One of the best things about this town is simply driving around during a daily routine to and from work, running errands, or just to alleviate boredom, when one of Murfreesboro’s aromatic fragrances wafts through the open window or the open air conditioner vents. If luck has anything to do with it, the smell is pleasing enough to the olfactory sense but also invokes salivating and a realization you’ve been starving for the past hour and a half. Some of the best scents floating around here are the obvious ones: family grill-outs throughout the city limits, Slick Pig’s smoker in the middle of the night, the fried fairground smell from any of the many summer events at Cannonsburgh, freshly-made bread from a bakery around the intersection of West College and Medical Center early in the morning, and let’s not forget anywhere honeysuckle grows wild near the roads. All of it comfortingly pleasant while seducing our palates, but unfortunately, you must be travelling to stumble upon them.
What if you’re at home after a long day, only wanting to stumble to a couch, though? What if the night’s weather isn’t agreeing with you? Or the big one: What if you’re drunk in the middle of the night and town, desperately wanting someone to not only ride in on an appetizing wind, but supply the food that scents the wind with a pure, homely local feeling corporate food chains can’t provide the way that the previously mentioned Murfreesboro locations and their fragrances can and do? All the while staying put where you are.
If the latter applies, hope has been rolling around town for a little while, emanating the beckoning essence of a late-night meal and advertising they’re just a phone call away.
“I’m out here trying to help people have a good time. I went to M.T. I partied these roads—well, not roads, but blocks—for years. But there [was] something big missing…and that’s food.”
In comes 26-year-old Dan Rodenburg—a tall, skinny, brown-headed business mind voicing a fast-paced Chicago accent with the newest local-dining business venture, Shorty’s Pizza Bus. It was started in the first week of April this year with nightly deliveries around Murfreesboro. Shorty’s has quickly grown in popularity over its short existence for appetizing reasons. They’re willing and able to bring a very freshly made pizza pie directly to your house, work or bar. In front of you, they will pull it out of the oven Rodenburg carries in a custom-built, small, yellow school bus that hums generators powering the in-bus pizza kitchen down the road. Then, they’ll sell it to you for a low price—compared to other pizza joints around town—with a big, genuine smile on-face and a friendly conversation as long as there’s no rush to put dinner in the stone oven to cook on the ride to his next order/destination. It’s kind of hard to not get into a conversation with him, once that short yellow bus with the even yellower luminaire above the front windshield shining the Shorty’s logo and slogan, “We’ll Be Around,” pulls up to your house. It’s a novel sight, and it’s all ours, thanks to the minds of Rodenberg and his business partner Derek Robertson, who keeps a track of the operation from East Tennessee.
“I originally started [with] my business partner in 2008. [He] was from Michigan, but he lives in Knoxville now,” explained Rodenburg. “He worked with me at Electric Forest [music festival]. His daughter wanted to work, so he got in touch with me to volunteer [her] because I recruit people for [an] event-staffing group based […] at Bonnaroo. It’s Jesus Loves You Ministry and they’re [from] Kansas.”
After Rodenburg graduated from MTSU in 2010, he reconnected with Robertson.
“He got the idea of custom concessions. He sells busses […] and if anyone wants to buy a bus or an RV, he can build one of these. He thought of that and saw me bartending at Outback in a tight little space, just spinning around there tending, tending, tending, and when he was in the army, there was this guy that always came to the barracks with 15-20 pizzas in a big ole stack of boxes and be like, ‘5 bucks, 5 bucks, 5 bucks, 5 bucks.’ This is in the ’60s or ’70s. He was like, ‘That guy used to make a killing. And it was all because he delivered late at night,’ ya know? People all coming back from the bars and stuck there until they had to eat Army food in the morning. That’s pretty much the nix about that.”
With the idea of creating this pizza bus, the two figured Bonnaroo would be a great place to premiere their work. They ended up sneaking the bus in the Tuesday before the festival started a couple of years ago and sold 50 pizzas during their first entrepreneurial test-drive together.
“We were excited. That’s pretty bad ass, just running around the lot screaming, ‘half price pizza!’” said Rodenberg.
Two years and several festivals later, they’re breaking the bus out for Murfreesboro.
“[Now], I’m the owner/operator. He’s the owner/investor/builder/engineer. [Murfreesboro] is a good market, and Shorty’s Pizza Bus ‘is what it is,’” he said. The delivery area consists of anywhere between Greek Row on the MTSU campus to Broad St., latitudinal, and from Bradyville Pike to Memorial Blvd., longitudinal. The usual toppings of bacon, pepperoni, sausage, ham, tomatoes, olives, peppers, onions and so forth, are available on a 14-inch thin pizza crust (no crust exceptions unless you bring your own) for 10 bucks a pop cash or credit and they deliver for free between 7 p.m. to 4 a.m. on, depending on the demand. Patrons of bars around the Square seem to be falling in love with the idea as Dan is accepted with open arms anywhere he goes around there, and with good reason. The consensus is he’s on to something.
