Detroit-style pizzas are new career for NFL SkyCam crew leader

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Jeff Miner considered four other locations before he settled on the East 10th Street site for his soon-to-open restaurant focused on Detroit’s signature style of pizza pie. (IBJ photo/Eric Learned)

Three years after making its debut as a popular pizza pop-up, Sam’s Square Pie plans to open in January as a full-fledged restaurant near the intersection of East 10th and Rural streets.

Jeff Miner, who’s leaving an NFL SkyCam career to open the restaurant, sold his first pizzas to the public in January 2021 at Half Liter Beer & BBQ Hall in the Meridian-Kessler neighborhood.

They were Detroit-style pizzas, which Miner started experimenting with during 2020’s pandemic lockdown and are known for crusts that are crispy on the outside and light and airy on the inside.

Miner’s older brother, Ron “DJ Indiana Jones” Miner, became a fan of his brother’s creations and encouraged Jeff to pursue Sam’s Square Pie as something more than a hobby. But DJ Indiana Jones, who was a leader in the Indianapolis music community, died on Dec. 4, 2020, from a heart attack at age 50, before he could see his brother fulfill that wish.

Half Liter, part of Sahm’s Hospitality Group, hosted the first Sam’s Square Pie pop-up shortly after DJ Indiana Jones died.

Eddie Sahm

“A lot of the city was hurt about Ron passing away, and Eddie [Sahm, chief operating officer of Sahm’s Hospitality Group] was trying to calm me or give me something to look forward to,” Miner said.

Sahm said not every amateur pizza maker would be welcomed to sell food at Half Liter. When he checked out Miner’s work, Sahm said, he perceived a level of artistry and creativity.

“I thought, ‘Here’s a guy with a passion for food,’” he said.

And because pandemic restrictions limited the number of customers at Half Liter, 5301 Winthrop Ave., Miner found plenty of space in the kitchen to make pizzas that were accented by pepperoni, a crunchy edge of browned cheese and tomato sauce ladled on top.

The setting gave Miner the chance to learn about the restaurant business while following a dream his brother endorsed.

“It allowed me to grieve while not focusing on the grief,” Miner said. “I was just making pizza after pizza after pizza. I kept thinking of my brother saying, ‘You have to do this. You have to do this.’”

Local buzz grew for Sam’s Square Pie, a name inspired by Miner’s maternal grandfather, Samuel Ashwood. Miner became discouraged after efforts to open a brick-and-mortar location south of Garfield Park unraveled, but his spirits lifted after he entered this year’s International Pizza Expo competition in Las Vegas and brought home fifth place in the pan pizza division.

Landing the Sam’s Square Pie restaurant at 2829 E. 10th St., a site previously occupied by Love Handle restaurant and an 18th Street Brewery taproom, solidifies a second act for Miner, 51.

He said he found meaning in a Buddhist parable in which a teacup is emptied of liquid to make room for new experiences and achievements. Miner said he’s letting go of spending weekends in football stadiums and decades of work on film crews.

“I need to forget about all of that and just become part of this neighborhood,” he said of his near-east-side restaurant. “Be in here six or seven days a week, serving my heart and giving all I have to make a great pizza. That is what got me into it: Hearing people say, ‘It’s the best pizza I ever had.’”

DJ Indiana Jones will have a presence, from a painting of the Miner brothers displayed in the restaurant to a reggae playlist curated by Ron Miner that’s accessible via a QR code inside every pizza box.

Brian Philps

Brian Philps, who works in the communications department of the Indiana Housing and Community Development Authority, formed an alliance with DJ Indiana Jones when Philps was a member of Mudkids, a hip-hop group managed by Jones.

Friendship with one Miner brother extended to the second, and Philps said he witnessed Jeff Miner’s dedication to making pizzas every time he returned from an NFL SkyCam assignment.

“This really doesn’t happen if Ron doesn’t push him,” Philps said. “Once that manifested itself and Jeff realized he had something great, I never really saw him letting it go.”

Beyond the location south of Garfield Park where Miner said he invested $30,000 in renovations before pulling the plug, he scouted two places in Fountain Square and one along the Monon Trail at East 54th Street before signing a lease at the East 10th Street site.

