When Hurricane Sandy hit New York, it turned everything and everyone upside-down. Tower cranes collapsed from 800 feet above. Power lines caved, leaving thousands without electricity for months.
Coastal areas like The Rockaways were hit the hardest with flooding that leveled homes and shut down shops. Many of those local businesses shuttered for good.
To hell with circumstances. Nicole Russell creates opportunities.
Nicole – better known as The Last Dragon and one of the country’s most inventive pizzaiolos – didn’t set out to rise the ranks from bread-making hobbyist to black-belt chef. When Sandy struck, she already had a full card consisting of her marketing 9-5, restoring her home, and supporting her sister as she fought Stage 4 cancer.
“I slowed my life down as much as I could to spend more quality time with her and we started making pizza as a thing that we could both enjoy.” Russell said. “I’d be like, ‘Scandal is gonna be on tonight, let’s make pizza together.’”
Their quality time was often interrupted by construction workers who she says “took a while to get their act together”. [Editor’s note: In the interest of fairness: They were probably spread thin across the city. Also, hard to blame them for lingering in Nicole’s kitchen.] As a genuinely magnanimous host who also did not want to play Murphy Brown to painters, she fed them with slices. Soon, they started asking how much a whole pie would cost.
“What? You want to buy pizza from me? That’s so cool!,” she thought to herself before naming her price with confidence.
Cooking, she realized, didn’t have to be just for fun, or a distraction, or a smart way to boost her sister’s appetite. When her house was finally rebuilt, it reemerged as a hybrid home/pizzeria.
That was Russell’s first push into the world of pizza, but the seed was planted way back in 1985 when she watched kung-fu comedy classic “The Last Dragon” with her sister. In the film, protagonist Leroy Green – dubbed Bruce Leeroy – sets out to reach the ultimate level of martial arts and achieve “The Glow,” a red aura exhibited only by its highest masters. Leroy didn’t fit the typical mold, but, so what? Neither did his father, the owner of an independent pizzeria:
“That was weird, a black man with a pizza shop. Now there’s isn’t a hungry soul in this town that doesn’t know my slogan: ‘Just direct-a yo feet-za, to Daddy Green’s Pizza.'”
They emerged from the theater reenacting the movie’s most memorable scenes. “I got the glow!,” they shouted on their three-mile trek home.
Decades later, Nicole was walking the newly-reopened Rockaway boardwalk when she stumbled upon Roberta’s Anthony Falco, who was firing pizzas out of a portable oven. Fascinated, she spent hours observing the operation and chatting with Falco. They hit it off and the acclaimed pizza czar became one of her closest mentors.
After that, Nicole scoured the internet to learn more about the craft. She found tips, tricks, and inspo from chefs of all different walks of life. How-to videos from Tony Gemignani on YouTube helped refine her dough methodology. The story of Steve Martorano, who broke away from his mobster uncle’s “family business” by selling sandwiches out of his mother’s South Philly basement, showed her that it was possible to launch into the restaurant business without an actual restaurant.
As one of the country’s most diverse neighborhoods, Queens offers fantastic renditions of every dish on the planet. If you can navigate the diagonal streets and infinitely numbered addresses, you’ll find Venezuelan arepas, Greek moussaka, Ghananian Jollof rice, and blood-curdled Thai boat noodles, and more – sometimes on the same block. Meanwhile, the coastal Rockaway area was, as Russell puts it, “a food desert”.
Russell forged an oasis. With sauces and seasonings made from scratch, and names derived from her favorite flick, she topped her pies with authentic tandoori chicken (“Kiss Mi’ Converse), jerk chicken (“7th Heaven”), Japanese sukiyaki (“SukiYaki Hot Suki Sue”), and more. For the less adventurous, there’s The GLO with sauce and cheese; heart-shaped and hardly “plain.”
Seamlessly melding vastly different cuisines was only half the battle. The other half – creating awareness throughout the city – was the greater challenge. In her first year of business, Russell made about $2,000.
“But I was consistent and persistent, always. Even if I didn’t get customers one day, I was still working in the kitchen. Then, when lots of customers showed up the next day, I was ready. ” Russell explained. “And, I knew that if I promoted myself, people would come to me. Eventually, they got to me. People all around the world have made it a bucket-list item when they come to New York.”
For those that can’t come, or are left wanting more after their trip, Russell sells her freshly-baked frozen pies online. That’s mostly uncharted territory for independent shops. For Russell, those sales represent a giant share of her ever-growing pie.
Russell also differentiated herself from other restaurants of the time with a focus on customer retention. Before her Instagram took off, and even before she teamed up with Slice, Russell cultivated a massive phone list. If she had a calamari special on the menu, she texted her customers to let them know, and they hurried over to get it.
No one could have anticipated the rise of The Last Dragon and even Russell isn’t sure how the business might evolve. She might bring her frozen pizzas to grocery stores across the country. She might open a more traditional outpost with seating. The only thing she knows for certain is that she’ll never stop making pizza or fighting to blaze the trail for other immensely talented female chefs looking to break into the industry.
“A lot of people look at me and say, ‘Oh, she doesn’t have a brick-and-mortar,’ but I’m a walking full-on business model,” said Russell. “If you take the craft seriously, and you’re ready to push it to a new level with experimentation and creativity, then this is an opportune time for other women makers.”
“Step out on stage, grab the industry, and help us shape it as we see fit.”