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Gozney: creators of pioneering live-fire outdoor ovens

Tom Gozney with the Roccbox he created. <i>(Image: Peter Yendell)</i>
Tom Gozney with the Roccbox he created. (Image: Peter Yendell)

Aged 16, Tom Gozney was sat on a bench at college smoking a bong - his bloodstream already full of Class A drugs - convinced that he’d make something of his life. ‘I was wild and restless.’ he tells me. ‘Drinking vodka every day. My friends said I was going to die if I didn’t calm down. But I knew there was so much more coming for me. I just didn’t know where or when.’

And he was right. Now, aged just 37, his company, Gozney, creators of pioneering live-fire outdoor ovens, is worth more than $100 million. Selling stone-bake ovens all over the world, it has offices in China and the USA, including a newly appointed executive team based in Utah. Its roots, however, remain firmly in Dorset, where the business started in 2012.

Tom, who was born in Lymington, Hampshire, has what he describes as ‘an addictive gene’. He is also dyslexic. School was a struggle, with teachers frequently telling him he would amount to nothing. So, he put his energy into going off the rails, spectacularly. ‘I went absolutely sideways,’ he admits. ‘Part of it was not understanding where I belonged, or what I was good at. There’s something so broken about an education system where you can be so smart in many ways but sitting in a classroom you’re labelled dumb. It’s just a defeating, demotivating aspect.’

Great British Life: The Gozney Dome. The Gozney Dome. (Image: Gozney)

He breaks off, grinning. ‘I’ve also got a lot of drive. If I was going to take drugs, in my mind I was going to be the most successful drug taker, ever.’ He chuckles. ‘But I also knew it would come to an end.’

The ‘fun’ ended on a night out in Bournemouth when he was jumped by eight men, who kicked out his bottom teeth, smashed his eye socket and cracked his skull. ‘I was completely traumatised and had severe panic attacks.’ Over the next three months his life spiralled out of control. ‘I’d be standing in a queue with a litre bottle of vodka, crying and drinking before I’d even paid for it.’

Having hit rock bottom, he decided he needed to go into rehab. ‘I was like, done. I called my mum and said, “I’m ready”.’

Great British Life: Tom by one of the first commercial woodfired pizza ovens his company made. Tom by one of the first commercial woodfired pizza ovens his company made. (Image: Gozney)

Tom’s mother has always been his biggest support. So, having decided that anywhere in the UK would be too close to home, and places like The Priory were prohibitively expensive, within two weeks they were on a plane to the South Coast Recovery Centre in Durban, South Africa.

‘It was a wild 24 hours for my mum. I got hammered on the plane, I tried to get arrested. I was doing everything I could to avoid checking in.’ But she stuck with him, like always. ‘Mum was the one who instilled that all-important self-belief, telling me from a really young age that I could be anything I wanted.’

Tom says that his decision to go to rehab was the ‘hardest, bravest one’ he’s ever made, particularly given the culture shock. ‘You don’t chat back to a big South African ex-gang member dude with a huge scar on his chest. It was like an army camp, but with an empathetic approach to recovery and understanding the cause of it.’

Great British Life: Tom fires up one of the range of Gozney ovens at his Christchurch office. Tom fires up one of the range of Gozney ovens at his Christchurch office. (Image: Peter Yendell)

Despite Tom’s early story being so compelling, he’s only just started sharing it publicly. ‘I felt that the company had to achieve certain milestones to give us the right to be able to utilise my past.’

So last October, 12 years from when they first launched, Tom began talking about his experience. Now he had a worldwide platform through which he can help others who might be experiencing the same spiral he did. And it’s working. He’s had thousands of people contact him.

Although rehab was intensely hard, Tom survived and came out clean. However, it meant he no longer wanted to go out for raucous booze-filled nights with his mates. Instead, together with his girlfriend, Laura, they started holding supper parties.

