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Gina Fossile, SUU News
Jason Murray, the owner of Pizza Cart, cooks a pizza in his homemade wood fire oven. Murray and his family hope to open their new, indoor restaurant in Cedar City before the end of the year.

CEDAR CITY — It's Friday night in this small college town, and Jason Murray is making pizza.

The father of four has been here in the parking lot of a local hardware store every Friday night for the past five years, tossing pizza after pizza into his homemade earthen oven. The contraption sits atop a trailer that over time has been fashioned into a sort of mobile kitchen and restaurant.

The Pizza Cart is open year-round and, since it started, has been one of the most popular places to eat each weekend. There are a few places to sit for those customers who want their pizza to stay, and while Murray does his best to chat with each one, the steady flow of hungry visitors has him in a hurry to keep up.

"We were realistic about it. We knew people were coming for the novelty of it," Murray says, describing the day the cart opened.

When Murray and his wife, Cindy, started the cart, it was meant to be a temporary project to help the family make ends meet. Now, the demand for pizza has outgrown the portable operation, and Jason is weary of braving the elements as he cooks.

Without any capital to expand the operation, the unexpected entrepreneurs turned to their loyal fans for help, launching a Kickstarter campaign that in less than a month raised enough money to help them move to a permanent, indoor location.

A desperate decision

Jason and Cindy Murray didn't know what to do.

In 2009, the family couldn't afford Jason Murray's tuition at Southern Utah University, his handyman job left him frustrated and tired each night, and raising four boys meant there were plenty of hungry mouths to feed.

Rather than take on student loan debt, Murray dropped out of school. His brother, who had recently started making pizzas in St. George, suggested that he follow suit and sell pizzas at Cedar City events that summer to get a bit of extra cash. Cindy Murray agreed.

"We were pretty desperate, honestly. We were just barely making the payments on our house," Jason Murray recalls.

The Murrays adapted their design on a small earthen oven they had built in their backyard for family activities and put a larger oven on the back of a trailer. After a successful summer selling at outdoor fairs in Cedar City, the couple decided to try turning their plan into a business and spent months finding a commissary location and getting licensed.

Neither of them were ready for what happened next.

The Murrays prepared dough for 60 pizzas, figuring it would last them three days. They set a goal to sell 15 pizzas on their first day, near the end of July 2010, and hit the street.

In a matter of hours, they had sold 50 pizzas.

"We were on cloud nine," Cindy says. "We couldn't believe we had opened a business and had a successful day. It was pretty amazing."

Sales ebbed and flowed as people around town learned about the cart, but the Murrays never had a day where they dished out fewer than 15 pizzas. The business became steady, the family refined their cart's setup and a faithful clientele built up the business, checking social media for each weekend's menu and updates from the family.

By that fall, they were making enough money for Murray to go back to school. He graduated with a degree in outdoor recreation in 2012.

After that, the couple sat down and talked about what to do with the cart they had opened as a way to pay tuition. They looked at their faithful clients — a steady stream of happy and hungry local faces — and realized they weren't ready to step away yet.

The Pizza Cart stayed open.

Moving inside

Jason Murray never intended to own a restaurant. While he was in school, he dreamed of developing a sustainability program to help families in impoverished countries. Selling pizza doesn't make a difference in the lives of others, he says, but perhaps it can be a gateway to future goals.

But the little cart had hit its limit. The Murrays hired one employee, and with two people working at a time, they pumped out pizzas as fast as the wood burning oven could heat them and still had customers waiting. Their record is 160 pies in one day.

"It is so stressful," Jason said. "You're taking orders, you're throwing dough, and you're running around cooking pizzas while you're telling someone else, 'Hang on, I'll get the menu for you.'"

Through the years, the Murrays have worked through every weather condition imaginable, from high winds that snatched dough out of the air to drenching rain that flooded their little parking lot. Earlier this year they decided they had spent too many cold nights and hot days standing outside, cooking and selling pizzas.

"One night we would prep dough, pull it to the end of the table, and by the time it got to the end of the table and was ready to go into the oven it had frozen solid," Jason recalls. "We decided that was the coldest (weather) pizza had ever been made in."

If the Murrays were going to continue making pizza, they needed to get out of their parking lot location and into a real restaurant. They needed help.

In July, the couple signed a lease on a storefront on the south end of town, 1190 S. Sage Drive, and Jason started plans to remodel the space as Cindy launched a crowdfunding effort online.

The Kickstarter campaign took off immediately, with the majority of its nearly 150 backers pledging between $20 and $50. They continued coming by the cart as well, promising the Murrays their continued support to make sure the family reached their goal of $15,000.

"We had numerous people drive up to the cart and tell us, 'Don't worry, we'll push you over the top,'" Jason said. "It was awesome, it just goes to show you the loyalty and support."

Less than a month later, the campaign topped out at $16,779 and work on the restaurant began in earnest. The new location will have an oven several times larger than the one on the cart, capable of holding 10 pizzas rather than two, a full kitchen and designated prep area, permanent seating, and it will allow the family to hire a few employees.

"We're engineering as we go," Jason Murray said. "It feels like it's going to work. We hope it will be unique, like the cart. We hope it will have that feel."

The Murrays aim to open for business sometime in November or December but will continue selling pizza on Main Street each weekend until then, working late into the night, six days a week, until they can move in.

A family business

Murray's favorite customers are his kids.

They come back after school, often with a friend in tow, to visit with him as he cooks and to share one of their father's handmade pizzas.

"It's been a really good thing for the kids to see," Cindy Murray said.

As the four boys, ages 6 to 14, have grown, they've taken on different tasks to help their parents run the cart. Sometimes they chop wood. Other days they help set up tables and chairs in the lot, sweep around the cart, and organize drinks in the cooler.

The kids were at their dad's side as he built trial ovens in the backyard and put the cart together, their mother notes.

"(I like) the oven, it gets so hot," said 8-year-old Ben Murray, who looks for any chance to watch his dad work.

Murray, in turn, feels relieved when his boys show up to help. His older sons plan to work in the restaurant when it opens.

Running the Pizza Cart has brought the family closer in the happy moments and has served as a powerful teaching tool in difficult times, Cindy Murray says.

Their extended family has rallied around them as well, with his parents, who live in Washington, staying in an RV outside the couple's home so they can help remodel the new location and care for the kids. Other family members who can't travel to Cedar City are constantly in touch, offering support and advice.

The vision of opening day keeps them all going.

"I just can't wait to walk the kids through to see the operation," Jason Murray said. "I can't wait to see them sitting at the table, having pizza inside. … It will be such a good experience."

Twitter: McKenzieRomero