If it hadn’t been for the pandemic, Conor Cudahy, 27, might still be living in Southeast Africa instead of Somerville. He went to Malawi in 2018 as a teacher with the Peace Corps, just a year after graduating from college, and stayed on with an educational nonprofit.

“The part that really gave me joy was that moment when something clicks for a student,” he said. “I think those connections are really what made me stay.”

But even in Malawi, Cudahy was pondering pizza. He carried with him a well-worn copy of Peter Reinhart’s “American Pie,” a book about Reinhart’s “search for the perfect pizza” that Cudahy’s parents had given to him when he was in the 7th grade. He found himself leafing through it in his spare time.

The book had helped spark Cudahy’s childhood love for pizza and, even as he pursued other passions over the years, kept him coming back to his own vision of the perfect pie. But while pizza had long seized his imagination, it wasn’t on his career path until the pandemic hit.

Watch Conor Cudahy’s story:

In March 2020, the government of Malawi declared a state of national disaster and closed schools and learning centers. With the Peace Corps and other nonprofits pulling volunteers from the country, and Cudahy’s family worried about him back in the United States, he made the decision to leave.

“It all ended very abruptly. It was hard conversations with those students that I had really developed strong relationships with,” he said. “Having to leave on a moment’s notice was pretty hard.”

Heading back to the United States, Cudahy was certain he wanted to work in education. But not long after landing, he felt thrown into limbo: the country was in lockdown, and there were no job openings.

"It really forced me to think about what I was passionate about, what I wanted to spend my time doing."

With so much uncertain, he began thinking about his original passion: pizza. Jetlagged and restless, he logged on to his computer at 3 a.m. his first day back and ordered a portable wood-fired pizza oven — just as a hobby, he thought. But it would become a key tool for his future business.

side crop child conor hat.png
Conor as a young boy.
Courtesy of Conor Cudahy

“I was just kind of thinking about, ‘what am I going to do with my time?’” he said. “I didn’t have a job.”

Living at home with his parents, he kept friends and family well fed, experimenting with different pizza recipes and, he joked, probably helping more than one person gain a ”quarantine 15.”

He landed a fellowship in Boston in July 2020 with the North Billerica–based education tech company “Curriculum Associates” but continued to experiment with pizza-making on the side. A month later, Gov. Charlie Baker imposed new pandemic restrictions banning alcohol sales at restaurants and bars unless customers also bought food prepared on site.

Cudahy saw an opportunity.

“A lot of breweries that didn’t sell food were looking for different ways to, you know, fill that need,” he said. “And that’s really where the idea behind ... starting with a mobile operation came from.”

Using that portable wood-fired oven, he set up shop in the fall 2020 at pop-up events and local breweries, selling his signature topping combinations on a slightly charred crust. He named his venture “Lala’s Neapolitan-ish Pizza” after his mother Laura, whom he calls his “biggest cheerleader.” And when it quickly became clear he needed to make more than one pizza at a time, he convinced friends and family to invest in a $17,000 wood-fired oven.

“I still hope they think that, you know, we’re doing well so far,” said Cudahy.

A close-up on a small pizza pie, with sauce, cheese and basil, with a hand squeezing olive oil out of a bottle in circles around the top.
Conor Cudahey, 26, of Somerville prepares pizza at an outdoor event in Somerville, Mass. on Dec. 11, 2021.
Meredith Nierman GBH News

The pandemic has spawned a record number of optimistic new entrepreneurs like Cudahy. In 2020, 4.3 million Americans filed applications to start businesses — a 24% increase from the year before. And 2021 saw a similar 23% jump in openings with 5.3 million new business applications.

From permitting and business licensing to sourcing ingredients, Cudahy found setting up a business “a lot more complicated” than he thought it would be. Even making the many dough balls he needs has proved a challenge. But he’s having fun and mapping out a future where pizza is a bigger slice of his life.

Cudahy still juggles his weekday education job with weekend pizza making and, as long as weather allows, plans to continue with pop ups through the winter outside breweries. He hopes to introduce frozen pizza next summer, and a brick-and-mortar “Lala’s” down the road. And he’d like to find a way to combine his two loves, perhaps starting a culinary education program.

“Being forced out of Malawi and trying to come back and figure out what I wanted to do, it really forced me to think about what I was passionate about, what I wanted to spend my time doing,” Cudahy said. “Had I come back and it was normal, ... I might not have been able to take the leap.”

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