Great British Life: Tom with his wife Laura and two of their children at home in Dorset. Tom with his wife Laura and two of their children at home in Dorset. (Image: Gozney)

One night they decided to make pizzas, which were ‘very average’. However, Tom found the process fun, and it got him thinking. Could he set up a pizza oven in the garden? Discovering that even the cheapest cost thousands, he decided to build one instead.

‘I researched it for a couple of hours, found a blueprint, changed it slightly, ordered the materials I needed, and the next morning started digging the foundations.’ A week later he had created ‘the ugliest brick oven’, but it sowed the seeds of an idea that would transform his life.

Every evening he would fire up the oven. Soon friends started pitching up with pizza toppings instead of cans of beer – which Tom confesses he had secretly found cripplingly difficult. ‘The oven saved me,’ he says. ‘It gave me a sense of community and a safe place to be. All my friends were infatuated with what I’d built. That pizza oven solidified the foundations of my recovery and became the essence of the brand I’ve built today.’

Great British Life: The Gozney Roccbox: the world's first portable stone bake pizza oven. The Gozney Roccbox: the world's first portable stone bake pizza oven. (Image: Gozney)

While his former addiction is only a fraction of his remarkable success story, it is a key part of his ‘journey’. This is a word he uses a lot when we meet in his slightly ramshackle offices in Christchurch where his business began. It’s dominated by a film-set like kitchen, and, of course, the Gozney ovens; their simple, elegant design is something Tom is particularly proud of.

Ask how he defines himself, and Tom’s answer is revealing: ‘I’m a designer with an understanding of mechanical engineering; but my first foot forward is brand and aesthetic. Also, being dyslexic gives me the ability to think differently. I have a vision for things that others may not see.’ Add ‘entrepreneurial ethos’ and you can see why Tom has succeeded so brilliantly. Initially he started producing a pre-cast igloo-style oven for use at home. Then he spotted a gap in the commercial pizza oven market – launching the Gozney brand in 2013.

‘We’d spoken to restaurants who were spending tens of thousands on woodfired ovens: reinforcing floors, using cranes, even taking listed shop fronts down to get them inside.’

Great British Life: Celebrity chef Chris 'Flamebaster' Roberts hosted a pop-up live-fire cooking and dining event on the Jurassic Coast last summer to showcase the Roccbox. Celebrity chef Chris 'Flamebaster' Roberts hosted a pop-up live-fire cooking and dining event on the Jurassic Coast last summer to showcase the Roccbox. (Image: Gozney)

Tom invented a modular system which could be installed by two people in a day. ‘Almost overnight it went bananas,’ he recalls. Within six months Gozney became the UK leader of commercial woodfired ovens, helped by the impact of the 2008 recession.

‘No-one had the money for fine-dining, and there was this huge street food movement, where everyone was focussing on simple ingredients, used well. There’s nothing better than the Neapolitan pizza – water, flour, salt and yeast. Let the dough ferment for 48 hours and it becomes this thing of beauty. Pizza dough is the most artisanal thing. It mesmerised me, seeing four basic ingredients turn into something beyond your wildest dreams that you’d never think you could create at home.’

I feel a new idea forming… And sure enough, 2016 saw the Crowdfunder launch of a product no-one had realised the world needed. The Gozney Roccbox: the world’s first portable stone bake pizza oven. Named by Laura (now Tom’s wife) - ‘because it’s literally a stone in a box, and the name felt, cool, disruptive and fun,’- it did 1.2 million sales in its first month. Add the Dome outdoor oven, launched in 2021, and Gozney has become one of Dorset’s real success stories.

Great British Life: Tom making pizza at home with his kids on Father's Day 2021. Tom making pizza at home with his kids on Father's Day 2021. (Image: Gozney)

There are so many more fascinating elements to their journey, it would make a great book (something that has been suggested). However, we’ll skip to the part where one day, Tom pulls up in his Lamborghini next to one his former teachers at a petrol station. ‘I knew he hated me, but I said hello. I was super nice. And the best thing is, he really didn’t want to speak to me, which made the encounter even more pleasurable.’

