan kale pesto and our choice of house-made cashew and sunflower cheese sauce, is a nice option for vegans, and those on a gluten-free diet.
Service options: takeout only; order online or in person; no delivery
Outdoor dining: no; they hope to add it in the near future
Mask policy: yes, for staff and customers
Address, phone: 696 Memorial Drive SE, Atlanta; 404-697-7030
Hours: 4-8 p.m. Wednesdays-Sundays