Fruita’s Hot Tomato owners to speak at international pizza expo
Unlike many businesses, the Hot Tomato Cafe in Fruita closes for two weeks around Christmas time, allowing for employees to take time off for the holiday while owners Jen Zeuner and Anne Keller rejuvenate with mountain biking in Sedona, Ariz. The pizzeria reopens Tuesday, Jan. 7.
In between cycling and taking pictures of Arizona’s striking red-rock canyon and pinon-juniper landscape (Keller’s also a professional photographer), the two women will be working on their presentation for the International Pizza Expo in Las Vegas, March 24-27.
“There’s always a bunch of Italians in black T-shirts and gold chains and a ton of Italian being spoken,” said Keller, who’s attended the international convention with Zeuner in past years.
This year the two women have been invited to talk about their success since opening their cafe in 2005.
“One of the things they were impressed with was the amazing job we’ve done with our business in such a small town,” Zeuner said.
On a recent Friday (before closing for the holiday) a steady stream of customers — young and old — walked up to the counter to order pizza, a calzone, stromboli, or one of an array of salads on the menu.
The funky cafe in the Grand Valley town of about 12,000 residents is also a popular lunch spot for students, making Christmas break a natural time for the eatery to close for a short spell.
In 2002, after moving to Fruita from Moab, Utah, both Keller and Zeuner worked at Over the Edge bike shop. Keller said they kept asking around — “Where’s a good place to eat?”
When Diorio’s Pizza across the street from the bike shop was ready to call it quits, Zeuner and Keller decided to buy Diorio’s equipment, learn dough-making from owner John Textera, and re-open in 2005 as the Hot Tomato with their own spin on pizza.
They were initially seeking a place for mountain bikers to congregate around tasty food in a good atmosphere, Zeuner said.
Zeuner, 46, grew up in New Jersey where she learned to make New York-style pizza while working in restaurants. She and Keller, 36, added more exotic pizzas to the traditional fare, such as “Granny’s pesto” — comprised of pesto sauce, mozzarella, fresh tomatoes, garlic and feta cheese — and Thai peanut pizza, made with a peanut-sauce base topped with mozzarella, onions, roasted red peppers, chicken and basil.
Business tripled after the Hot Tomato relocated around the corner to 124 N. Mulberry St. in 2010. Zeuner and Keller attribute the added business to their commitment to food quality, customer service and a good staff.
The new location also added two patios and an outdoor stage where live music is hosted from April to October. The Lumineers, Hea Marseilles, Phox and Chris Pureka are among the musicians who have performed there.
Even with 20 employees, 60 percent of whom are full-time, Keller and Zeuner remain hands-on with the business daily.
Neither women had much prior business experience when they opened, other than managing bike shops, so they sought out innovative business practices from Zingerman’s seminars in Ann Arbor, Mich. Zingerman’s started as a small delicatessen in 1982, and has since expanded into a collection of food companies with “unique business models,” according to its website. Zingerman’s has been featured in Harvard Business Review and on MSNBC, plus it has been called “the coolest small company in America” by Inc. Magazine.
It was at one of its business seminars where the Hot Tomato ladies learned about open book finance.
“In 2014, we’re excited about implementing open book finance, an amazing system that basically gives employees complete financial transparency,” Keller said. “We’ll divide financials into categories. (For) food costs for example, an employee will take ownership of a category and it will be their responsibility to monitor and report on their category on a weekly basis throughout the year.”
Then at the end of the year, there is profit-sharing for full-time employees, Zeuner noted.
“It takes the numbers and puts the story behind it,” she said. “It puts (employees) in the driver’s seat in finding ways to reduce costs.”
“We’re excited about open book finance,” Keller said. “We think it will be a game changer, and a really effective way of running a business.”
From those seminars Keller and Zeuner say they’ve also learned to keep improving on what they’ve built to make it better for everyone involved.
Their topic for the pizza expo in March is “creating a dynamic vision for your business.”
“It’s about visioning; forcing yourself to take the ideas in your head and put them on paper,” Zeuner said. “(It’s) taking this notion of how you want things to be and writing it out. It makes it easier to get from point A to point B.”
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