Jillana Miller and Ahmad Butler returned to their San Pedro home one Saturday night after setting up shop at the Los Feliz flea market, where they’d had a long day. Money was tight, and they were relying on the day’s earnings to carry them through another week. But the wind at the market had been unforgiving, and their pizza ovens couldn’t hold a flame.
As Jillana climbed the stairs to their apartment, she had an idea. “I looked down at the pavement, and I thought, maybe we should just pop up right there tomorrow. We should pop up right in San Pedro.”
Jillana and Ahmad are the co-owners of Miller Butler, a pizza pop-up restaurant founded in 2020 at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Out of work but full of inspiration, the newlyweds — who married just days before lockdown — decided to sell handmade pasta to make ends meet.
As a pasta pop-up, they traveled across Los Angeles until they received a request from one of their spots to sell hot food, and they transitioned into pizza making. They were well-equipped to handle the switch — prior to Miller Butler, Jillana had been a private chef in Manhattan Beach, and Ahmad was the food and beverage manager at the LAX Marriott.
With the help of Jillana’s father, who made their pizza oven and supplied their first dough recipe, they began firing pizzas across the city until that fateful windy day at the Los Feliz Flea.
The decision to set down their operation right outside their home is one Jillana looks back on fondly. “That first day on the block was an opportunity that I didn’t even know was there,” she says. “We suddenly connected with our neighborhood, and I thought, I want to do this every Sunday.”
True to her word, the couple began popping up each Sunday in front of their home as Pizza on the Block. They quickly found their support reciprocated — many patrons returned every week, and some brought gifts of their own.
“One day, we’re using our pizza oven, and we’re talking about getting some wood for it,” says Ahmad. “And Chris, the owner of Whiskey Flats, just happened to be there. He’s like, ‘We got tons of almond wood if you want it,’ and we started buying our wood directly from them.”
The couple phased out their other locations in Los Angeles as their popularity grew, took up catering, and began teaching Miller Butler pasta-making classes on the side.
Today, they’re based in San Pedro, with their menu reflecting the many supporters they’ve earned in their year there. They honor Whiskey Flats with a barbecue chicken pizza, and their love of the town’s working-class roots spurred them to host a “Bloody Thursday” special — one free Margherita pizza with the purchase of a regular pie.
“We’re community-made in many ways,” explains Jillana. “We started serving our community for survival, and it became this relationship. Their support has helped us grow.”
True to themselves, they also serve pizzas that reflect their storied careers as chefs. The Boujee is a pesto-based pizza topped with prosciutto, arugula, and honey, and past pies have featured jalapenos. Ahmad credits Jillana as the mastermind behind the flavors. “Jillana has come up with a lot of really interesting flavor combinations,” he explains, “like pears and gorgonzola or kale, goat cheese, and mushrooms.”
In addition to specials, the Miller Butlers also partner with Feed and Be Fed farm for fresh, local ingredients. However, not everything is possible to source in San Pedro, and they import their flour from Italy — a crucial ingredient that cannot be substituted.
Ahmad, nicknamed “Doughboi” for his love of the craft, has spent years refining the original recipe from Jillana’s dad. Unlike other pizza doughs, he’s hesitant to make substitutions that may change the dough’s constitution. His recipe also contains no sugar or honey — it must rise for an extra day, a step that extends the dough-making process to a hefty 72 hours before its quick two-to-five-minute cooking. With such attention to detail, it’s a surprise to the pair that customers prefer the classics — their bestsellers are the Margherita and pepperoni pizzas.
Despite their success, the challenges of starting and running a pop-up are ever-present. Unlike a brick-and-mortar business, the restaurant must be put up and taken down for each service. “We basically set up a small pizzeria within a 10-by-10 square,” explains Jillana.
Social media marketing is also critical without a consistent location, and they must contend with the weather, which can shut down an operation in a flash. Though they have a handle on these challenges now, they were nearly fatal to the business early on. “Money was so, so tight,” says Jillana. “Back then, I can’t tell you how many times my card got declined at Restaurant Depot, and I’d have to put stuff back. I’m so grateful to be where we are now.”
Looking back on that period, the couple believes their success is due to their passion and support for one another. “When she needs something, I’m there,” says Ahmad. “We’re very much like back and forth.”
The birth of their daughter, Sofia, in 2021 also caused their work to take on greater importance. “We do it in part just for the sake of having an enjoyable community,” he says. “We have a child here — we’ve got to invest in our home. That’s all our futures.”
When asked what their greatest successes have been, Jillana believes that getting through the growing pains of that first year was huge, but she also keeps the memory of the windy Los Feliz Flea in the back of her mind. “We popped up at Brouwerij West one day, and within 30 minutes, our weighted tent flew away,” she laughs. “But we got through it. We advanced. And now we’re warriors of the wind.”
Having reached the other side of a trying yet rewarding two years, Ahmad and Jillana now employ six workers. They’ve even begun to look to the future, though their plans are far from concrete. “Lately, I’ve been describing our ultimate goal as a small market pasta shop, where you can see and buy fresh pasta being made daily,” says Ahmad. “Maybe you could also get some companions to your pasta, like sauces, cheeses, or wine, and sit on a patio next to our wood-fired oven.”
Although they may not know exactly what their future business will look like, they know precisely where it will be.
“The most inspired I’ve felt about cooking in a long time was cooking on the street,” says Jillana. “We want to stay here.”
Ahmad agrees. “You stick with the person who brought you to the dance,” he says. “This community built us. If we’re going to set roots, it needs to be here.” spt
For more information on Miller Butler, visit millerbutler.com.