Fare plan: turn dough into profits

Anne Keller, left and Jen Zeuner are surrounded by the t-shirts, hats and other merchandise they sell at the Hot Tomato in Fruita. The most popular products at the restaurant, though, are the handcrafted pizzas and salads. (Business Times photo by Phil Castle)

Phil Castle, The Business Times

Anne Keller and Jen Zeuner dreamed their entrepreneurial dreams for years, thinking about ways to turn their knowledge and passion for mountain biking into a business.

Keller and Zeuner realized those dreams in a venture that caters to mountain bike enthusiasts, but in a different way than they initially contemplated. They’ve enjoyed success nonetheless in operating a pizzeria that over the course of almost seven years has become as popular an eatery for visiting cyclists and other outdoor adventurers as a diverse local clientele.

“It’s been great. We’ve had solid growth every year,” says Keller, co-owner along with Zeuner of the Hot Tomato in Fruita.

The two attribute their success to the pizzas, salads and other fare made fresh from scratch daily at the restaurant. Quality customer service delivered by happy employees makes a difference as well.

At the same time, though, the two have held true to their vision of operating the kind of place they’d enjoy patronizing themselves. “That definitely plays a role,” Keller says. “We knew what we wanted. We knew what we liked.”

Given the success of the Hot Tomato in Fruita, Keller and Zeuner are now considering franchising the operation with likely locations in other mountain bike and ski resort communities. “We have a list of a few people who are interested,” Zeuner says. “We have to make sure all the little ducks in the pond are lined up and ready to go.”

Keller and Zeuner moved to Fruita for the world-class mountain biking available in the area. An avid cyclist and photographer, her photographs of mountain biking have appeared in numerous magazines. Zeuner raced professionally in national and international mountain biking circuits, competing in downhill and dual slalom events.

Keller and Zeuner initially worked at bicycle shop in Fruita — Keller as sales manager and Zeuner as general manager.

Keller says the two knew they wanted to open their own business, but also desired to remain in Fruita. While they initially wanted to continue working in the cycling industry, they took advantage of an opportunity to purchase a pizzeria.

The two knew there was demand for a pizzeria because of the inquiries they received from visiting cyclists at the bike shop, Keller says. “We knew that the niche was there from the bike shop. We knew the demand was there.”

Keller and Zeuner brought their own approach to their new venture in creating a restaurant that appealed not only to visiting cyclists, but also local customers. Having grown up in New Jersey, Zeuner knew she wanted to offer East Coast-style pizza, but pies made from scratch daily with fresh ingredients.

Zeuner originally had come up with name of Hot Tomato for a bike shop, but realized it worked well for a pizzeria.

After operating the Hot Tomato for four years in one location, Keller and Zeuner were unable to renew the lease and were forced to close.

But that closure turned out to be a blessing, Zeuner says, because it gave them time to secure financing, purchase their own building and renovate that building to better suit their needs.

They ended up purchasing a former dry cleaning business and remodeling the building to create a new Hot Tomato location with twice the space of their old location. The restaurant seats up to 58 customers inside and another 38 customers on patios outside.

Keller and Zeuner employ a staff of 18.

In addition to various kinds of specialty pizzas, the Hot Tomato serves up calzones and strombolis as well as salads, beer and wine. Pizza remains a best seller, Keller says, while dinner is typically busier than lunch.

Keller and Zeuner recently purchased and installed a new pizza oven that can bake 21 pizzas in seven minutes, nearly tripling the production available from their old oven that could handle only eight pies at a time.

The new oven bakes pizza so quickly, Keller says, customers often get their pizzas before they can settle down at their tables with their drinks.

Fresh food and fast and friendly service bring in customers, Keller and Zeuner says. At the same time, though, the two appeal to a demographic with which they’re thoroughly familiar: mountain bike enthusiasts and other outdoor adventurers.

Rob Vavak, an assistant vice president at U.S. Bank in Grand Junction, worked with Keller and Zeuner in securing financing for their building and the new pizza oven.

Vavak say the two also have enjoyed success because of their financial management skills in keeping costs low and not pulling all of their profits out of the business.

Keller and Zeuner say they’ve appreciated the assistance they’ve received in obtaining financing, particularly the prompt response to their inquiries.

Given the success of the Hot Tomato in Fruita, Keller and Zeuner are now considering franchising. They believe they can replicate their operation in other mountain bike and ski resort communities. And so they continue dreaming their entrepreneurial dreams.