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Stacey Vanek-Smith: It’s still summer, but people in the Northeast are already thinking about firewood. This year, prices for the old-fashioned fuel are soaring as people search for alternatives to costly home heating oil. But it’s not just skinflints looking to save. The specialty wood market is smokin’ too. Mark Foggin reports.
Mark Foggin: Angel Rodriguez pulls up in his 24-foot panel truck in front of Sezz Medi Brick Oven Pizza in Upper Manhattan. Even though it’s the middle of the summer, he’s delivering — firewood.
Angel Rodriguez: [Sound of truck door sliding up already on the act] This is a loaded truck today!
Rodriguez piles a week’s supply of split ash in front of the restaurant’s brick oven. He makes the 200-mile round trip from Quakertown, PA, twice each week during the summer. Rodriguez delivers to 50 restaurants in New York. That steady business is critical for his boss, Ron Heckman, otherwise known as Sam the Firewood Man.
Ron Heckman: Absolutely, they’re my bread and butter. Without the restaurants, Sam the Firewood Man, which has been in existence 38 years now, would have been out of business probably in its second year.
Heckman says even though fuel costs have doubled in the past year, it’s still worth the premium he gets delivering ash and cherry to the captive and growing market in New York City. Angelo Sessa, owner of Sezz Medi finds wood to be a good value.
Heckman: It costs me around $700, $800 a month to run the oven. So if I were to choose between the wood and the gas, absolutely the wood would be the best flavor to give to any dishes.
And it’s not just pizzerias. Real barbecue relies on the smoke from wood for its slow-cooked flavor. Pete Daversa is the pit master at the recently opened Hill Country restaurant in Manhattan’s Flatiron neighborhood. He actually has the wood for the restaurant’s three SUV-sized smokers trucked up from Texas by the trailer-load twice a year.
Pete Daversa: We use post oak, because besides being a fantastic wood, it’s a slow burner, it’s very hot. It’s consistent. It’s got a great sweet mild, smooth flavor. But tough to get around here. You actually have to ship it in. I’d love to give you my source, but it’s one of our trade secrets.
And barbecue aficionados seem to agree. At a little after noon one recent weekday, the line for moist brisket was already out the door.
In New York, I’m Mark Foggin for Marketplace.
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