It’s impossible to order the pizza that might be the best in all of Seattle. If you go over to Moto Pizza’s website right now, it’ll tell you that preorders at its West Seattle location are sold out through June, and if you try to order from the Edmonds location it’ll inform you, “We’re not accepting online orders at this time, but feel free to browse our online menu,” which feels borderline cruel. There are no walk-ups; it’s takeout only. If you really want to try it, your best option may be to buy a cheap ticket to a Mariners game just to visit Moto’s concession stand, which opens in May. Moto is a big enough phenomenon that I’m sure some people will do just that.
Opened in 2021 in the midst of the high pandemic, Moto is an incredibly unlikely success story. The couple who founded it, Lee Kindell and Nancy Gambin, were first-time restaurant owners. The location, in a West Seattle cottage wedged between two new-build developments, was impractical from the start. Kindell had been making pizza for years, but only as an amateur tinkerer. And just a couple of years after they started, Kindell is already talking about international expansion, robot pizza-makers, and vertical hydroponics in the soon-to-launch Belltown location.
But Kindell has the natural salesman’s gift for making anything he says believable. The fiftysomething Filipino American is gregarious, compulsively friendly, and overjoyed to show me the West Seattle cottage that he intends to be the seat of his pizza empire.
“I have no secrets,” he says. “I don’t have a competitive nature or anything. I’m just here to create.”
The success Moto has enjoyed would make the most hard-bitten cynic into a sunny-eyed optimist. Kindell and Gambin started selling pizza only because their previous Belltown hostel business had gone bust courtesy of the pandemic. “When COVID hit, we lost everything,” Kindell says. “I’m like, ‘Okay, what are we going to do?’”
They bought a small house in West Seattle and tried to jump-start Kindell’s dream of being a professional pizza-maker. It was an inauspicious moment to launch a takeout operation — not only was the pandemic in full bloom, but the West Seattle Bridge was closed for repairs, making visiting the area tricky for outsiders. “I’m playing the long game,” Kindell told Eater Seattle at the time. “I really do believe my pizza is so good, people will find their way around the bridge to get here from other neighborhoods, too.”
So Kindell didn’t exactly lack confidence, but the opening exceeded even his expectations. Drawn by early buzz Kindell credits to Eater Seattle and Patrick Robinson of Westside Seattle, customers swarmed Moto the day it opened. “There was a line out the door, and it literally goes to the corner of the block, and then around that corner,” Kindell says. “It was an onslaught. Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, we just got beat up.”
To deal with the demand, Moto switched to a time-slot system, at first selling slots for the next week — but those sold out in seconds, Kindell says. Then it offered up a month of time slots, and those sold out in seconds too. For the last two years, Moto has been selling time slots three months in advance.
To Moto’s rabid fans, it didn’t matter that you had to watch the website like a hawk to even earn the privilege of ordering a pizza you wouldn’t get for weeks. It didn’t matter that they had to drive for an hour or more, or that the pizza would be cold by the time they got home. “People were coming from Everett, from North Bend, from Tacoma. They were coming from all friggin’ over,” Kindell says. “It was the most insane thing. They’re like, ‘You won’t believe how far I drove.’ At first, I was like, ‘No, you didn’t come that far. You passed 100 pizza places.’” One customer told him that she bought a time slot for $40 on Reddit.
So what makes this pizza so special? Maybe it’s the starter — a century-old sourdough starter that Kindell says was brought up by a baker from San Francisco during the Alaska gold rush days and eventually made its way into Kindell’s hands. (He wouldn’t reveal who gave him the starter, having been sworn to secrecy.) Kindell calls his starter “Betty,” after his motorcycle, and feeds her twice a day using a variety of grains, including rye and einkorn.
The other key ingredient in the dough is flour, which Kindell sources from Cairnspring Mills in Skagit County; importantly, Cairnspring uses stone mills rather than more common industrial processes. “The stone grind doesn’t create friction or heat, which affects the flour. So we get the highest quality of flour, the high hydration — hydration is everything in pizza,” Kindell says.
That dough then ferments for three days. On the day it becomes pizza, Kindell and his staff set it out early in the morning to proof. By 4 p.m., when Moto opens, it’s risen and ready for toppings. These are often inspired by the flavors of the Philippines, where Kindell was born, or the Pacific Northwest.
The flagship product is the Mr. Pig, which has a three-cheese blend, pork belly, spicy pork sausage, caramelized onions, banana ketchup (a Filipino staple), chimichurri, and “Mr. Pig sauce.” The sauces are swirled over the toppings in geometric patterns, and as you eat your way through the square slices you get different flavors: sweet, spicy, tangy, meaty, then the firm texture of the sourdough crust. These are Detroit-style pizzas, so not as deep as Chicago-style but still with some heft and depth to them — the crust is the star here. The best part is the corners, which the heat from the oven has browned into crispy, Malliard-reaction perfection.
I was at Moto last month before it opened and watched the staff unhurriedly assemble the pizzas, box them up, and stack them against one wall of the cottage. At 4 o’clock, they turned the conveyor belt oven on and began cooking the pizzas, each one taking five minutes and 30 seconds at around 550 degrees — Kindell wants to get up to 600, but can’t push his current oven to those heights.
In the beginning, Moto had a smaller oven and Kindell kneaded the dough by hand, which limited the restaurant to 80 to 100 pizzas a night. More seriously, the repetitive squeezing motion was hurting Kindell’s arm, giving him a condition not unlike tennis elbow. He was forced to start using a mixer, which he admits affects the quality of the dough. “But what I found is I got consistency,” he says. “The important thing in success is consistency.”
With that mixer, Moto has scaled up to 250 pizzas a night, and in 2022 it opened a location in Edmonds. Despite this increase in production, Moto can’t make enough pizzas to fill the demand. At this point, its scarcity is part of the legend. People have asked me if I’ve heard of that pizza place where you have to order weeks ahead of time. Is it really worth it? they want to know.
I have to say: Not really. Kindell makes exceptional pizza, unique in its conception and its execution, pizza that is surely on the short list of the best in the Seattle area. I just don’t think any pizza is worth rearranging your life around — though you may want to try it yourself just to see what all the fuss is about.
The good news is that you may not need to get on a waiting list for Moto in the near future. Because this isn’t just a story about a guy who opened a quirky little pizza shop in the pandemic, it’s a story about an entrepreneur who wants to build an international pizza empire.
Moto is already serving a handheld version of its pizza in T-Mobile Park, which means it will likely get a surge of publicity with Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game coming to Seattle this summer. Kindell and Gambin are working to open a Belltown location this summer, which will include robot pizza-makers and vertical hydroponics so they can grow their own greens.
What started out as a deeply personal process of handcrafting pizza will be giving way to a literal assembly line. Kindell is trying to keep the quality high while scaling up. “Some of the greatest cars ever made, they are crafted in factories,” he says. “I think the same thing can happen with food, if that intention is there, and that kind of attention to craftsmanship. You can utilize these tools and technology to create something really fantastic.”
Moto has already secured venture capital for a round of seed funding, Kindell says, and is looking to do a Series A of financing in the next six months. He talks about starting delivery and walk-up sales, about scaling up his chile crisp-making operation and selling jars of it, about ice cream — did I mention Moto does ice cream? It has soft serve that the staff tops with chile crisp and can serve on cones they bake themselves, from a Transylvanian recipe Kindell says dates back to 1782. He’s bursting with ideas, stories, plans, enthusiasm. If you’re standing in the cottage with him, it’s hard not to be excited about the future.
“I’m looking to really take this somewhere big,” he says. “It’s already on the moon.”