“Right now we’re at, I dunno, 20 [pizzas served] a night and people are like, ‘You must be […] in the dough,’ and I’m like, ‘Yeah, I’m selling $200 dollars of pizza a day. Not to mention $25 on gas, x amount on propane.’ […] I don’t know exactly what the profit line is, but it’s not that good with a partner. I’ll tell you that.”
How many employees do you have?
“Technically, none. Just family and friends right now helping me out,” Dan said. Friend and consistent helper, Justin Wright, was making pizzas this particular night, cooking in the back of the bus by headlamp light alone while they were on the road. Dan continues, “It’s almost like a volunteer work. When we do [take on helpers], we plan to do it like a barber-shop style. You rent the spot and get the tips. That’s looking like the only feasible way for us to do this. But in time, if it gets busier…”
Do you guys working on any ideas for expansion if it gets busier?
Justin: Just as far as having other cars. Everything goes so fast and instead of having people wait 15, 30 minutes to get there… And bagged foods like chips, and everything. We haven’t really gotten that out there. He’s the brains behind the operation (looking at Dan). I’m just [the help] off and on. Tips are really good, though. That’s the only thing I make on it. [It’s] just a little extra cash on the side. But yeah, [if] we stay open [late enough], [we can] have a monopoly on the late night business.”
Were you doing anything business-wise before Shorty’s got off the ground?
Dan: Craigslist trades. [I play] banjo and the drums for the most part. I’ve been building a drum setup for years with Craigslist trades. […] I’ve traded a video camera for five or six cymbals. I one time traded a bunch of hydro-equipment I had from MTSU that I had bought dirt cheap because it was used and abused. I traded it to this guy with multiple sclerosis in Jackson, Miss. He brought me a Smith and Wessen .500.
And you keep it under the seat?
[laughs] I’ve got the ‘Judge’ in there sometimes. It’s the shotgun revolver. Shoots shotgun shells. […] I have my carry permit. We do that whole deal. But if it comes to it, I’ll probably just cook you a pizza and tell you to get the fuck out of here. We’re talking about outside-the-bus live webcam. We’ll have pictures of every person that comes up to the bus.
And that’s just for security reasons?
Yeah, that and it’s gonna be funny as shit too.
What kind of licenses do you have to operate Shorty’s Pizza Bus?
They’re up there [points at the papers in one of the bus windows next to the swing-open side door]. Business license, federal and state tax codes. You gotta have a health score. I’m proud of how clean we are. You don’t have to have a CDL or F class for your license. [The bus] isn’t long enough for [that] to be a problem.
No obligations to pull the little stop sign out when you’re parked doing business?
We don’t pull the stop sign out unless someone asks us to while we’re parked. They’ll be like, “does the sign work?” And we’re like, “Yeah,” [he says as he gestures as though he's pulling the sign out and makes a semi-truck horn sound with his mouth.] We’ve been thinking about doing it as a joke one night, pulling the sign out in the middle of the night to try and stop a drunk. Get out and start dancing.
Sounds like a fun gig. Probably a lot of work, too.
Justin: We’re busy from 12 to 2, 12 to 3…
Dan: It really just picks up to the end [until] the bottom drops, and we’re like, “Oh, God, we’re done.” But it’s really interesting and we’ve got a great response, I’ll tell you that. Most people are about it. I’ve had a couple of people that either don’t like the pizza or a couple people saying, “This took too long. It’s unacceptable,” and they don’t ever call me again. They think because we’re mobile, we have more pizza guys than everybody else and [because] we’re mobile, […] it’ll take a tenth of the time, but there’s still only the two of us—maybe three somedays. If some people get real pushy about it, I just go hand the pizza to someone on the street. I don’t care. I’m not going to [get in a] battle because I’m not there in 45 minutes. Sometimes I just can’t help it. We should really have a delivery range half the size of what we do.
Competition-wise, Jimmy John’s is the only other store that delivers until 4 a.m.
I’m all right with them. I saw them pulling into an order right as I was going home and was like, “I can’t stand it when they deliver shit after me.”
Justin: We delivered to Jimmy John’s last night.
Shorty’s Pizza Bus usually operates every night, management depending, and can most likely be found on the Square if the night feels slow, just schmoozing with smiling customers, dancing, selling ladies’ tie-dyed Shorty’s shirts made by the Robertson family, and of course, cooking up a few pizzas. They can be reached at (613) 995-0259 anytime you catch a whiff of baking pizza as it rolls around, or if you’re just hungry in the middle of the night in general.