Bridgewater, Connecticut activist Cassandra Purdy is changing the world one pizza at a time. She created her mobile wood-fired pizza truck, Pizza to the People, inspired by Maine potters and Italian pizza fairies. Purdy lives by the unwavering motto, “Act local, think global.” Her food activism started at an early age, volunteering in a soup kitchen in New York during high school. In her twenties, she further mixed her culinary skills with environmental activism by working as a chef on a ship during the Iraq War and volunteering for Greenpeace France. Purdy started her business in 2009 using locally sourced ingredients while prioritizing providing a supportive community to her workers, especially working moms.
We sent Blue Muse staff writer Avary Ann Noto to discuss Purdy’s activism and discover how to create an environmentally conscious business.
“Cassandra welcomed me with a warm hug, dressed in a gray sweater, a green scarf, and big silver hoops that were barely noticeable behind her voluminous red hair. We sat on the front porch of her home in Bridgewater, Connecticut on a mid-April morning, wind blowing the tapestries that hung from her doorway. I remember when I used to visit the pizza oven growing up, signs were hung that read, ‘Our plates and cups are compostable’ and ‘Rise Up.’ I never realized what one business could do for a community and the environment. Could an eco-friendly food truck really be successful? It is a more difficult path, but a more respectable one. And it all starts with Purdy’s core beliefs, which I learned, she formed at a young age.”
What were your early inspirations with food and festivals?
The first time I was making pizza professionally was at Doc’s back in the late 90s, on Lake Waramaug. I was then visiting my friend Lulu in Maine, and one day we saw in the newspaper that there was a guy doing a demonstration about building wood-fired ovens. We went to this event, and it was a man who is now one of my dearest friends, Dave Neufeld. Not only was he a pizza oven builder, but also a former potter who had built lots of kilns. A wood-fired oven is basically the same as a kiln. I saw him build this pizza oven on a trailer and it made me think, wait a minute, this could be mobile. That is when we made a plan for him to come to Connecticut from Maine, and for me to have a workshop where people would learn how to build wood-fired ovens. People paid to participate in the workshop, which funded my oven as we built it.
“It was really those Italian pizza fairies that inspired me.”
What inspired you to begin Pizza to the People?
I used to go to a reggae festival in northern Italy every year when I was mostly living in Europe. There were these Italian hippies who had pizza stands at the festival and they would come months earlier and build wood-fired ovens. They made their money for the year, for their community, at this one event, and were part of a loose organization called the Rainbow Family. They would come and set up this kitchen, but it wasn’t mobile. The women would take ten-foot-long planks, put them on their heads with pizzas on them, and then walk around the festival and sell the pizzas. It was really those Italian pizza fairies that inspired me.
Was Pizza to the People involved in any activism?
Pizza to the People actually originated from the saying “Power to the People.” It was some slightly veiled political mission by calling it that. And we literally bring pizza to the people, whether it is by baskets or plywood.
And you locally source from farms.
Supporting local farmers is more than a slogan for us. Everything we buy is organic, fresh, and local. Even when we go to festivals out of state, we try to buy local and always organic. I have many friends in Litchfield County that have farms and they provide me with the freshest of veggies. Although shopping fresh and organic is more expensive, it is worth it. Also, shopping locally supports our friends and the community and is a form of activism.
But, I did always wish I did more. In America they make it really hard for you to do certain philanthropic or humanitarian things. For example, you can’t just pull up in front of a homeless shelter and start giving away with pizzas. The cops come—they don’t make it easy to give away food.
When I was in high school and college, I sometimes volunteered with an organization called Everybody’s Kitchen. It was a school bus kitchen that fed people on the street in New York City, and we would do that at a park. It was a mobile soup kitchen. I kind of had this fantasy that I would be able to do that with my pizza truck, but at the end of the day that wasn’t sustainable for my business because I couldn’t afford it.
“You vote with your fork; you can choose every single day where you eat”
How did you make your business environmentally friendly?
