Written onMarch 01 , 2010
Any critics of the local food movement—anyone who has ever insinuated that it’s elitist or indulgent—should know that at The Pizza Stone in Chester, a pie starts at $8.99. That’s for a large—eight slices—with extra local goodness baked right in: Vermont cheese, meats, veggies, and flour. What allows this new and popular eatery to keep its pies so locally sourced and reasonably priced?
For starters, The Pizza Stone is independent, unlike more than half of American pizza sellers. The typical 21st century way to enter the pizza business is to buy into a franchise. In exchange for cash payments, franchisees receive national advertising, management training, and a recognizable brand name, such as Pizza Hut or Little Caesars. But new franchisees also sign away their purchasing flexibility. Stacy Mitchell, author of The Big Box Swindle and senior researcher at The New Rules Project, has studied the problem. “Since they’re required to use distributors approved by corporate headquarters, even a franchisee who wished to include local ingredients would be restricted from doing so.” Because of this corporate stranglehold on purchasing decisions, the percentage of local ingredients baked into a chain-store pizza is tiny. “Zero is probably a safe assumption,” says Mitchell.
Indeed, Yum Brands—the owners of Pizza Hut and KFC—warns potential franchisees on its website: “A list of approved suppliers will be provided to you and you are required to purchase your supplies from those companies.” ?The public relations department at Pizza Hut says that “in many areas, the mandatory list of suppliers includes local options,” but they decline to give even a single example, citing “competitive reasons.”
Yet in 2008, when more than 750 franchised pizza restaurants opened in this country, The Pizza Stone opened its doors with a menu that reads like a Who’s Who of nearby farmers and producers. Co-owners Darlene Doane and Stephen Hart use five different Vermont cheeses, dough made from King Arthur flour, and toppings hailing from growers and producers all over Windsor County. Even the beer and spring water in the cooler is local.
But just because Doane and Hart prefer local ingredients doesn’t mean they aren’t choosy. Doane sampled a dozen cheeses before hitting on the proper melting consistency. “It took some time to find just the right Vermont mozzarella,” she says. “When we opened we were using a non-local product. But now I’ll never switch from Via Cheese in Swanton. I’m very picky about my cheese.” Recently the Burlington distributor that delivers the cheese to her sent a non-local product to make up for a glitch. “I sent it back.”
Doane came to pizza entrepreneurship in 2008 after her employment in real estate suffered from the economy’s ill effects. “Everyone eats pizza,” she rationalized. She and Hart wrote a business plan, but it took a few months to acquire the necessary space and equipment. “We thought, if we do this, we’re going to do it right, which meant spending the money on a really good oven.” From the beginning, the goal of their business plan was simply to make outstanding pizza. But the same economic downturn that brought Doane to pizza also raised her awareness about the economic fragility of her community. She made sure that for every bill paid at The Pizza Stone’s cash register, nearly all of the proceeds would circulate back into the community.
While a franchise pie may contain zero percent local ingredients, Doane and Hart’s local “pie chart” is spectacular by comparison. In the summertime, when Vermont produce is in season, the local ingredient ratio on a large pie with fresh toppings can hit 90 percent (The only basic ingredient not sourced from Vermont is their tomato sauce.) Many Vermont restaurants feature local ingredients, but rarely does an establishment reach such a high percentage. There are only a few things on their long menu that can never come from Vermont: “Olives, pineapple, and artichoke hearts,” rattles off Doane. And during the winter, the local ratio drops as bell peppers and spinach have to be sourced from warmer climates.
By contrast, a chain-restaurant owner gets very cheap prices for ingredients, because the powerful corporate franchise negotiates on the owner’s behalf. Traditional economic math would celebrate those savings as “efficiency.” But Doane has discovered that efficiency doesn’t always fill the cash register. For one thing, a local producer is often more willing to tailor products and deliveries to meet her specific needs. And then there are her expansion plans. She’s considering doubling the size of the restaurant and adding menu items, and because her business model touches so many of her neighbors, dozens have offered to volunteer their time, services, and even capital. “I’m offering a decent return,” Doane explains, “with dividends paid either in cash, or in pizza,” making The Pizza Stone yet another community-supported restaurant (CSR) in Vermont.
Considering the assistance she’s been offered from every corner of Windsor County, suddenly The Pizza Stone’s pricier local ingredients don’t look so expensive. “I’ve asked people in our community, ‘What can you do? What is your specialty?’” The response has been dramatic. “Our electrician is donating a speaker system for our new location.” She’s also been offered carpentry assistance for the new interior. She is hoping to move this spring. “I have 15 ladies ready to demolish the new place as soon as we can get in there.”
Ingredients aren’t the only things on which a business spends its dollars. While Doane has demonstrated her willingness to purchase locally, for the meantime pizza boxes, paper plates, and napkins come from out of state. Despite her goals, Doane has to be careful not to price herself out of the market. But the paper goods are still on her mind. “All our printing is done locally. We get our T-shirts from one Vermont company, and I’ve finally found another to print our nutritional labels.” Eventually she wants to ask one of those printers to fabricate the boxes she needs. But that will have to happen after the business is more firmly established.
For now, her list of local ingredients gets longer every month. The sausage is handmade around the corner at Lisai’s, and the salad dressing comes from Drew’s, just down the street. The pesto hails from Vermont Fresh in Cavendish. “Sure, I could get cheaper pesto,” Doane explains. “I could get cheaper everything. But that’s the bar we’ve set for ourselves. Stephen and I are sticklers.”
Occasionally, ingredient price fluctuations are a worry. “When our flour went up to $28 a bag, I was really freaking out.” But she never considered switching to a cheaper dough. “That’s not what I’m after.” Flour has since stabilized at the $18 to $21 range. Conversely, falling prices aren’t always a boon. “When the price of milk dipped, and cheese got very cheap all of a sudden, I got nervous. I thought, ‘if these farms can’t make it, if they shut down, then where am I going to get my cheese?’”
Costs are never far from any business owner’s mind, but Doane is proud of the value she offers her community. “A family of four can come in and have dinner for 25 dollars.” And it’s really good pizza. The crust is thin and crackly, and the toppings are diverse and exotic, especially on the specialty pies. The Maui-Wowie has barbecued pulled pork from Curtis’ All American BBQ in Putney. Gouda Morning features Taylor Farm caraway cumin gouda. Open for a year and a half, The Pizza Stone is starting to build its reputation among the tourists as well as the locals. “We get calls from people who found the menu in their rented condo,” Doane reports.
Locals, of course, are the most important constituency. “People will support a business, maybe pay a little bit more if they know it supports the whole community.” Hanging above the counter, where customers lean in to inhale the scent of their baking pizzas, is a piece of slate broken to perfectly represent a map of Vermont. Pizza Stone is spelled out on the slate in bright letters, with a single star to mark Chester’s location. That one image says it all.
Photo by Sarah Pinneo