A year ago, the team behind the highly acclaimed Frasca Food and Wine and very popular Pizzeria Locale Boulder, ventured into Denver for the second time with Pizzeria Locale Highland. Neither the first outpost of the pie shop located on Broadway and 6th Avenue nor the Highland one mimic the original in Boulder. Instead, they are fast-casual versions, created in partnership with Chipotle.
The multi-unit business that expanded with a location in Kansas and an upcoming one in Cincinnati aims high and shies away from the cookie-cutter model. Rather, it tries to fit in its neighborhood by listening and responding to the needs of the community. At Pizzeria Locale Highland, the changes born out of customer feedback weren't small and included reworking the dough recipe and toning down an ambitious in-house grain milling effort. Eater got up with operations director Chris Donato about the last 12 months and the shifts it brought.
What was different about this second Denver location as opposed to opening the first one? Broadway was the first time we were ever doing something like that. For Bobby [Stuckey], Lachlan [Patterson], Jordan [Wallace], and myself, it was exciting. We were learning a lot constantly, but systems were not refined in a lot of different ways. When we opened this location, we had a leader that was coming from Broadway so it was really more about supporting him rather than figuring out how you open a pizzeria locale for the first time. So it was really, strategically quite different, and he did a great job.
The Highland location still had different features than the Broadway one. Explain. Coming from Frasca, we always used the best ingredients, and at Chipotle, they have a great food strategy that we bounced off of as well, so we always try to use the best ingredients possible. We wanted to do the same with the wheat crust which we first introduced here, and we thought that was going to be 100% stone ground whole wheat. That is the best you can buy and it's the most nutritious. For instance, when it comes to beef or pork or vegetables, when you follow the road of most nutritious, you end up with a cut that usually tastes the best. When you follow that road to the end with whole wheat, you get something that's dramatically different. We were excited about being able to offer something that offered great nutrition to people, with a unique flavor.
What happened? We found out over time that that although wheat is the best ingredient, it doesn't provide the best experience - it comes out a little bit breadier, and you don't quite get the right chew. The gluten structure isn't the same as doughs we've used in the past. The flavor is great, and obviously the nutrition is excellent, but long term it's not what we thought would offer the best experience to our guests. So, after four months of trying it out, we figured out a new dough with the whole wheat incorporated is the best of both worlds - you get a little bit of that nutrition, the flavor is unique, but you're still getting that chew that people turn to pizza for. Long term, we hope to find a recipe that will include more and more whole wheat.
Have you seen a dramatic change in your customer base as you made that change? Yes. I think one of the reasons that Frasca has been successful is that we always listen. When we changed to whole wheat, the reaction was immediate. People were saying, "I don't like this, but I can't put my finger on why." Even some of our loyal guests told us, "If this is it, I don't know if we'll come back." So we listened to people's feedback, so now offer a more nutritious pizza that is still delicious. We're happy with where we ended up, but we learned a lot, too. When Jordan [Wallace] changed the dough recipe, we never went back to what we used to have. We ended up someplace better, and we learned from it.
What was the most stressful thing about opening this location? A wall collapsed about a month and a half before we were supposed to open. About a month before the wall just basically caved in, and the roof caved in on top of that. That was stressful.
Did that cause delays to the opening? It did, but not by too much. It was three to four weeks of delays maybe. Not monumental, but still is a setback.
Who's your clientele here? We get a lot of families, especially around five and six o'clock around happy hour. During the daytime, we're getting more and more students, especially from the high schools that are around here.
What's the most popular thing on the menu? The Diavola, which we didn't open with on the menu, but it is now one of the offerings.
How did it end up on the menu? Because people were building it themselves. We have it on the Boulder menu, but not here. It's as popular in Boulder, but down here, people would take a margarita pizza and add their own chili flakes and pepperoni, so we decided to put it on the menu.
Tell us about the beverage program here. So just before we opened this restaurant, I was like "oh, we're doing fast food, let's offer Coors, Coors Light, Perroni, the standard stuff", and then, when Jordan [Wallace] kept upping the food game bit by bit, I decided to go with an all local beer list to keep up. It took a bit more education on our part, because not everybody recognizes all of the labels, but sales are definitely much higher since making the change.
What do you have on the list? We have Renegade 5 o'clock, Epic Escape Colorado IPA, Rocky Mountain IPA from Fort Collins Brewery, among others, and they all sell really well. So we decided that moving forward, Kansas City is going to have its own local list. It's really fun and it's neat to see people come to Pizzeria Locale in Kansas City and identify with something. In addition, we also do cold coffee at each market. So here we feature Boxcar's Bottle Rocket; In Kansas City we do Alchemy, and in Cincinnati, Deeper Roots Coffee. So it's neat, it gives customers something to identify with, and it allows us to offer a better quality product than you would expect at a fast food restaurant. That's what this whole thing is about..exceeding expectations and keeping a fair price point.
You have launched a charitable fundraising effort. How does it work? If you come in and say you're with an organization that we're holding the event for, we give 50% of everything spent to the organization.
What organizations are you working with? We work a lot with North High school, a lot of community outreach organizations that are looking to raise money; Skinner Middle School, and we've done it with different art groups that are trying to raise money to go sing in a choir in France, or what have you.
What's the most stressful thing here right now? Our biggest challenge right now is facing the question of when you have two restaurants in Denver, one in Kansas City, one in Cincinnati, how do you make sure they're all serving the same pizza? How do you make sure that they all feel the same? Jordan [Wallace] and I have just lived in restaurants for the past five years, and now we can't do that. So we're trying to create trade materials, system standardizations across all markets, that's what we're learning about right now, which is going really well.
Will there be more Pizzeria Locale outposts in Denver? We're looking, but nothing is confirmed. I think what we're looking for now is a place that can have a good balance of both commercial and residential traffic. It would be good to have some businesses nearby, but at nighttime, you don't want to be abandoned, so we're looking for a residential place that has the balance of both.