Back Road pizza brings its cornmeal crust to Santa Fe, New Mexico
Santa Fe, New Mexico, is known for its Pueblo Revival architecture. But Back Road Pizza’s warehouse location stands out in this Adobe-style town. It’s off the beaten path and situated in the front of live/work studios in the community’s Triangle District.
One step inside and Back Road’s red, black and metal color scheme comes through with black four-top tables and chairs atop black and red checkered tiles accompanying red walls and corrugated metal panels lining its open kitchen and extending into a loft area and outdoor space.
Pizza Today met up with owner Piper Kapin at Back Road Pizza over the summer for an inside look at the 11-year-old operation. “That was definitely intentional to be a little bit of a funky pizzeria vibe,” she says of breaking away from traditional Santa Fe style.
While Back Road has deviated from the town look, its employees, community and tourists have found ways to connect to the space. That’s what Kapin expects of her pizzeria.
The connection begins with Back Road’s 11 employees. “I think they would say that this is just such a different place to work because there is a lot of respect. It’s more of a collaborative model,” Kapin says of her organizational structure that includes shift leaders in lieu of managers. “Their input is really valuable to me.”
Kapin’s knowledge of interpersonal communications and mediation has aided her management style. “My expectations are incredibly clear about what I want and how I want it done, what I want the space to look like, what I want our customer service to be and then I am not micromanaging them,” she says.
“It’s a little bit of letting go and letting them connect to it. So they are ambassadors of the space.”
Employees are Kapin’s most important investment. “We’ve always paid way above minimum wage and then they collect counter tips,” she says. “They are making anywhere from $13 to $30 an hour on our busy nights.” There are also incentives like trades with local businesses and hosting a few staff nights on the town a year.
Kapin continually gives her staff opportunities to add to their skill sets and take on more leadership roles, such as ordering product and managing the pizzeria’s social media pages.
Back Road’s employee relations also foster exceptional customer service. When employees are in a good place, Kapin says, “They are going to have good interactions with customers.”
Being a counter-service concept, guest relations means coming out from behind the counter and kitchen to interact with customers at Back Road. Staff members are also cross-trained so customers are constantly interacting with different employees at the counter and along the make line each time they visit.
Kapin’s community engagement method is two-fold — having a presence at community events and bringing the community into the space.
Since opening in 2003, Back Road has been involved with community events — from Kapin mentoring a local business plan competition to donating gift cards to non-profit organizations and honor roll students to participating in the bounty of festivals and markets in Santa Fe.
Long before Back Road signed its first lease, the building was used for community events. Kapin has continued the tradition hosting fundraisers and even a school’s holiday music show.
Kapin also partners with local organizations that she’s passionate about like the local animal shelter. Twice a month, the local Humane Society brings adoptable pit bulls to Back Road’s patio for Pitchers, Pies and Pits with food and beer specials.
Community outreach is a large portion of Back Road’s marketing strategy. Cross-marketing events like Pitchers, Pies and Pits equals more exposure. “Instead of putting a post on Facebook or Instagram that goes to my 7,500 people, it goes out to 16,000 now,” she says.
With a population under 70,000, Santa Fe is too small to focus on a single demographic, Kapin says. Back Road’s customer base comes from a cross-section of people from its neighborhood and the city. “We get all of the adventurous tourists,” she adds.
Back Road is on the map, so to speak — winning “Best of Santa Fe” multiple years in a year, being featured on Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-Ins & Dives” with Guy Fieri and making USA Today’s “10 Best of Santa Fe”. “All of our visibility has happened in a really organic way,” Kapin says.
She’s quick to acknowledge, “We’re not the only game in town.” Around 16 to 17 pizzerias battle for the “Best of Santa Fe.” With so many pizza options for people to choose from, Kapin says, “We’re grateful for that and we express that. We want to make sure that in return they are getting what they came in to get.”
At More than 85 percent of Back Road’s food sales, pizza is what customers want. The pizza blends the thin-crust style that Kapin was used to growing up outside of Boston, Massachusetts, but the Santa Fe way. Its fresh-daily dough is rolled in cornmeal, not sprinkled or dusted. The pizza prep table is layered with high-quality fine cornmeal. Using cornmeal not only gives it a distinctive Southwestern style, but it also adds an extra layer of unexpected crunch and a unique texture to the finished crust.
No food says New Mexico like the local green chile that takes center stage on Back Road’s menu. The best-selling New Mexican is topped with green chile, red onion and pepperoni ($17 for a medium). The Green Chicken Chile features green chile, house roasted chicken, mushrooms and feta ($17 for a medium).
Back Road even offers a special green chile-infused dough.
One of its three soups featured each day is always the Green Chile Chicken. “There would maybe be a riot if we pulled that one off,” Kapin says.
Kapin also menus the Penny’s Bruschetta, her mom’s recipe. A small, cornmeal-rolled dough is topped with chopped tomatoes, red onion, pesto/balsamic compote and feta ($6).
With a variety of sandwiches, soups and salads, the menu is designed so that customers will visit multiple times each week, she says.
Kapin partners with farms for produce and specialty cheeses as well as a New Mexican ranch to source all of its beef and pork. Everything is made from scratch and Kapin minimizes waste by using ingredients across the menu. She says she’s meticulous about keeping food cost below 23 percent.
To satisfy her diverse customers, Kapin believes in variety and opportunity, whether it’s offering vibrant music, billiard tables and 10 taps of local and standard beers or displaying four hat styles and several different cuts of t-shirts and outerwear for sale. There’s a bit of something for everyone in a cohesive way that complements its concept.
Back Road generates more than $750,000 in annual sales. After having a business partner for six years, Kapin acquired full ownership of the pizzeria. In the past few months, the pizzeria has kicked it into high gear. Kapin added a grab-and-go case, featuring all of its house-made dressings, sauces and dough balls.
Its first POS system — installed in June — opened up a new world of data for Kapin, a stickler for operating figures, to analyze.
The POS system has paved the way for online ordering, which has been integrated into the ordering flow with few hiccups for the dine-in/carryout pizzeria. Kapin says she has had to add a disclaimer that customers call Back Road for large order pick up times.
Next for Back Road — Kapin hints to perhaps package its popular, housemade gluten-free dough for the retail market.
Denise Greer is associate editor at Pizza Today.
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