Note: My husband is good friends with the Jen in this blog, which is why when we were in Colorado last week, we drove to Fruita to see her, meet Anne, and hear the story of the Tomato.
It all started in 2005 when Jen and Anne got tired of not having a great answer when a customer or tourist would come into the bike shop where they worked and ask them, “Where’s a good place to eat?”
This was in Fruita, Colorado, a destination town for mountain bikers. Population? 12,000 now, but back then around half of that. Downtown? Um, just a few blocks. The restaurant choices were two okay-but-not-great options: a Mexican restaurant, and a place called Diorio's Pizza, whose owner was getting ready to shut down the business.
So what did Jen and Anne do? What only insane or really ambitious people do: They decided to open a restaurant themselves.
That’s how the Hot Tomato was birthed. And I could tell you that’s where the story begins and ends, that it was a piece of cake after that—or a piece of pie—but that would be a lie. And I could tell you the story is just about a little restaurant, but that would be a lie, too. It all started with wanting to open a good place to eat, but what happened ended up being about teamwork, generosity, sweat, and community. What I mean is about two women and the town of Fruita.
Jen and Anne bought the equipment from Diorio's Pizza and took over its lease. “We had no business plan, and had never done anything to this level,” Jen said. “We just jumped it.”
Said like a mountain biker.
First, they painted and cleaned the building, and Jen wrangled her parents into driving out from Jersey to help. Her parents stayed for 6 weeks. “My dad is Mr. Fix-It, and he went through all the equipment and made sure everything was working. My mom is a great cook, and she helped get things going.”
They tweaked the menu, and boom, the Hot Tomato opened. Anne kept her job at the bike shop so they’d have a steady income while Jen worked full-time at the Tomato.
At first, they were ecstatic when they’d have a $300-day. They didn’t think much about making more. They didn’t think about Anne quitting her job at the bike shop to join the restaurant. Until....
“This one night, customers kept coming in,” Jen said. “It was just me and one other employee. There was a 45-minute wait on pizzas, so when people walked in the door, I had to tell them, ‘Uh, can you come back? ‘Cause we’re in the weeds.’”
Having so much business would have been evidence enough that the people of Fruita wanted them there, but something else happened that night that foreshadowed a shift in the community’s relationship with the Hot Tomato.
“The customers who had slowly become regulars over the weeks that we’d been open started bussing tables, emptying the trash, washing the dishes,” Jen said. “Everybody just jumped in.”
Fruita had officially welcomed them. Or so they thought, until four years later, when their lease came up for renewal.
I should stop here and tell you just a little about Jen and Anne, partners in life and business. They remind me of that, yes, cliché: Opposites attract. Jen is the extrovert. She’s got the kind of get-up-and-go personality that makes you believe in not just her, but yourself. She’s outdoorsy, gutsy, and has contagious enthusiasm. When you meet her, you think: This is what perspiration plus aspiration looks like. But that’s what you think about Anne, too. It’s just that she is quieter, more behind-the-scenes, making sure operations run smoothly. She’s also the artist: If you need a paint color chosen, you ask Anne. If you want Hot Tomato t-shirts created full of rich reds, bold yellows, and stand-out blues, you ask Anne. Photos to decorate the restaurant wall? Anne. She’s a professional photographer. She knows her way around color, design, the look and feel of a place.
In other words, Jen and Anne complement each other. Which is a lot of why the The Hot Tomato was going so well. That is, until the lease renewal.
Six months before the lease was set to expire, Anne and Jen went to their landlords and said they wanted to re-do the lease. The landlords assured them there’d be no problem. Which was a relief because the rent was decent. Sure, there were issues: like Jen and Anne had to pay all the taxes on the building, and the electrical work and plumbing needed to be entirely re-done. But in exchange for good rent, they figured they would just deal. “We just had to unplug stuff when other things needed electricity,” said Jen. “We had to unplug this station to make that station work. We started doing music, and when bands would come in—”
“We’d have to unplug everything,” Anne said. “Including the Pepsi machine.”
About a month before the lease was set to expire, the landlords offered a new lease to Anne and Jen—at triple the rent. The women had understood the rent might need to go up, but they couldn’t afford to pay the new rent and continue to pay the building’s taxes and the repairs, which had to be done in order to meet the standards of the Health Department and the county. The landlords wouldn’t negotiate, there was no other available building in town with a full kitchen, and putting a kitchen into a rental would have been cost-prohibitive.
It was June, 2009, and it looked like the Hot Tomato story was coming to an end. “We had nowhere to go.”
The Hot Tomato story could have ended there, but what no one took into account was that other cliché: It takes a village.
Or in this particular case: It takes some Fruita.
Jen and Anne weren’t the only ones who loved the Tomato. “The community members got really involved,” Jen explained. “They were upset that we were going to close.”