I always stood by our mantra of buying local, fresh, and organic. I never wavered on our ethos, we never supported any big corporation, and no matter how much more expensive the fresher food was, we always bought it. When you care where you put your money, it has such a huge impact on the environment and local communities. I have always put my money where my mouth is, and that is something I am proud of. We try to buy supplies that don’t do further harm to the environment, so cups, napkins, and plates are all compostable. We only offer vegetarian options, which are better for (overall) health and the environment.
You vote with your fork; you can choose every single day where you eat, what companies to support, and what bills to vote for. With my business and with my life, I’m just trying to be consistent. When I believe something, I’m going to make these decisions that are in line with my beliefs. For example, I don’t want to support giant factory farms that are polluting the earth, so I only buy from local farms, no matter where I am. I feel like my biggest influence on this was my time with Greenpeace.
How did you get involved in Greenpeace?
My godsister, Katia Kansas, was the president of Greenpeace France. Because of that, I always had a connection to Greenpeace, and when I was in high school, I spent summers working for an environmental action group in France. That has been a huge part of my life. In the mid 2000s, I had an opportunity through Katia when they needed a chef on one of the ships in the beginning of the Iraq War and I joined the ship in Spain. That was my first job in the Mediterranean, then Australia, and finally New Zealand. As the chef on board, I also supported the campaign against genetically engineered foods. My time at Greenpeace was such an impactful part of my life, and it is why I am so environmentally conscious with my business.
Who are your employees?
Probably the thing I’m most proud of is that I gave a lot of people work—good work—who otherwise couldn’t work because they were young moms. I couldn’t easily take nursing moms to a catering job. They couldn’t work in a restaurant; they couldn’t even work at the farms anymore. But they could come work pizza with us because I let people bring their kids and their babies. I’ve never believed in the saying that, “it’s a bad idea to work with friends,” especially with something like this where you’re together all day. Also, it is a rather convivial social thing: you’re standing in front of a fire, you’re making food, you’re at a music festival, you’re at a farmers’ market, or you’re at a party at a farm. You want to be with your friends and you want to work. It is hard work, so it’s made much easier by feeling like you’re having a good time. And it makes the day go faster. Who else do you want to hang out with if you’re standing on your feet for ten hours but your good friends?
What is it like being a woman in the food truck business?
It’s pretty much all men because there’s a lot of intense physical labor. You have to be willing to sleep in your truck and lug shit around. I was one of the only women vendors on the music festival circuit, and I definitely had something to prove about wanting to be part of that scene. I just think it’s important for women entrepreneurs to just try things they don’t see anybody else doing. They just have to do something crazy. It’s important to have people who will support you in your dream from the beginning.
How has COVID-19 impacted your business?
Everything completely stopped. There weren’t any parties—the music, yoga, and art festivals were all canceled for two summers. It was over. It has been pretty much my entire income for over a decade, and it was also my social life. It became a big part of my identity, especially as a woman in business. For the past decade, every fall, we worked at Averill Farm in Washington Depot, Connecticut every weekend. Because of COVID-19, that stopped for two years. I think it’s a perfectly good business if it weren’t for everything being shut down. I think mobile food trucks are booming right now. I know so many restaurants that got killed by COVID-19 and just couldn’t handle the brick-and-mortar expense of running operating costs of a restaurant, but were able to convert the business into a food truck.
What does the future of the truck look like?
The pizza truck business was always so unpredictable, which could be seen as good and bad. Good in the way that every pizza came out unique, but bad in how it was never known how good of business you were going to get that day.
I’m stopping the truck because I’m opening a dispensary in Massachusetts. I do hope to use the truck in the parking lot of the dispensary—it can kind of live on there—but it won’t be my main source of income anymore. The dispensary is more secure in that aspect. Although that part of my life shaped part of who I am, I’m looking forward to this next chapter.
Header photo courtesy of Cassandra Purdy
Avary Ann Noto is a staff writer for Blue Muse Magazine