Edinburgh-based Ooni was founded by husband-and-wife team Kristian Tapaninaho and Darina Garland in 2012 and has revolutionised the outdoor cooking landscape across the globe.
Ooni now has 360 staff and sells in over 90 countries, while its turnover for 2021 was £208m ($257m). Last year, The Sunday Times 100 rankings labelled Ooni as the fastest-growing private company in Scotland.
One of the biggest challenges faced by Ooni at the start of their journey to becoming one of the world’s biggest pizza making brands was trying to be "all things to all people". It was Kristian Tapaninaho who had originally come up with the concept. So, here this then-Londoner was in his early 30s and the founders were thinking, is it him? Is Ooni people with urban families who live in a city with not much outdoor space?
Then the founders discovered that they were a hit in Korea, with the caravanning space evolving into a popular outdoor pastime in the republic.
“I’ve always had a really big ambition to be a truly global brand,” says Darina Garland. “We were catapulted two or three years ahead. Food was something people were able to do safely during the pandemic and Ooni is a fun, interactive activity. It all went in our favour.”
Ooni launched on Kickstarter in late 2012 trying to raise an initial £7,500, but saw funding to the tune of around £30,000 at the end of the month. 10 years on, the company saw a 264% increase from £57.2m in 2020 to £208m the following year. Yet, Ooni believe they haven’t even touched the surface.
Garland adds: “It’s a big thing we talk about, especially being in Scotland. People say, ‘well done, you’ve completed it’ and we have only just started.
“When we first started we had the aim of being one of the top five outdoor cooking brands in the world, which we are. Why wouldn't we try and be number one for pizza making? It was a strong opportunity."
So much so that The New York Times recently reviewed one of Ooni’s products as the best pizza oven for 2023. Garland is still asked today how they cracked the US. “We didn’t,” she counters. “We were always in America and our backers were global, so from day one the platform allowed us to be that and e-commerce first.”
Following rising sales during the global pandemic, Ooni pivoted from the oven and added an ingredients and groceries range, with the belief that some new customers saw a barrier to making dough at home as well as the time element. To that end they also launched an indoor oven to make it easier for people who are time poor.
Garland says: “Pizza is probably the most accessible food in the universe; it was made for the people and we want to make sure that people can change the game in their house.
“When we started, we kept winning awards for the outdoor cooking sector, garden centres voted us retailers’ choice as we started to attract different types of shoppers into their quite traditional space. It is an area where there hasn’t been that much innovation, so there is definitely a younger clientele.
“What we decided to hone in on were the people who already make pizza at home who might have a Friday night ritual with their family.”
In the couple’s education business (the precursor to Ooni), their mission was to try and encourage young people that innovation and creativity are important.
Creativity is essentially problem solving, says Garland, and the reason her husband came up with Ooni in the first place was two fold: he couldn’t get a domestic oven high enough, while he couldn’t believe there also wasn’t anything on the market.
Their first sale went to America while Ooni seemed to be catching up with demand from the off. Department store Selfridges, which backed innovative brands, had noted artisan pizza was on the rise and were keen for a slice of Ooni in their first year of business. “For far too long we were very reactive to those things coming our way rather than having a strategic wholesale strategy,” admits Garland.
Watch: Get all fired up over homemade pizza with an Ooni pizza oven
Three years in, they hired their first sales person (Garland’s brother). “I was scared of sales people at the start,” she adds, “it felt disingenuous as I felt Ooni always sold itself. But now it was about having the right retailers to tell our story.
“Now it’s 50-50 wholesale and direct to the consumer. We think because we are building the category, we need to be in bricks and mortar stores so people can see the size and understand the concept.
“Our first seven years were educating people that pizza ovens were a thing. We were lucky as we had our own business. We didn't earn that much but we were happy. We never had to leave a big corporate job and we never had to chase the dollar. It was ‘what kind of business do we want? So it was more joy and values led.”
Over the 10 years there has been the odd setback, while they inevitably now have to contend with the mounting copy cats eager to get in on the outdoor space market. During the COVID crisis, they also had millions of pounds of stock stuck on the Suez Canal.
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“It was the first time we saw our very happy customers get grumpy with us as our stock was held up for months,” admits Garland.
Resilience has, though, been the passage back to success. “We had great sales during the pandemic but it’s a tougher economy now. We have to make sure we are clear on our priorities," admits Garland.
Behind the brand: Ooni's Darina Garland on…
“We use a coach called Paul Pinson, who works for business programme Vistage. When I first started I was worried that I needed to be more alpha based to be a female CEO. Should I be more male in my attitude? My style of leadership is very consultative and focused on supporting the team. That was very interesting as Paul made me come up with the answer. The ultimate thing was that I had to be my authentic self.
I’ve met a lot of coaches but Paul is extraordinary and he basically holds us to account. He doesn’t let us waffle. What’s the real thing that is front of mind, he asks. To have that time out once per month feels like the best use of time.”
How to connect with the best
"I wish that I had worried less in the early days and trusted ourselves more. No one has taught me this but from a really young age, I have had a brass neck to connect with anyone. If you are authentic and want to connect you should give it a go. That has really served us well for Ooni, I always encourage people who are starting out to talk to people you are impressed by. Don't be intimidated by your heroes.”