Peddling pizzas profitable for driven entrepreneurs

Jen Zeuner
Jen Zeuner
Anne Keller
Anne Keller

Phil Castle, The Business Times

Perhaps it’s indicative of the drive Jen Zeuner and Anne Keller bring to their business: The two were so busy working in their Fruita pizzeria they didn’t pick up in person their award as Entrepreneurs of the Year.

To be fair, their selection had been kept a secret. And Zeuner was initially in the audience at the Entrepreneurship Day luncheon at Colorado Mesa University where their selection was announced. But Zeuner had to leave early to help Keller at the Hot Tomato. And she didn’t find out about the award until she was already on her way to Fruita.

While Zeuner said was sorry she missed out on the presentation, she also was surprised and delighted at the recognition. “It was bittersweet.”

CMU, the Business Incubator Center and Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce present the award as part of the annual E-Day celebration.

Zeuner and Keller are closing in on their 10th year as co-owners of the Hot Tomato, a pizzeria that’s become as popular an eatery for visiting mountain bikers and other outdoor adventurers as a diverse local clientele. The pizzeria gained another measure of fame in April when a Colorado brewery named a craft beer for their business — the Hot Tomato Perfect Day American Red Ale.

Zeuner attributed the ongoing success of the venture to what’s she calls the “Hot Tomato way.” While the East Coast-style pizzas and other fare made fresh from scratch bring in customers, so does personalized service that respects customers and meets their expectations for comfort, she said. “We want to give people a really great experience.”

At the same time, Zeuner and Keller have put systems and policies in place to better train and engage employees and in turn help them manage growth and further improve profitability.

While Zeuner and Keller initially planned to turn their knowledge and passion for mountain biking into a business, Zeuner said she’s glad they opened a restaurant instead. “It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life, but it’s incredibly rewarding.”

Zeuner and Keller moved to Fruita for the mountain biking available in the area. Zeuner raced professionally in national and international mountain biking circuits. Keller’s photographs of mountain biking have appeared in numerous magazines.

The two initially worked in a bike shop in Fruita — Zeuner as general manager and Keller as sales manager.

Zeuner said the two wanted to open their own business, but remain in Fruita. They initially wanted to continue working in the cycling industry, but instead took advantage of an opportunity to buy a pizzeria. Zeuner said they knew there was demand for a restaurant because of the constant inquiries they’d field from visiting cyclists at the bike shop.

Having grown up in New Jersey, Zeuner knew she wanted to offer East Coast-style pizza, but made from scratch daily with fresh ingredients. They also wanted an operation that would appeal not only to visiting cyclists and other outdoor enthusiasts, but also local customers.

After operating the Hot Tomato for four years in one location, Zeuner and Keller were unable to renew their lease on the building and forced to close. That turned out to be a blessing, Zeuner said, because that gave them time to secure financing, purchase a building and renovate that building to better suit their needs.

They ended up purchasing a former dry cleaners and remodeling the building to create a restaurant that can seat up to 100, more than twice the size of their previous location. The increase in sales was proportional, Zeuner said. “It was like an instant doubling in sales.”

Publicity in cycling magazines, social media and word-of-mouth advertising promoted continued growth over the years that almost became too much to manage, Zeuner said. At one point, Zeuner and Keller were considering selling. “We just wanted to take our ball and go home”

At about the same time, though, Zeuner said she started training with ZingTrain, an offshoot of a venture that started with Zingerman’s Delicatessen in Ann Arbor, Mich., and since has grown into nearly a dozen businesses generating a total of more than $60 million in annual sales.

Zeuner said she’s learned about servant leadership and developing a vision for a business as well as putting into place systems and policies to better train and manage employees. That’s helped in turn to manage growth, she said.

Zeuner and Keller also have implemented an open book management style in which they share information about the financial performance of the business with employees and encourage them to join in efforts to reduce costs and improve efficiency and profitability. Employees take charge of various product lines and earn bonuses for meeting plans and forecasts, she said.

In the process, employees at the Hot Tomato have become more engaged and demonstrated more initiative even as they’ve maintained their energy in physically demanding jobs, Zeuner said. “They all care about what’s going on.”

Zeuner said she and Keller ultimately would like to open another Hot Tomato restaurant in another mountain biking or ski resort community — Moab, Utah, is one possibility. But rather than franchise their operation, Zeuner said they’d prefer to work in partnership with a long-time employee who’s familiar with their philosophy and brings the same level of commitment to the venture.

For now, though, Zeuner and Keller continue to operate a business Zeuner said serves as an example for aspiring entrepreneurs.

Zeuner said it’s important for entrepreneurs to make their ventures unique even as they develop a vision of what they want to accomplishment. Mistakes will happen along the way, she said, but offer lessons. “Remember your failures, but learn from them.”

Entrepreneurs don’t have to necessarily turn their passions into businesses to be successful, but they do have to be driven, Zeuner said. “I think if you’re driven, you can do anything.”