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How Pizza, Bikes, and Ardour Helped Construct a Fruita Neighborhood

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Fruita, Colorado — which sits between Grand Junction and the banks of the Colorado River in a fossil-rich nook of the state — is a bucket-list bike vacation spot because of flowy high-desert singletrack, technical trails overlooking the river and a captivating downtown the place even the dinosaur statues perch atop bikes.

This wasn’t at all times the case; Fruita has seen a dramatic rise in its inhabitants and profile over the past 15 years because it’s been reinvented from conservative farm city to outside Shangri-La.

The transformation is because of path builders, bike advocates and the rising recognition of mountain biking, for positive. However one thing else performed a central function in Fruita’s evolution: a pizzeria referred to as The Scorching Tomato.

There, the slices are the stuff of legend, the beer is frosty and proprietors Jen Zeuner and Anne Keller have created a group hub the place tattooed millennials, farming households and out-of-town bikers can come collectively over a shared love of pizza.
In a method, Zeuner and Keller’s trajectory has paralleled the city’s — they too discovered a sort of success that at one time appeared unlikely. In doing so, they’ve cast the sort of narrative many people aspire to, putting gold by chasing their passions.

When the couple walks as much as Greatest Slope Espresso to fulfill me on a sunny Saturday in Might, an older man greets them first, telling them he’s been studying articles about them.

“You guys are large photographs now,” he says.

Certainly. They’re freshly dwelling from a visit to the Wright Awards in Golden, the place they have been requested to function judges a 12 months after successful the unbiased enterprise honor. Earlier than that, they have been at 5Point Movie Competition in Carbondale, the place they have been handled to an 800-person standing ovation following the screening of “Lifetime of Pie,” a brand new Patagonia movie by Felt Soul Media that profiles them. (“It was insane,” Zeuner says.)

That they have been capable of depart city throughout such a busy season is telling. After 14 years of working The Scorching Tomato, they’ve lastly stepped off the road.

However they’ll nonetheless present up at this time. It’s ‘80s Day, and with the Fruita Fats Tire Competition on the town, it’s going to be busy.
“They don’t want us, however we’re going to go be foolish with them,” Zeuner says. “We’ll hang around and maintain the morale excessive.”

Zeuner is a former skilled biker; Keller a motorbike photographer. They met in 1999 in Moab, and a visit to Fruita was their first date. Once they moved to city in 2002 to work at Over the Edge Sports activities, it was a sleepy
place.

“It felt like we had stepped again in time,” Keller mentioned.

However the using was enjoyable, trails have been being constructed and it was positively on the upswing. Round 2004, because the using started to get found, they began listening to a query extra typically.

“Folks have been coming to city, they usually have been questioning the place to have a beer, the place to eat, the place to simply sit and hang around,” Zeuner mentioned.

Neither had restaurant expertise. However Zeuner, who grew up in New Jersey (“the land of pizza”) would typically stroll throughout the road to a pizza store, and wasn’t shy about making recommendations.

“I used to be at all times like, ‘you understand what you need to do?’ In the future he mentioned to me, ‘you understand what you need to do? You should purchase this place.’”
It appeared ridiculous at first. The extra she thought on it, although, the extra it made sense. In 2005, she bought all the tools, gave her discover on the bike store and began slinging pies.

That first season, she mentioned, was “horrible.” Naively, she and Keller thought it could be like retail. It wasn’t. In any respect. It was humbling, overwhelming and extremely taxing.

Zeuner mentioned they may have simply been one of many 85 p.c of small companies that shut inside three years, had they not borrowed cash from an in depth good friend.

“There was no method we have been going to let her down,” she mentioned.

The next winter, they needed to borrow cash once more to pay their employees. However they plugged alongside. Joined the Chamber of Commerce. Received concerned with path constructing and advocacy. Employed native children, made themselves seen by washing home windows or sweeping their sidewalks. And from the get-go, they constructed the Scorching Tomato with a spirit of real inclusiveness.

“I feel that we have been very intentional with creating a spot the place all people may really feel comfy, a spot the place folks wished to go to and hang around, get a beer, inform their story,” Zeuner mentioned.
There have been some whispers about their “way of life.” (The ladies weren’t shy about being lesbians, printing early enterprise stickers with sayings like “We snatch kisses and vice versa.”) They heard about individuals who refused to patronize the pizzeria due to it.

Regardless of that, they began gaining regulars, seeing some returns. And after they closed for 10 months to construct out their present house, one thing occurred.

With zero cash, they needed to do the work themselves. Mates or clients who have been contractors would come by and present them how one can run electrical, use a jackhammer. Native children would assist clear. Folks introduced meals. Others popped in to test on them. It dawned on them that they have been missed.

“I feel that was a very large turning level for us, the place we have been like, ‘wow, folks really need us right here,’” Zeuner mentioned.

It was a turning level for an additional motive too: the primary 12 months within the new house, they doubled their enterprise, and it’s been rising since.

They provided outside seating, dialed their pizza and Stromboli recipes (all from scratch, insanely scrumptious), invested in a severe pizza oven and picked proper again up with group involvement, internet hosting dwell music, throwing costume events and infrequently displaying up because the Motion Sisters, two cranky however hilarious geriatric ladies from Florida.

As Fruita’s profile as a biking vacation spot rose, so did The Scorching Tomato’s. Fruita Mayor Joel Kincaid mentioned that in some ways, the 2 went hand in hand.

“They’ve been a giant affect on enterprise progress and a optimistic function mannequin for different companies,” he mentioned.
“They’ve additionally constructed a group by making a tradition the place clients really feel welcome. While you stroll into the pizzeria, you aren’t a quantity. You might be really part of that group.”

Ben Knight, who co-directed “Lifetime of Pie” with Travis Rummel, mentioned they lengthy wished to share the story behind their favourite pizza store.

“It’s simple to take Anne, Jen and this factor they’ve so gracefully and deliberately curated with no consideration,” Knight mentioned, “however should you take a step again and take into account the truth that it could all be inconceivable to duplicate with out them, with out Fruita, with out bikes … it’s clear how particular all of it is.”

“After we first considered doing this, it wasn’t about, ‘I need to open a restaurant,” Zeuner tells me. “It was, ‘I need to create a cool place the place folks can come and hang around, and we will nonetheless experience our bikes and play within the open air and create jobs for ourselves.”
Properly, I say. Congrats. That’s the dream, and also you’re residing it.

A smile breaks over her face. “It’s the dream,” she replies.

Per week later, they present “Lifetime of Pie” at The Scorching Tomato on a Saturday night time. Some 400 folks present up. Keller tells me in an e-mail they have been nervous about displaying it to their hometown crowd.

“We felt extra personally linked as to if or not the group appreciated it versus an out of doors viewers. However the response was superb … If I may sum it up, I’d say it was fucking unimaginable.”

“Lifetime of Pie” will present at Mountainfilm in Telluride, Might 24-27. The movie can be launched on-line July 10.

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