As she observed the pizzaiolos of the now-defunct Laredo Pizza Factory toss dough and maneuver peels in and out of its sweltering oven a decade ago, Janet Zapata took mental notes. In the past, she had asked if they could teach her how to make pizza, but the team of all-male chefs laughed and waved off the then-23-year- old “cashier girl.” After months of watching the men toss, knead, and bake, she went straight to her boss and asked if she could step into the kitchen. Not only did he agree, but he offered to train her himself.
“No,” she insisted. “Let me show you that I know how.”
Before long, Zapata not only graduated from cashier girl to line cook, but she also started taking over the business, performing marketing duties and building up the brand. Her boss and mentor, Jeff Trevino, started calling her the real owner of the shop—until he actually sold her his share of the business in 2017.
Now the owner of her own solo restaurant, 550 Pizzeria, Zapata and her carb-y creations have become local sensations thanks to her Tex-Mexified menu, consistent community engagement, and savvy social media skills. The small shop on the north side of Laredo has been recognized with a number of awards, and in March 2023 Zapata’s star went national when she was recognized as one of the World Pizza Champions at the International Pizza Expo in Las Vegas. Competing in the nontraditional category with her chicken choriqueso pizza, the chef impressed with her use of a spicy tomatillo base and toppings like chorizo, white onions, Roma tomatoes, and cilantro. “It tastes like a Sunday after church at your tía’s house and you’re like ‘Let me go make a taco,’” Zapata says. “It tastes like when you want Taco Palenque after a football game. It tastes like Laredo.”
A pizza fiend since she was a child, Zapata’s calling seemed like destiny in retrospect. “All of my birthday parties were at Pizza Hut or Peter Piper Pizza,” she reminisces. Predetermined or not, the journey from pizza lover to maker has been a long and arduous one. Self-doubt and insecurity kept her dream of opening a restaurant at bay for years. In fact, she held on to her day job at a local TV station as a production assistant while she learned the ins and outs of the business. But that didn’t deter the chef from her ultimate goal of creating a restaurant that truly reflected her personality. Though she knew it would be a blow to the local dining scene, Zapata shuttered Laredo Pizza Factory the same year she purchased a stake to focus on a more unique and ambitious concept.
For more than two years Zapata worked at this objective, firing up her two small portable ovens and KitchenAid mixer every afternoon and evening after her shift at the TV station. Though sprawling, Laredo still runs on word-of-mouth, and word spread quickly that Zapata was experimenting with a number of 10-inch pizzas served underneath a tent in her backyard. When long lines of customers began showing up en masse, many of whom were hungry law enforcement officers, her operation raised eyebrows for those unaware of the chef’s culinary bona fides. “My neighbor one time asked me if I sold drugs,” Zapata recalls with a laugh.
Sourcing ingredients from H-E-B and soliciting extra help from her now-ex-husband, she sold at small pop-up markets around town, eventually buying a larger pizza stone she situated over a pro- pane grill. Demand was so high, her air- conditioner gave out due to the amount of flour circulating in the air and clogging the condenser. In the stifling Laredo heat, it became unbearable.
Due for a change, Zapata found the perfect plot of land for a brick-and-mortar alternative not far from her house. “It was just grass, puro monte, and I’d tell God, ‘That’s where I want it,’” she says.
One day, Zapata drove by that crude lot and saw a sign—literally. The site was finally going to be developed, and Zapata was poised to react with a pool of savings and a better line of credit. After a brief pandemic pause, 550 Pizzeria was born in 2020.
Named after the temperature of the restaurant’s stone pizza ovens, 550 Pizzeria’s real secret weapon is Zapata herself. The chef is constantly out in the community, talking to kids at school career days, and helping host fundraisers for local nonprofits. “I’ve come this far because of me and my community,” she says.
550 would be nothing if the pizza wasn’t superb, of course. Made fresh daily, Zapata’s pies still feature toppings procured from H-E-B—“I like to handpick my tomatoes and my bell peppers,” she says—and thin, New York-style dough that rests for at least 24 hours before being baked. In addition to the chicken choriqueso, a bevy of Laredo-inspired pies have locals hooked. There’s the Heatwave, named after Laredo’s longtime weatherman Richard “Heatwave” Berler, crowned with top- pings including jalapeños, Tabasco sauce, and crushed red pepper. The Dust ’Em—a nod to Texas A&M International’s dust devil mascot—is a creamy delight with a smear of pesto and an avocado drizzle. A collaborative offering with local taco joint Tacolare features juicy red al pastor pork, pineapple, pungent white onion, and flecks of cilantro.
Such partnerships are fitting for Zapata, who has become a community unifier and a beacon for other small businesses. Laredo-brewed beer from Saludo’s can now be found in cans at 550, and she’s helped film content with Gloria’s Coffee Bar to highlight local women business owners.
“Janet has made a huge impact on my life,” says Jennifer Cantú, owner of Gloria’s Coffee. “She made things like opening a business on your own seem obtainable. It gave me the drive to do the same.”
In addition to expansion plans across South Laredo, Zapata has dreams of serving her pizza all over the state. Though she has potential investors clamoring to be a part of 550’s inevitable growth, the newly decorated pizzaiolo is more than content doing it on her own.
“It’s crazy,” she says of her success since those fateful first days at Laredo Pizza Factory. “Some of those ex-coworkers, they’ve stayed friends and will say, ‘Who would’ve thought the cashier girl would have gone the farthest out of all of us?’”