MCGREGOR - It's a head-scratcher. Rick Herman's most popular menu item is the Hunter, the same-old, same-old when it comes to pizza: tomato sauce, cheese, pepperoni or sausage.
The self-described "huge foodie - always been one," has a portable deli counter full of far more interesting toppings, to his way of thinking, including a few that pay homage to his northern Minnesota roots. Currently: mushrooms, asparagus, wild rice, maple syrup. He also offers a crust made with spent grain from Bent Paddle Brewing Co.
Customers might have initially balked at the salmon-caper-garlic olive oil combo he tried for a private event, but it turned out to be a hit.
"The recipes are right out of this noggin right here," he said.
Herman is in the midst of his third summer as owner/operator/head pizza peel wielder of Log Home Wood Fired Pizza, a 9,000-pound mobile restaurant that serves artisan pizza at farmers markets, breweries and caters private events, mostly in northern Minnesota. He has a heavy tour schedule and travels with about 10 specialty pizzas with outdoorsy names: Lumberjack, Evergreen, Log Cabin.
"One of our biggest sellers is the Hunter. Really?" he said during a recent visit to his usual Thursday spot, the parking lot of Minnestalgia, a winery-gift shop in McGregor.
Herman said he knows not everyone is into messing with their standard pizza order. Still, if he had his way, customers would try his personal favorite: the Smokehouse, which includes homemade BBQ sauce, cheddar cheese, pulled pork, bacon and green onions.
Herman spent 30 years as an educator. His final four were in the Wrenshall school district. When that ended, he searched the internet for a way to satisfy the lifelong appreciation for food that his mother kickstarted with her traditional Minnesota, 1970s comfort fare. He had always cooked a lot, he said. He's a hunter who, in the past, built a series of smokers and has taken pride in his game.
Then, he found portable pizza.
Fire Within, a Colorado-based company, sells mobile wood-fired pizza ovens. He and his wife Nancy Herman attended the company's workshop, ordered one of the ovens, and established an anchor event for their food truck - the Grand Rapids Farmers Market.
"I looked at brick and mortar, and this is much less of an expense," he said. "You don't have all the overhead, the initial investment."
He is in his third season with the business, which is growing exponentially, he said. Not only are sales up more than the 20 percent per year that he had hoped, he's also expanded his reach. As of this summer, he's licensed to operate in Duluth and spends Fridays parked outside of Bent Paddle. He will be set up on Saturday at All Pints North at Bayfront Festival Park.
Nancy Herman owns Yellow River Advertising & Design. When time allows, she works the truck too, sporting the signature green collared shirt and a pair of dangling pizza slice earrings her husband commissioned as a Christmas gift.
"He's passionate about whatever he does," she said. "Whether it's teaching or cooking. ... He gets to play with fire, too."
Herman drives a tan Silverado and tows the neatly packaged six-piece trailer-wood fire oven-kitchen prep area behind his pickup truck. All of it, including the eight Rubbermaids, fits together perfectly between the trailer and truck bed with no room to spare.
"Everything has its place," he said. "It packs up and away we go."
The oven has an arched brick exterior. In the back of the stove, a log of oak, maple or popple burns full-flame. Temperature peaks at about 900 degrees, and heat extends to at least a 6-foot radius beyond the mouth.
During a recent visit, Herman was in constant motion. While his two-person staff took orders and loaded crusts, he shuffled pizzas in, out and around the oven, while chatting, and in between held the pizza peel like a lacrosse stick.
"It's not like Domino's," he said, a nod to his not-so usual menu offerings. "Sometimes it takes customers longer to decide what they want than it does to make it."
Diane Pelto and Sharon Lake are regulars at the McGregor stop. They shared a small table in front of the log cabin style shop. The former had the Hunter, the latter, Open Range.
"It's nothing I'd put together myself," Lake said. "I stop whenever I see (Log Cabin Wood Fired Pizza) is open."
Lori Erkenbrack, who owns Minnestalgia, said she and her husband Jay are working through the Log Home menu, marking their progress with a punch card that offers the seventh pizza for free.
"It's a lot of fun," she said.
The area surrounding McGregor hosts a lot of vacationers from the Twin Cities area, she said, and they're used to having access to food trucks. The scene is pretty lean in McGregor, save for Herman's pizza.
"To find that up here is a wonderful thing," she said. "You get sick of grilling hamburgers all the time."
The pizza takes about 90 seconds to cook, and come out of the oven with crust spots that range from dark brown to black with an occasional bubble. The thin, sturdy crust is crispy, just shy of chewy.
Open Range has pesto sauce, shredded chicken, wild rice, chicken and green onions. Evergreen is vegetable-based with spinach, zucchini, roasted peppers, asparagus, onions and basil. In The Woods is asparagus, mushrooms, prosciutto and Parmesan.
S'Mores dessert pizza uses Nutella as a chocolatey sauce and is topped with toasted marshmallows and graham cracker crumbles. The slices are softer and chewier than the pizza. Sugar maple dessert pizza, according to season, can be topped with rhubarb, blueberries or apples, to create a pie-shaped crisp.
As the season wanes to fall, Herman will create a wild rice crust and he will bring back his reuben-style pizza. He's also thinking aesthetics. Northern Lights, a pizza in progress, will have zucchini, red onions and yellow squash. He makes all of his own sauces and the Italian sausage.
"We're constantly looking at doing something different," he said. "I've got like five more in this noggin. I've just got to pull them out."
The Hermans owns their dream log home on five acres about 10 miles outside of McGregor. Their lifestyle seeps into their pizza. They talk a lot about staying on-brand with northwoods artisan pizza. You won't, for instance, find a traditional margherita pizza, with tomatoes, basil, and fresh mozzarella.
"It doesn't fit our brand," Rick Herman said. "The artisan pizza of the northwoods isn't margherita."
- Find them on Facebook or at northwoodspizza.com.