Already exhausted by the workweek and with the relief of the weekend still a day away, there’s an argument to be made that Thursday is the drabbest day of the week. That is, unless you’re in on the secret: Nearly every Thursday since July 2020, Willoughby Obenchain has fired up his oven and turned out dozens of incredibly interesting pizza creations under the alias Secret Squares.
What began as a pandemic passion project to feed his friends has gradually evolved into a small business set to begin brick-and-mortar operations this week. Going forward, folks who place an order with Secret Squares will be able to pick up their pies from Early Bird Biscuit Company’s Bellevue location (1221 Bellevue Ave. in Northside). Since bakeries require early morning to daytime hours and Obenchain’s pizza-making is an evening affair, the two businesses pair perfectly.
The name Secret Squares was born during the darkest days of the pandemic when folks were looking for hope anywhere they could find it. Obenchain appreciated the buzz his pizzas caused among his friends as word of his giveaway practice pies spread. “At the end of the day it’s just bread, cheese, sauce, and toppings, but it’s something that people can look forward to,” he says. “It felt good to get excited about something when there was little to be excited about.”
The relatively quiet word-of-mouth marketing also helped him keep demand under control until he could scale up his operations. Now that the deal with Early Bird Biscuit Company is finalized, Obenchain is ready for his Detroit-style deep dish pizzas to become Richmond’s latest open secret.
All of Secret Squares’ pies begin with a naturally leavened sourdough crust. Thanks to friendships with farmers Obenchain has forged over the last couple of years, the vast majority of his ingredients are locally sourced from surrounding counties.
So which of his pizzas would Obenchain advise customers to try first?
“The purist in me, who is an advanced pizza appreciator, loves the pepperoni pie for its purity because it sticks so close to the model of what a pizza should be - and the quality of the ingredients are so high,” says Obenchain. “I definitely recommend the hot honey and same-day, house-made ricotta additions on that one because that will blow people’s minds.”
Secret Squares’ flavors go far beyond just pepperoni, however. For his barbecue chicken pizza, Obenchain bought the birds from the front porch of a farmer friend and skinned, deboned, and sous vided them himself. Recently, he’s also experimented with both a Philly cheesesteak pizza and a Nashville hot chicken pie as homages to some of his favorite flavors he’s found through travel.
The only specialty pizza Obenchain ever made twice was his red wine braised short rib pie. Covered in a creamy parmesan mornay sauce and topped with pickled red onions, he fell in love with its complex flavors crafted thanks to simple ingredients. “I’m a big believer that less is more in pizza toppings to create balance and harmony,” he explains.
Whether you speak with the owner of Secret Squares directly or just taste his creations, it’s hard to miss that his passion for pizza goes beyond the simple ingredients that comprise his pies. “For me, Secret Squares is a means of community connection and artistic expression," he says. "And it doesn’t hurt that the pizza is delicious.”