Q + A: Hot Tomato Owners Jen + Anne
Originally published in the Summer 2019 issue of SPOKE+BLOSSOM.
Partners in life and work, Jen Zeuner and Anne Keller are the adventuresome visionaries behind Fruita’s Hot Tomato Pizza and Bestslope Coffee. They spoke with S+B about building community and culture, being intentional and the new Patagonia film that features their story.
S+B: For those who aren’t familiar with the Hot Tomato, can you give us the basics — maybe starting with where you learned to make a phenomenal pie, and how you ended up offering it in rural Colorado?
JZ: So, the origin story: Anne and I moved to Fruita in 2002, and we were working at Over the Edge [bike shop]. We kept hearing when tourists came through, “Where can you find a good place to eat or something to drink?” because people want to hang out and talk about where they rode and what their next thing is. So we were like, how do we do this?
[How they did it: In 2005, Jen drew on her New Jersey pizza-loving roots, community-mindedness and a loan from a friend to buy the equipment from an existing pizzeria and start her own. Anne eventually came on board, and after a ton of teamwork, taste-testing and tinkering with formulas, the Tomato as we know it came into being.]
S+B: The Hot Tomato has become a local icon, and many consider it pivotal in helping to make Fruita the town it is today. Is the sense of shaping your place intentional, something you think about as you consider future projects?
AK: Yes, absolutely the shaping of the Tomato was completely intentional. The idea of shaping the town? No, I don’t think we would ever put that much importance upon ourselves. I think the town has evolved naturally. If anything, I feel like if we have helped complement that evolution, then we feel good about that. It wasn’t like we wanted to bring this thing to town. It was like, how do we create something that everyone can feel comfortable and welcome at? That part was really intentional.
JZ: The thing I’m most proud of is when you come into the Hot Tomato at any given time of the day, the diversity of people there is huge.
S+B: How do you create spaces where people feel welcome? Does that come naturally to you, or is that another thing you crafted?
AK: It needs to be intentional. I think the natural tendency is to gravitate toward people that fit your niche, right? It’s not always as easy to connect with the person outside of that demographic. What we’ve learned over the years is you have to work with people to be just as welcoming to that person. That goes a long way to creating space.
JZ: You never know what someone is walking in with, if they’re having the best day of their life or the worst day of their life. If they’re choosing our place to come to, that says something about what we’re doing. Who’s going to make you feel the most comfortable? We want to be that place. That’s what built the culture. Now you see the non-bikers sitting at the bar sharing a pie with the bikers. The place is full with all that positive energy. That’s been a really cool thing to see take off.
S+B: The Hot Tomato and Bestslope are known for being a special kind of workplace, too. How do you make this magic happen?
JZ: Servant leadership. Basically, instead of a top-down approach, it’s a bottom-up approach.
AK: So, your job is to support everybody else. It makes such a huge difference to your workers how you manage people and how you lead people. We’re not too good to do anything in there. If dishes need to be done and we’re available, that’s what we do.
S+B: What can you tell us about “Life of Pie,” the Patagonia-sponsored short film in which you are featured?
AK: There’s a couple of filmmakers that we’ve become friends with over the years. They approached Patagonia with the idea of telling our story.
JZ: They were like, you guys are helping change the narrative of this town — and they’ve seen it, because they’ve been coming to the Hot Tomato since we opened in 2005 — and we think that your story really resonates with what [Patagonia] is doing with the outdoor industry, and public land and community. And they’re doing this biking line and you guys love to bike …
AK: They got the green light, and it’s finally done.
JZ: Patagonia is taking it to about 10 or 15 cities all over the country. It’s crazy, but it’s awesome.
S+B: Just one more thing: There are people whose summer isn’t complete without a piece of your Palisade peach pizza. We’re wondering, what are your favorite slices?
JZ: My favorite slice is the old standby, just a slice of cheese. Maybe some pepperoni.
AK: I kind of gravitate to just a pepperoni slice. My favorite specialty slice we do is the Stash — it’s prosciutto, fig, bleu cheese and truffle oil.
For “Life of Pie” tour dates or to see the film, go to patagonia.com. The tour ends June 20 in Boulder.