Dragon Fire Pizza is a popular food truck in town, as I’m sure you’re well aware. The trailer is easily recognizable with its unique paint job and domed wood-fired oven on the back. Dragon Fire offers up ten-inch individual pizzas for eight to ten bucks, give or take. Varied locations around C-U make it one of the more accessible food trucks, especially during the summer when campus locations are limited.
The pizza is really good, as we’ve documented over time, and owner Dave Saam and his team make an effort to offer up delicious specials. At last weekend’s Blues, Brews, and BBQ, Dragon Fire embraced the barbeque theme and offered up barbeque pork, chicken, and brisket pizzas. I’m hopeful that Dragon Fire will offer up a corn-themed pizza at this August’s Sweetcorn Festival (hint, hint). I recently caught up with Saam, who might be the nicest and friendliest food truck owner I've ever met. Check out our conversation below.
Smile Politely: Thanks for taking the time to talk with us! The food truck has been up and running for about a year and a half now. How are things going?
Dave Saam: Hi! Things are going very well, thanks for asking.
SP: What made you decide to open a pizza food truck in the first place?
Saam: Well, I come from the world of advanced motorcycle training, and there are only so many people with motorcycles, and the number of them that want advanced training is pretty small. So when that business closed, I was looking for something with more universal appeal. It turns out that nearly everyone eats pizza at some time. And the food truck was because it’s trendy and quite rare to see a setup even close to ours.
SP: What have been some challenges you’ve dealt with since opening?
DS: Oh my gosh, open a food truck and discover a world full of new and interesting challenges that you’d never imagined. Things break down, ovens weren’t really meant to go on the back of a trailer, and so on. Every day seems to bring some challenge or another. One of the bigger challenges that comes up regularly is finding good quality employees. This is a common issue it seems for a lot of small businesses.
SP: What have been some of your favorite moments?
Saam: I really love it when things come together and we get some momentum and just crank out delicious pizzas over and over. We can go really fast when we get a good rhythm. But my all time favorite moment was Superbowl Sunday of 2015. I received a call from Lt. King at the Champaign Fire Department, and if you recall there was a hazmat spill on the interstate that day, and it was ridiculously cold, single digits, maybe a high in the teens. So there were fire fighters and other hazmat cleanup folks out in the cold all day working to manage the scene. We coordinated with the fire department to drive out and serve hot pizzas to the crew. I think we made some friends in the fire department that day. But it’s really nice for us to be able to get a hot meal to people that work in the cold. That’s probably my favorite moment.
SP: Food trucks have been slow to come to C-U, and a few have opened and closed in just a few months. What’s your key to success?
Saam: Restaurants and food trucks are risky business all around, and there are a lot of unique and interesting ways to fail. We work towards success every day by trying to put out the best pizzas we can. And I remind myself to be more stubborn and persistent than the challenges I mentioned above. I think you have to really enjoy being a creative problem solver in addition to loving good food to make this work.
SP: Where do you hope to see Dragon Fire in the next few years?
Saam: Well, on Tuesdays we’ll be downtown Champaign at Neil and University, and every other Friday we’ll be at Wolfram Research on State and Kirby… That’s funny to me because we have some really die hard regulars at some of our regularly scheduled stops. I think, however, what you’re really asking me is what many customers ask, which is “when are we going to open up a brick and mortar location?” We do have plans to grow the business and expand into other trucks, even a brick and mortar, and also into some other cities. The more pizzas people eat, the faster this happens!
SP: Who comes up with the pizza specials?
Saam: The fun part about pizza is that you can put almost anything on them. So, sometimes I’m coming up with specials, sometimes employees, or even customers suggest them on occasion. We’ll try almost anything.
SP: What’s a pizza topping flavor you’d like to try, but haven’t yet?
Saam: You know what I’d really love to do is try pizza from all over the world. Each country or region has it’s own taste for pizza and what a pizza should be, and the variety fascinates me. I really like Indian food, and I think it’d be really interesting to try a curry chicken pizza. Or a butter chicken pizza. Can you imagine it? I’d try it for sure.
SP: What are some of your favorite places to eat in C-U when you’re not consuming pizza?
Saam: The folks over at Hickory River probably see me too much, and I like Black Dog as well. I like chicken pad thai from My Thai, and the chimichangas from Fiesta Café are great. I really enjoy the pork chops from Texas Roadhouse. Dublin O’Neils has an amazing chicken pot pie (now that’s something I should deconstruct and put on a pizza…) Oh, and Marble Slab in Savoy. There are others, I love trying new restaurants and I haven’t made it to every single one in Chambana yet. I’ll work on it.
SP: Where can we find the truck this summer?
Saam: Several great locations! Tuesdays for lunch we are at Neil and University followed by the Champaign farmer’s market from 4 to 7 p.m. at Hill and Neil. Wednesdays we’re at the Research Park south of St. Mary’s on Oak Street in the Enterprise Works parking lot. Thursday evenings from 5 to 7:30 p.m. we are doing dinner in Savoy at Triptych Brewing. Fridays we alternate between State and Kirby and Fox Drive south of Devonshire. Most Saturday mornings you’ll find us at the Urbana farmer’s market (and we are doing a cooking demonstration there July 2nd.) On occasional Sundays we’ll head out to Sleepy Creek Vineyard, and all kinds of places. The real answer? Look at our website and click on the day to see where we are at.
SP: Anything else you’d like to share with SP readers?
Saam: There really is. I still remember the first day you came to test out pizzas and write that first article about us in Smile Politely. To be honest, at the time I didn’t think much of it. But I hear regularly from customers that they read about us in Smile Politely and that because of the positive comments and articles they wanted to come try our pizza. So really what I’d like to share with your readers is a big, heartfelt thank you. Thanks for supporting our business and thanks for coming out to try our pizza.
All photos by Jessica Hammie.