So they took action. Community members posted “Save the Tomato” signs all over town and then converged on a City Hall meeting one night. Jen said, “All these people were getting up and telling City Council members they couldn’t allow us to close because we were such a part of the community.” Jen was so moved that she fought back tears the entire evening and was unable to speak. “I was a mess.”
Although City Council couldn’t really make sure the Hot Tomato would stay open, the support Jen and Anne saw that night was enough to give them hope. And to keep on trying. That night wouldn’t be the last time the Fruita community members would step in, and step up.
First, a neighbor of Jen and Anne’s offered to let the women store all the restaurant equipment in her garage. For free.
Next, the owner of a former dry cleaner came to Jen. “He said, ‘You have to open.’” He was willing to sell them his building, and they wanted it but needed a loan. For the first few months that Hot Tomato was closed, Jen and Anne weren’t even getting calls back from the banks.
Then, one day, Jen came across a business card she’d had on her desk from a Hot Tomato customer who worked at a bank. He’d given her his card on one of the last nights Hot Tomato had been open. On the card, underneath the customer’s name: “President, commercial loans.”
“It was my lightbulb moment,” Jen said. “He’d told me if I ever needed anything to call him.”
So she did. He asked for their business plan, and two days later, Anne and Jen were approved for a loan. But, because the building had housed a dry cleaner, the bank wouldn’t give them the loan until the building passed all the EPA testing. It took the women three months clean the place and complete the testing. By that time, it was January of 2010. The goal? To open on April 1.
Which, apparently wasn’t as easy as they hoped.
Anne and Jen were willing to do (and ended up doing) a lot of the work themselves, from framing to painting to running the electric to jack-hammering the floors for all the plumbing. But they needed a general contractor.
Their first general contractor was too traditional in his approach. He had more of an aesthetic that everything needed to be perfect—for example, he wanted to install all new flooring, for $60,000, while Jen and Anne were fine with the cracks in the old floors. And if they worked with the old flooring, they could spend money on making the building more “green.”
Their second general contractor was more interested in taking breaks than managing. But things came to a head on one particular day. “We came in, and all the framing we had put up he had taken down,” Jen said. “It wasn’t what he wanted.”
So Jen went to see a friend, Steve, who was a structural engineer. He’d told them if they needed help, to let him know. It was February by this time.
Jen didn’t think it was possible to finish everything by April 1, but she wanted an expert to look things over. “I said, ‘Is there any way you can look at our blueprints?’ Then I started crying.”
So Steve came over after work that night, made a punch list, dated things out, and let go of that second general contractor. As if that weren’t enough of a help, he did what few people would do: Steve took a six-week leave of absence from his job to make sure the Tomato got done. Among other things, he painted, built the patio, worked on the drop ceiling, built the merchandise display, put in all the tile in the bathrooms and kitchen, and helped the women manage all the sub-contractors.
In other words, when I see the “Steve Bob pizza” as one of the featured items on the menu, I understand why.
The restaurant wasn’t ready by April 1, but Anne and Jen were set to open on April 17. They put out fliers, called the media, and started hiring.
Three days before the opening, their (huge) Hobart dough mixer broke. Their only dough mixer. Another friend, Jonathan, had also helped out a lot—he did all the metal work in the restaurant—and that morning he happened to stop by the Tomato just after Jen had discovered the Hobart-gone-bad. He started tinkering with it while Jen was on the phone with Hobart trying to see if she could buy another mixer.
But Jen said Jonathan would have none of it. He said, “No, no, no, no, no.”
As luck would have it, a Hobart rep was in the area that day, and he looked over the mixer. And as luck would have it, he told them the repairs would cost about $2,000.
Again, Jonathan: “No, no, no, no no.”
He and Jen loaded the mixer onto a trailer and took it to a shop nearby that Jonathan knew about. The repair? $150.
On April 17, at 10 am, customers started lining up—even though the Hot Tomato wouldn’t open open until 11. And after it opened, the line still ran down the street and curved around the corner down another street.
At the time, Anne and Jen were the only ones who knew how to make pizza. Still, Jen said, “It was so exciting.”
At 7 pm, they ran out of food. The line was still there.“We had to tell people we were sorry, and we just sold people beer the rest of the night.”
But the one thing Jen and Anne knew for sure: in Fruita, they and their Tomato had found home.
Since that opening, the Hot Tomato has been hopping. Business tripled after the restaurant moved into the new space.
“Our weekdays have become our weekends,” Jen said. “Our weekends have become festivals. And our festivals? You just want to poke your eyes out. It’s so insanely busy.”
For which Anne and Jen are very grateful.
Poking one’s eyes out? Seems like an awfully good thing when you say it like that.