COLLEGE PLACE — Engine 72 used to put out fires in North Olympia. Now one rages inside of it, guaranteed to cook a fresh pizza in two minutes.
Christopher and Janene Murray are the owners of Murray’s Rustic Pie, a wood-fired pizza operation built in a converted fire engine.
The mobile food truck has been in commission for the pizza business since last summer, traveling to farmers markets, breweries, community events — even weddings — when they’re not serving about 30 pies a day from the driveway of the Murray home at 536 NE C St.
The two are hardly new to pizza though. Or, for that matter, vehicular ovens. Before this, Chris Murray and a friend built a 3-foot oven in the back end of a ’77 Datsun pickup and hauled it all over Washington and Oregon to serve wood-fired pizzas at events.
The fire engine pizza oven combines three passions — oven-building, pizza and firefighting — and fulfills a longtime dream of Murray’s to own his own business.
“It doesn’t seem like work to me,” he said, kneading dough for a Murray’s Favorite (basil, sausage and pineapple). “This has been a dream of mine since I was a kid.”
The truck isn’t just a vessel for cooking. Nooks and compartments that traditionally hold firefighting equipment were converted for firewood storage and transporting toppings in containers.
It has a water pump, a diamond plate hand wash sink built on the truck’s tail board, a prep sink, water heater, fresh water tanks, gray water tank, slide-in refrigerated prep rail, reach-in refrigerator and TV, where Bob Ross (the late PBS painter) videos are regularly played in the window of the truck as happy little pizzas are hand-tossed.
Even the collapsible awning was made with the original ladders from the engine. The fire hose completes the awning.
The truck is a 1979 Ford Pierce engine. Murray, who served as a firefighter 16 years, ran the engine’s last call in Olympia, bought it in 2013 and then put it in storage with big plans for its future.
The youngest of five, Murray, 34, grew up cooking with fire with his family in the Mount Rainier area. The first oven he built on his own was an earth oven made with straw, dirt and sand smashed together and mixed in a kiddie pool before being fashioned into the oven.
The glory of wood-fired ovens is their power to heat simultaneously through convection, conduction and radiation, which means they cook incredibly quickly and efficiently.
Murray’s three older brothers all have their own wood-fired pizza operations spanning Olympia, where Stone Creek Wood Fired Pizza operates, down to Utah, home to Riggatti’s Wood Fired Pizza in St. George and The Pizza Cart Wood Fired Pizza in Cedar City.
Up until July, Murray operated his Datsun oven, serving pizzas from the truck bed.
In June though, a visit from his father, Fred, changed everything.
Nearing a due date with their third child, Chris and Janene opened their doors to their special guest, who began the design work that would turn the fire engine into a mobile kitchen.
Not satisfied to simply draw it out, the elder Murray headed to Vancouver, where the truck had been stored, and drove it back here. Before his son knew it, his best friend also came to town with his welding torch, and brother Jason Murray came up from Utah to help bring the vision to life.
“They said, ‘We build ovens — this is what we do,” he recalled.
The transformation took them two weeks — a period that will last a lifetime in memories.
“I always dreamed about doing something like that with my dad,” Murray said.
At the end of June and with the truck complete, Janene delivered their son three weeks early and on the edge of a weekend with five events booked. They haven’t looked back. Their 2- and 4-year-olds have found a role for themselves, helping load, haul and stock the daily supply of wood for the truck.
“We want to keep it family-driven,” Janene said, beaming.
With the spot on home base, the location is perfect to be able to serve customers who drive up while taking care of the kids. Janene, a cosmetologist, starts nursing school next week and will be home by lunch rush.
As much care has been put into the pizza creation as the truck itself. With much trial and error over the last decade or so, the pies have become a specialty.
Clad in aprons that say, “Get Your Fat Pants Ready,” the two worked through 15 different flours for their dough in five or so years before discovering one from Italy that is easy on the digestive system even for those with gluten intolerance. Murray’s Rustic Pie and San Francisco are reportedly the only spots in the U.S. where the flour is available. Mixed with a special blend of spices, it creates the foundation for the $13 pies sold at Murray’s.
The hand-tossed artisan pizzas are typically topped by Janene and cooked by Chris. In addition to Murray’s Favorite, the chicken bacon barbecue and margarita have emerged as favorites.
The business caught the attention of James Beard Award-winning cookbook author and chef Joanne Weir, who visited last summer for a segment on Plates and Places.
With paving on C Street complete just before the opening, those driving by have found a pathway to lunch and dinner. Orders can be made in person or sent via text or phone call.
Now that the engine is cooking, Chris Murray has his sights on the next piece: the first truck he ever took a call in. That vehicle will soon be retired, and he knows just what he wants to do with it when it is: convert it into the events truck while Engine 72 remains stationed in College Place.
“It’s a dream come true,” he said.