“I’m excited to walk into his place—that he runs—and get a pizza from him,” Philps said.

Brother Ron Miner, right, inspired Jeff Miner to take his talent for pizza-making professional. This painting by Dan “Handskillz” Thompson is displayed at Sam’s Square Pie. (IBJ photo/Eric Learned)

Knead to know

Miner said he grew up on a medium-thick-crust pizza made by Noble Roman’s Inc., a company founded in Indiana in 1972.

“I was eating there two to three days a week as a kid,” said Ben Davis High School alum Miner, noting that Noble Roman’s Sicilian pizza shares characteristics with Detroit-style pizza.

In recent years, pizza fans in Indianapolis have gained Detroit-style options beyond large chain Little Caesars and its deep-dish menu item.

Miner praised the owners of Futuro, the Detroit-style specialists who opened a Holy Cross neighborhood shop in 2021. Azzip, an Evansville-based restaurant chain, expanded to Indianapolis in 2020 and brought its “Square Zip” pizza.

Jet’s, a Detroit-based pizza chain, operates seven central Indiana locations. And Buddy’s Pizza, considered by many to be the definitive maker of Detroit-style pizza, is planning an expansion from the Motor City to Westfield, which would become home to the first Buddy’s restaurant outside of Michigan.

Nationally, Detroit-style pizza ranks No. 7 among pizzas most commonly found on menus, according to a 2022 survey of 750 restaurant owners conducted by Pizza Today magazine.

Miner said he appreciates non-Detroit pizzas made by Indianapolis companies such as King Dough, Some Guys Pizza Pasta Grill, Bazbeaux and Jockamo Upper Crust Pizza.

But there’s an allure to the Detroit-style crust that captivated Miner.

“It’s making the dough, getting the right kinds of flour, using the right time, temperature and water,” he said. “All of those things go into the process of trying to create a really good crust.”

Ryan Showalter, co-owner of commissary business Indy’s Kitchen, said he was happy to see Miner make his crusts while renting space at the commercial kitchen at the intersection of East 25th Street and Central Avenue.

“I think where it starts is that his dough is so good,” Showalter said of Miner’s pizzas. “It’s the right combination of stretch and bend and airiness and all that kind of stuff.”

The goal is soft and pillowy but with a crunch, Miner said.

He partially bakes crusts and bags them for future use, allowing preparation of a large volume of pizzas. Miner anticipates readying 150 to 300 crusts for a week of business at Sam’s Square Pie.

Similar to his method of selling pizzas at pop-ups and at Indy’s Kitchen, Miner will use a pre-order format in the early weeks of the restaurant’s existence. “I can only make so many pizzas,” he said.

Walk-in customers will have the option of buying single slices of Detroit-style pizza or Miner’s rendition of Sicilian pizza.

Path to pizza

Miner said he was a preteen when he developed kitchen skills about 40 holiday seasons ago.

His mother, Barbara Lawrence, gave Miner a biscuit mix as a Christmas present, even though it wasn’t even hinted at on his wish list. Still, Miner said he enjoyed the baking session a week later.

“I had so much fun making those biscuits,” he said. “It was a Christmas lesson: The gift doesn’t have to be immediate gratification. It can be something you make and really like.”

Lawrence passed along her father’s name, Samuel, to Jeff as his middle name, and Jeff’s son, 15-year-old Miles, has Samuel as his middle name.

A desire to spend more time with Miles, Miner said, influenced the decision to wrap up his 10-year NFL SkyCam career.

The teenager has spent time around the aerial camera system that’s suspended by cables and pulleys. It’s cool technology, Miner acknowledged, but also a source of stress when you’re working in Baltimore on a 20-degree Sunday, and ice is coating the SkyCam’s cables.

In Miner’s role of engineer in charge, he stands on the sidelines during NFL games and communicates with the camera’s pilot.

Away from sports, Miner has worked in a behind-the-scenes role on films such as 2021’s “Judas & the Black Messiah.”

Pending the acquisition of permits needed for Sam’s Square Pie, Miner hopes to open the restaurant in mid-January. He expects one of his last games as a SkyCam crew member will be a Christmas Day matchup between the New York Giants and Philadelphia Eagles in Philadelphia.

