This first appeared on MUNCHIES in March 2016.
There's a saying in Brazil that goes something like this: "If you wanna show off, you might as well hang a watermelon around your neck." But Roberto Dos Santos would rather put his watermelon in the middle of a pizza. Literally.
Owner of Pizzaria Bate Papo (Portuguese for "chitchat"), a pizza shop located in the coastal city of Guarujá, in the state of São Paulo, Dos Santos thought he could get some buzz by raising regular pizza toppings to new culinary heights—a huge challenge in a country known for its innovative culinary skills, and where pizza toppings verge on the extreme. In Brazil, it's not hard to find pizzas topped with french fries, crab, beef stroganoff, and even sushi.
Yes, we are very creative people around here.
It all started for Dos Santos five years ago. He began creating gigantic sizes (16 slices to a pie, 20 inches in diameter) so he could combine both regular and sweet toppings. "In this way, the customer could have the dinner and the dessert in the same pizza," he says. He added dulce de leite, grated coconut, brigadeiro, and M&M's. But the turning point came when Dos Santos decided to put a whole roasted chicken on top, take a photo of it, and share it on the Bate Papo Facebook fan page (currently with 117,808 likes and counting).
The unconventional pizza quickly went viral online, and Dos Santos appeared on several TV shows to speak about his creation. The Bate Papo pizza was sort of like Brazil's answer to Barclay Prime's $100 cheesesteak.
Excited by all the buzz, Dos Santos decided to go further. He put a six-pack of beer in the middle of a pizza, and then a whole lobster, and then a bunch of bananas, and a watermelon. During the attacks in Paris last November, he honored the victims by putting a wood model of the Eiffel Tower—for which he paid $150 US—on a pizza. The photo received more than 2,500 likes on Facebook. But his social media record was a short video posted one year earlier, in which he served a gigantic, 35-inch pizza composed of 44 slices with 13 different toppings. The video had 4.3 million views and more than 62,000 shares.
"I always wanted my pizza place to become very famous," Dos Santos says. "When we took the first photos, I realized that people liked and shared them, so I decided to bet on this advertising strategy. We have followers from 42 countries." In one video, he puts a pizza on a wakeboard and shoots it surfing the waves. It received more than 50,000 views.
Dos Santos manages all of his social media accounts himself. "I have the ideas, take the photos, make the posts, and reply to comments. The few times that my wife tried to reply, I got pissed because she didn't say what I would've said," he says. "That's why I don't hire a social media analyst. Lots of people said I should, but the photos have the internet buzzing as was intended—why should I change it?"
During our interview, he receives more than 40 notifications in less than a minute. "I will get back to it later," he says.
When he's not on his phone, he's making the pizzas. Dos Santos used to have a professional pizzaiolo in his crew when he opened ten years ago. More often than not, however, the pizza guy wouldn't show up, leaving him high and dry. Dos Santos then decided to learn how to make pizza himself: He asked a friend to teach him, bought professional equipment, and got ready for the crowds. On a good day, the pizzeria serves around 300 people and bakes more than 180 pizzas. During New Year's Eve last year, Batepapo prepared 240 pizzas.
"We've had an increase of 40 percent [in our business] since the photos and videos went viral. I have to be around the oven all the time, preparing the dough, the toppings, and baking. People usually want to take pictures with me, but I am always kind of busy here," he says. That's why he had another brilliant idea: to place a cardboard cutout of himself holding a pizza by the door. "So no one can complain they had to leave without taking a picture with me," he jokes.
Dos Santos says that some customers like to bring their own ideas for preposterous pizza toppings, suggesting everything from guitars to Michael Jackson LPs. "We also host many birthdays. That's why we created a pizza with a birthday cake in the middle," he says. He's received dozens of photos from people all around the country with their own version of Bate Papo pizza. "You are sure that what you're doing [has] caught on when people start replicating your ideas."
And even when you think Dos Santos has done enough, he can always surprise you. During my visit to his place, he comes up with a "popcorn pizza"—a pizza with a popcorn popper in the middle. "If you are nuts about popcorn, this is your pizza," he says. "Too bad you can't take it to the movies."
For his next big idea, Dos Santos is developing a super-huge pizza—one with more than 50 slices—to serve in the restaurant. "It's hard because I have to adapt the oven, the package," he says. "It's a huge logistics [problem], but I always have to look for the next step. People expect that." Considering how fast news spreads and how fast it's forgotten in today's digital world, he will need more than just a watermelon to keep his spot under the sun.