April 17, 2024

From the Hands of the Artists

Creative duo serves up artisanal vegetarian pies at Make Believe Pizza
By Geri Dietze | March 16, 2024

Is it easy for an artist to switch mediums? In the case of Make Believe Pizza, absolutely. Em Randall is a self-taught northern Michigan artist with a solid following in and outside of Michigan; now, with musician husband Jack Senff, she’s taken their creativity into the kitchen.

The pandemic had something to do with the birth of Make Believe Pizza, in that it gave the pair the time to tinker with their dough recipe, but the origins go back about 14 years, when they first started to think about opening a shop together.

“The dream has shifted and morphed over time, but it…always circled back to pizza. We both very much believe in pizza—no pun intended. When the pandemic hit, there was actually the time…to experiment with the dough recipe,” explains Randall. The winning recipe uses “high gluten flour with a two-day fermentation process, [which] gives it a really nice structure and flavor.”

After sharing the product with family and friends and sponsoring a donation-only pick up from their home, the pair enjoyed a five-month summer pop-up experience in 2023 at Bubbie’s Bagels of Traverse City, where the pies would sell out in minutes.

Going Brick and Mortar

That experience spurred the search for a permanent brick and mortar shop. An early location failed to materialize, but a shout-out on social media connected them with West Side Beverage on West Front Street in Slabtown. The space proved to be a good fit and the partnership indicative of the kind of small-town, word-of-mouth dynamic that can make things happen.

Both Randall and Senff have restaurant/pizza/coffeehouse experience, and their goal is to make meals for people who enjoy healthy, flavorful food. “We just want to make good pizza for good people. That’s really it. There are no lofty ambitions for anything beyond or bigger than that for now,” Randall says.

Make Believe Pizza will be a two-person operation with no plans to add employees. “Our whole business model is built around us being able to have a livable work life, take time off, and generally feel comfortable in our work environment.”

Senff concurs. “We obviously hope to make some money doing this, but Make Believe is really just an extension of our personal and creative lives,” he explains. “Like Em said, our main goal is to make good food. That’s really it.”

A Rotating Menu

A Make Believe pie is “east-coast inspired,” Randall says, “but it’s definitely its own thing.” That means a thinner crust with a nice chewy “good bread” outer edge. Slices are generous—six pieces in every 16-inch pie—with enough heft for one-handed enjoyment. Randall says the “sauce is super simple,” with “nice tomatoes with nothing much added. [It’s] fresh and bright.”

Expect a small menu with weekly and biweekly changes. Randall indicates that the only constant on the menu is the Plain Red, their cheese pizza with mozzarella, fresh basil, herbs, and parmesan.

The shop is vegetarian, so expect whole dairy products as the standard: whole milk mozzarella and American Grana, or super-aged parmesan. But vegans can opt for homemade cashew mozzarella, and walnut-based parmesan, of which Randall and Sneff are “very proud.” Plant-based pepperoni, tempeh “bacon,” and house-made black bean “sausage” are as flavorful as the real thing. In fact, Randall estimates that 80 percent of their customers are non-vegetarian or non-vegan—the “meat eaters who like vegetables and good pizza.”

A pop-up favorite from summer 2023 was the Sausage Onion, with that black bean “sausage” and thin sliced onions. Or look for the Panzanella, with olive oil, mozzarella, ramp cream cheese, artichokes, slow-roasted tomatoes, croutons, and parsley. And the Mushroom Olive, with roasted mushrooms, green olives, fresh garlic, herbs, and parmesan, will surely be on the menu.

Now with their own space, Randall also sees an opportunity for experimentation, from pizza to sides to dessert. “I’m really looking forward to playing around with our dessert offerings more, seeing what nonsense I can get into in that department.”

Find Make Believe Pizza inside West Side Beverage at 912 West Front St. in Traverse City. The shop uses an online ordering system to place preorders at makebelievepizza.com.

From the Pizza Oven to the Studio

Em Randall is a well-known area artist and muralist. Her work has the crisp, clean lines of graphic art and the brightness of layered gouache with a dreamy, folksy sensibility that looks easy to appreciate but has layers of emotional depth.

“My method is to take a concept that feels really giant in my head and…whittle it down to a single image or feeling,” she says.

The results are cryptic and gently experimental. Double images, a repeated theme in her work, are deeply thought provoking, and far more compelling than any Rorschach test. “I think I’m just fixated on the imagery of duality,” Randall tells us. “There is something about symmetry that [speaks] to all of us. Even though a lot of the doubles in my work are nearly the same, I like to make sure I tweak something subtly to make them a bit ‘off’.”

Look also for works in triptych form (three hinged pieces) and interactive pieces that are clever, but never simple. “They were a big challenge but a big reward to work on,” Randalls says of the process. “There is something about that tiny magic of discovery, and being able to really be a part of a piece in a physical way, that touches on some sort of tender internal wonder.”

She continues, “I think my work is often interpreted as being 'light' in subject matter, but the concepts themselves don’t feel that way to me. So getting to mix in these almost playful mechanics with what can often feel like heavy concepts is like a physical representation of how I feel about almost everything.”

And yes, feminism plays a role. “I don’t know if I can pinpoint it precisely, it’s not something that I intentionally set out to do. All of my work though comes from a really personal place—feelings of anxiety and nervousness, grief, festering on a memory, creating simpler images to eclipse and make sense of the webbed ones, [which] all comes from me being a woman, living on this planet, at this time. There’s no doubt that it greatly shapes my work.”

To experience Randall’s work, including the stunning Thirty Pieces of Wood project, visit emrandall.com.


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