The Hanover College alum who played defensive end in college said he’s accumulated plenty of stories during his pre-pizza life.

“I don’t need to prove anything anymore,” he said.

(Photo courtesy of Jeff Miner)

Finding home turf

Miner has researched pizza parlors in NFL cities across the United States.

TV crew members frequently ask for recommendations on where to find the best pizza, and Miner will oblige with the exception of New Orleans—where he respects the city’s cuisine too much to talk about slices.

In November 2022, Miner took an opportunity to make his pizzas in the basement of Chicago’s Soldier Field to serve to members of a Fox Sports TV crew.

After receiving strong positive feedback, he decided to try his luck at the International Pizza Expo competition in Las Vegas.

“I might as well go see how my pizza ranks with some of the best pizza makers in the world,” he said.

Miner’s fifth-place performance in the pan category wasn’t the only Indiana highlight. Gemma Cataldo, representing Elkhart-based Antonio’s Italian Ristorante, took first-place honors in the traditional pizza division.

Until now, Miner hasn’t had a brick-and-mortar restaurant to represent.

He credits his time making and selling pizzas at Indy’s Kitchen with helping him understand what he would want and need at his own place.

“All of that was beyond my comprehension two years ago, because I would just make pizzas in my kitchen,” Miner said.

Indy’s Kitchen also has been a stop on the culinary journeys of Burgeezy, a vegan burger concept that opened a Canal Walk restaurant in September, and The Cheesecake Lady, the dessert concept synonymous with Cassie Smith-Johnson. In November, Smith-Johnson opened a shop at 305 W. 42nd St.

“We were able to provide [Miner] a clean kitchen with equipment that worked,” said Showalter, who co-owns Indy’s Kitchen with his wife, Sarah Showalter. “I feel like we provided a resource to figure some stuff out.”

Family style

Sahm, whose Half Liter is one of a dozen Sahm’s Hospitality Group eateries, said Miner has his priorities aligned for success in the restaurant business.

“If you go in thinking you’re going to be rich because of it, then you’re probably going to be let down,” Sahm said. “But I think he realized his passion for pizza is real, and he clearly has a passion to serve others. When he lets people taste his food, it brings satisfaction, and people are happy. If you can find a career that does that, it’s probably pretty worthwhile.”

Mudkids rapper Philps said Miner’s father, Ron Miner Sr., former owner of Melody Skateland roller rink, instilled an entrepreneurial spirit in his sons.

“Jeff has been saving his money and stacking his chips for something,” Philps said. “I think they get it from their dad. Big Ron is an entrepreneur. They’ve always been surrounded by people who conduct business.”

In 2020, DJ Indiana Jones became owner of Broad Ripple’s Casba nightclub, where he had presented a weekly dance party titled “Reggae Revolution” for more than 20 years.

Ron Miner didn’t call on Jeff to make his meat-focused pizzas, styles now known as El Jefe and Bitchin’ Camaro, when the DJ wanted to sample the homemade precursor to Sam’s Square Pie.

Ron preferred cheese and basil on his pizza, a meatless style that evolved with hot honey and pecorino reggiano to become the Crush Pie—a name to honor Crush Entertainment, the party company overseen by DJ Indiana Jones.

Although pandemic lockdown was in effect on June 10, 2020, close friends gathered for Ron Miner’s 50th birthday party. Jeff Miner made pizzas, including two Detroit-style creations, that were well-received.

“Ron put his arm around me and said, ‘You have to do this. This is so good,’” Jeff Miner said.

The image of the Miner brothers displayed at Sam’s Square Pie was painted by Dan “Handskillz” Thompson, who also painted the mural of DJ Indiana Jones on the exterior of Broad Ripple’s Vogue music venue following Ron Miner’s death.

Jeff Miner said he fully understands that death is part of life.

“We’re supposed to lose people,” he said. “But that’s what is going to make you stronger and love harder. You understand it more as you grow.”•

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2 thoughts on “Detroit-style pizzas are new career for NFL SkyCam crew leader

  1. Exciting news! Happy for near east side getting great new pizza joint!

    On a side note, any word on 18th street distilling opening in New location or has this fallen through?

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