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Memoir

“I almost died in a fire. It inspired me to pursue my dream of making pizza for a living”

Adam Ward and his fiancée narrowly survived the fire that destroyed their apartment. Ward was despairing until he remembered the one thing that always brought him joy: pizza

By Adam Ward, as told to Emma Johnston-Wheeler| Photography by Joshua Best
“I almost died in a fire. It inspired me to pursue my dream of making pizza for a living”

In the fall of 2017, I was working a sales job at 1-800-Got-Junk. Basically, I answered calls and scheduled junk-removal services. I was great at it—I had some theatre training, which helped me charm customers—but I never saw it as a lifelong gig. I was content, but I definitely lacked conviction. My personal life was thriving, though. I’d just broken roommate protocol by asking my new roommate, Sasha, out on a date. It was a risk, but there had always been some romantic energy between us. We went to Ripley’s aquarium, and amazingly, she kissed me. After that, we officially started seeing each other.

My life felt calm and stable, but I was always waiting for the workday to wrap up before I could really enjoy it. Every morning, I would grudgingly snooze my alarm clock, granting myself an 10 extra minutes of bliss before I had to drag myself to the office.

Meanwhile, the Yonge Street apartment building where Sasha and I lived was falling into disrepair. The managers were constantly drunk and fighting—we could hear them through the floor. In March of 2018, I could still see a Christmas tree sitting in their apartment. I’ve seen those things catch fire before; a dry Christmas tree is like kerosene. It was a safety concern that everybody in the building had complained about, repeatedly. In fact, I had called the management company to follow up about it the same day the fire broke out.

It was the middle of the night when the building’s alarm started blaring. I woke up to Sasha, beside me in bed, whispering, “I think this is the real thing.” Even over the din, we could hear someone outside screaming, “Get out! Get out!”  I started to smell smoke. I jumped out of bed, horrified, but I knew there was no time to waste. I tried to focus on how we were going to escape.

We opened the door to the hallway, looking for an exit. Smoke was everywhere—I couldn’t reach my arm out without losing sight of my elbow. I knew that prolonged smoke inhalation could be deadly, so trying to run through it without a clear exit wasn’t an option. Instead, we put wet towels at the base of all the doors, effectively barricading ourselves inside the apartment.

We shoved our two cats into their carriers and shut ourselves in the bedroom, holding wet towels over our mouths. Sasha called her sister, who lived in the same building. She was already on the ground, watching helplessly as flames shot up around our window. It had been about ten minutes since we’d woken up, and Sasha’s sister told us that we were the only people left inside. We were running out of time. I smashed the window with a fire extinguisher, badly cutting my hand.

A crowd had gathered on the street, and many of them were pointing at us and screaming. A fireman raised a ladder toward us. We argued for a moment about who would go first, then we shared a kiss, and Sasha climbed to safety. The firefighter came back up to get me, and I yelled at him until he agreed to save our two cats. For a few seconds, I was alone in our burning building. I thought I was going to die, but I managed to follow the fireman down the ladder.

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Miraculously, there were no human casualties, but we learned later that several pets didn’t survive. It eventually came out that the superintendent had been in a drunken argument with his partner and had set the fire intentionally. I was so angry—this is exactly what everyone in the building had been worried about.

We lost everything we had in that fire. We didn’t have any insurance, and the apartment was uninhabitable. My uncle created a GoFundMe for us, and we were lucky to have many friends who donated. That money helped us pay our deposit on a new apartment and buy some bare-bones furnishings like a mattress on the floor. Even so, we knew it would be a long time before we got back to normal. 1-800-Got-Junk put together a clothing drive for me, and I found myself wearing the underwear and socks of my friend two desks over.

At first, I tried to force myself through the motions of my job, but I couldn’t focus, and I wasn’t hitting my sales numbers. Before the fire, I’d always been able to bounce back after an unmotivated day. Now, I couldn’t stop focusing on how bad everything was. After about a month, it reached a boiling point. I woke up crying and couldn’t get myself out of bed. Instead of going to work, I called Sasha. She came home to find me lying in the dark. She sat by my side, rubbing my arm for a long time.

