Scaling Infrastructure: Lessons Learned in a Pizza Oven

If you’ve created art or built a theme camp at Burning Man, you know that it’s all about trial, error, complex planning and a fair amount of flying by the seat of your pants. In 2006, my camp, Random Pizza Experience (RPE), was placed on the Esplanade for the first time. For two years, we’d been cooking homemade pizzas in camp and making random deliveries across the playa.

Temple Portrait, 2013. Photo by Mark Hammon.
Temple Portrait, 2013. Photo by Mark Hammon.

We were unprepared for the impact of thousands of Burners flowing through our camp on the Esplanade. We were asked questions small and large all day. Why do you make the dough from scratch? Is this pizza the right size? May I give you a kiss? Why aren’t you open?

What did we know? Enough to get into trouble and not enough to avert small disasters. We simply were not prepared for the crush of Burners that came with Esplanade placement. I’m embarrassed to say that at one time, the Nevada Health Department featured our camp in a presentation on what not to do! But, we were thrilled to see people making music, art and performance together while they were waiting in line for pizza. We tried to focus on our strengths, like connecting people, and not our weaknesses (according to the Health Department).

Scalability is an issue for nearly every aspect of Burning Man. In 1990, the first year in the desert, roughly 90 people showed up. This year we’ll have 70,000. And Burners have taken what they’ve learned in the desert into the world in awe-inspiring ways. We now have more than 220 Regional representatives worldwide, with more than 40 official Burning Man affiliated events on six continents. From artists to civic activists, the world is changing every day because of Burning Man.

Man at SF Decompression, 2011. Photo by Waldemar Horwat.
Man at SF Decompression, 2011. Photo by Waldemar Horwat.

Burning Man Project is facing scaling challenges of its own. Staff and volunteers are working days, nights and weekends to serve a growing community that is active around the world every day and every hour.

Burning Man Project is fundraising to build out an infrastructure to support the worldwide culture of Burning Man. Some Burners are addressing social and environmental problems (Burners Without Borders and Black Rock Solar) while others are bringing civic art to the public (Black Rock Arts Foundation) and some are inventing things that none of us have imagined.

I started volunteering for Burning Man Project in 2012 at BMHQ in San Francisco. Today, I’m in a leadership position helping create infrastructure to support the year-round culture.  We’re creating systems and processes for building and tracking our events, programs and activities in the world. We’re also exploring collaborations with like-minded organizations like [freespace] and Maker Faire –  groups that are teaching us what they’ve learned along the way.

Spire of Fire in Downtown Reno, 2011. Photo by Bill Kositzky.
Spire of Fire in Downtown Reno, 2011. Photo by Bill Kositzky.

We’re a public benefit corporation because our purpose and mission is to support the Burning Man culture out in the world. Income from Burning Man tickets supports the event in the desert but that income isn’t sufficient to support the infrastructure needed for a global movement founded on Burning Man’s Ten Principles. Burning Man staff and volunteers are running fast to keep up with  the growth of this culture year-round and we don’t yet have the resources we need to sustain this level of growth.

Just as the questions of Random Pizza Experience helped us understand our strengths and challenges, we welcome your questions about the future of Burning Man in the world.  Please keep them coming. Each one helps us learn more.

Making pizza dough from scratch takes a little longer but I’m convinced that it tastes better.  And making better pizza is actually scalable – just teach more friends how to do it.

Please join me and Carmen Mauk, Executive Director of Burners Without Borders, for “From the Playa to the Planet,” a conversation about social change at Everywhere (6:15 and Esplanade), on Monday, August 25th, 11:30 am – 12:30 pm.  This is an opportunity for crowd-sourcing solutions to social change challenges and we’d love to see you there!

About the author: Heather White

Heather White

Heather White, Managing Director, Burning Man Project In 2004, Heather ventured to the playa and joined what would become the Random Pizza Experience, a scene ripe with interactive cooking and pizza delivery that spanned the next eight years. In 2012, she joined Burning Man Project as the Volunteer Coordinator and today, Heather manages infrastructure, systems and partnerships that support the Project’s mission. She is also part of the Program team collaborating on new projects and events. After years in media production, Heather supported creative service organizations with strategy and operations. Throughout her career, she has also partnered with artists on media projects and opportunities for artists to create ancillary income.

10 Comments on “Scaling Infrastructure: Lessons Learned in a Pizza Oven

  • Sarah Swienckowski- Eckhart says:

    It’s fantastic that you are able to utilize your scaling up pizza-making in the expansion of BMP. I am volunteering with the project at the playa this year and I am eternally psyched to hand out slices of BMP to everyone! See you there:))

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  • toto says:

    I vividly remember the first year I witnessed Burners standing in line. We had a mobile cocktail bar and just strolled out to the esplanade to serve mudslides. This was 2005. Within 5 minutes, we had a line formed of about 10 people and that kept growing.

    In previous years, people would just wander by, have a bit of a chat and we’d offer them a drink and that could go on all afternoon. But in 2005 something changed. The people in line had a sort of intensity, like they heard about free drinks being offered at BM, and this was their opportunity to get one; an authentic playa cocktail they could tell their friends about. You could see it in their eyes. It made the whole experience of serving quite uncomfortable, and within 30 minutes we were out of supplies. Still people came up to us and asked if this is where they could get the free drinks. That was the beginning of the end.

    Every since then, if you have an open bar or serving food, you have to be careful about how you do it, or the masses will form a line even in the worst heat – they’ll wait and wait and stare into your soul so you move and serve faster and faster until it’s finally their turn. Then you serve them and they scurry off.

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  • roissy says:

    I agree with the above experience… In some circles BM has become a lot like Coachella but with free drinks and food…

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  • Stuart Mangrum says:

    Mmm, pizza.

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  • Pilgrim says:

    so where do I show up to give you a helping hand?

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  • Dusty Rusty says:

    I try not to go to the stuff in The Where What When guide. If it’s advertised, it’s probably going to be packed. I prefer to run across things in the hinterland camps. The year we ran our shave ice machine two streets from the edge of town at 9:15 and offered it to whoever wandered by we had a manageable crowd. You can still get a pleasant, small Burning Man experience. Wander out to the streets past “E” …people will invite you to enjoy things with them. Food, drink, a clean towel (which was awesome), aprons, fur bikini tops….and maybe you’ll meet a guy who went to your high school, a friend’s best friend, a co-worker from years back…or maybe someone new and amazing. Or the tent full of people playing stringed instruments. The Esplanade camps are great, but you’re more likely to find me wandering the deep city and the deep playa.

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  • jerry morano says:

    one of my first and best BM experiences was at random pizza. made two pies, sat and ate one, then out to the middle of the Playa. there i find a person with a disability rolling along in his chair. I go up to him and ask him if he ordered a pizza. He said no but he was pretty hungry. I go back to my bike and pull out the pizza box. Enjoy i say. Thanks!

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  • Fez says:

    This will be my first year camping in the sticks (7:30 & J). I’m actually really looking forward to it. I’ve had some great experiences with the camps on the outer streets. Totally agree with Dusty Rusty.

    The great thing about the Esplanade is how often you get to guide the First Experience At Burning Man for so many people.

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  • One would never achieve the perfect structure and authentic taste of a pizza in a conventional oven. You would most certainly need a brick or clay built pizza oven. While you are at it, you can easily prepare even more kinds of delicious meals in it – the only thing is that it takes you more time. Yet, cleaning one, I dare to say, is easier than scrubbing a regular electrical or gas oven – you just need to sweep the burnt coal and voilà – the next pizza is ready to mingle!

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