The super-car stage is now over. As the dad of a five- and a three-year-old, Tom now drives a more practical family hatchback. ‘It was super important for me to buy a Lambo in my twenties,’ he says. ‘That’s the goal I set myself when I went into rehab. Now, I don’t have any more need for external validation through materialism.’

Laura still works in the business, although she’s kept busy at home with their children, Tysen (Tigger), Eden and a third on the way. ‘Laura is so smart. She’s my secret weapon,’ Tom says proudly. ‘While I’m the visionary entrepreneur, Laura is very grounded. She sees risks and is exceptionally creative. Luckily our tastes are almost identical. She has been such an amazing brand curator.’

Laura has a degree in Environmental Sciences, and they both take sustainability seriously. ‘I can’t dress up the fact that we make wood and gas-fired ovens,’ Tom sighs. With the latter they’ve invented a flame that mimics the taste of woodfire. ‘And we work hard to make our packaging sustainable, but we’re not a B Corp. What we do really well, however,’ his face brightens, ‘is make products that last. None of this built-in obsolescence. You buy a Dome (their outdoor oven that was given a special mention by Time Best Inventions 2021) and you’ll still be using it in 20 years.’

The rise of the Gozney brand has been meteoric, and success has relied on great leadership and a good head for numbers. ‘We appointed our first CEO last October, when we hit around the $50 million threshold, but until then everything, from product to operations, supply chain, finance, marketing, everything, reported into me as far as decision-making went.’

Currently there’s a global team of 105 – most are based in Dorset. The company has just moved to new offices in Bobby’s, right in the heart of Bournemouth. ‘Growing the business and seeing so many amazing hard-working people flourishing in their careers with us is one of the most rewarding aspects of my job.

‘The nice thing is that the people who are the absolute rock stars stay with you, because they love what we do. Over time we’ve built this core team, many of whom were originally attracted by the fact that you don’t get many disruptive, entrepreneurial businesses trying to make the moves we’ve been making from Dorset’s rural coast. Going forward, our aim is to produce more amazing products and bring happiness into gardens across the land.’

More details on the Roccbox, Dome and Master Ovens at gozney.com

Great British Life: Neopolitan pizza perfection, hot out of a Gozney oven. Neopolitan pizza perfection, hot out of a Gozney oven. (Image: Gozney)

Tom’s Simple Pizza Dough

600g water

1kg 00 pizza flour (plus some for dusting)

30g salt

2g fresh yeast/1g instant dry yeast

Method:

Pour the water into a large mixing bowl, stir in the yeast to dissolve. Add half the flour (500g), mixing with your hand for 30 seconds to combine. Add the remaining flour, mix for another 30 seconds, add the salt and mix for a further 30 seconds. Tip the dough onto a lightly floured counter, knead for 10 minutes. Cover the dough with a tea towel and leave it to rest for 10 minutes.

Shape the dough into a smooth ball by dragging it across the counter surface to form tension on the outside of the dough. Cover with a tea towel, leave to rest for 45 minutes.

Using scales, divide the dough into 250g portions. Form into four balls, place into lightly oiled containers or a tray, cover with a lid, prove for 8 hours at room temperature (18°C).

Preheat your Gozney Roccbox or Dome to 450°C. Open out a dough ball to make a pizza shape, add toppings, transfer onto a lightly dusted peel. Gently re-adjust the pizza if necessary to stretch to the edges of the peel. Give it a quick shuffle test on the peel, it should move freely, transfer to pizza oven. Bake for 20-30 seconds, then turn it. Do this every 20-30 seconds for 90 seconds or until the pizza is baked just how you like it. Place on a board, slice and share with friends.

More recipes at gozney.com/blogs/recipes



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