We both knew I couldn’t keep going like this. I was unable to carry myself through a regular day. I’d never felt anything like it. I started asking myself, How can we fix this? What can we do? And then I thought: pizza.

Some of my best childhood memories are of my dad bringing home pizza every Friday night. He was a single father and not the best cook. Pizza night was the one time every week that he, my brother and I were all sure to come together and eat at the dinner table. Sasha and I had revived the tradition when we started dating, and the same feelings of comfort and excitement had carried over.

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As an adult, I’d had a few kitchen jobs, doing everything from washing dishes to working as a sous chef. I always knew it was a fallback option. At that point, I didn’t have any kind of plan. I just knew I needed change. When I thought about making pizza, it felt like something I could be happy doing.

Adam Ward making pizza for his business Hooray for Pizza Day

So I quit my sales job and got a gig as an assistant manager at Yeah Yeahs Pizza, and then, when it closed, as a recipe developer and dough lead at North of Brooklyn. There was a lot of camaraderie on that team, but once the pandemic hit, the restaurant industry became a stressful place. I was afraid of getting Covid and losing my sense of taste. So, in October of 2020, I pivoted back into a sales role. I felt more physically safe, but it didn’t fulfill me like making pizzas did.

Fortunately, I was still getting my fix with Sasha every Friday. I made artisanal Detroit-style deep-dish pizzas—they’re rectangular, which is the only kind of pizza that would fit in my oven. I also started posting my recipes on my Instagram page, Hooray for Pizza Day, and often made pizzas for our friends. I started to harbour this fantasy of a direct-to-consumer catering business. I just didn’t see a way to bring it to life.

Then Cookin, an app for ordering fresh home-cooked meals, reached out to me on Instagram. They needed somebody who made pizzas and encouraged me to turn Hooray for Pizza Day into a full-time business. It’s like I’d manifested it—it was exactly the nudge I needed. So, in October of 2022, Sasha and I launched the company together, keeping the name Hooray for Pizza Day.

We started making 20 pizzas from Monday to Thursday, and on Fridays, Sasha and I made 40. The demand skyrocketed right away—soon, we were the only company on the app that was selling out almost a week in advance. We had to develop a wait list. I was so motivated by the momentum. People were talking about us, and they loved our food.

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Initially, there was a little bit of friction between Sasha and I because neither of us knew what we were doing. As we figured out how everything would work, though, the business started strengthening our communication. We found a rhythm that works for us and embraced our perfectionist tendencies—we won’t send an order out unless it meets our standards. We’re engaged now and hoping to get married next fall.

Adam Ward grating cheese on pizza for his business Hooray for Pizza Day

These days, Hooray for Pizza Day is my full-time job. Everything we make is hand-crafted and based on recipes that Sasha and I develop together. We like to get creative with our original flavours. For example, our Hawaiian pizza has pork shoulder that we hit with brine and then confit as well as pineapples that we fry in a pan with a little bit of vermouth.

I’ve started renting commercial kitchen space to accommodate the catering gigs that we’ve added to the mix. It’s a job that lets me indulge my creativity on a daily basis by making dough with my hands and visualizing recipes. I often try other foods and say to Sasha, Oh my god, could you imagine if this butter chicken were on a pizza? Then we figure out how to make it happen.

As a pizza maker, I find the gratification from my work pretty instant. As soon as it’s finished, it’s only 10 to 30 minutes, god willing, before it’s in our customer’s hands. If they enjoy it, I hear from them right away, either directly or through our reviews. Pizza pulled me out of the despair I felt after the fire—I think it saved my life. Gone are the days when I would wait impatiently for my hours at work to be over. Now, I even wake up without an alarm sometimes. I’m just so excited to get started.

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