2009 February: Il Pizzaiolo: 3 Tomatoes & a Mozzarella

2009 February: Il Pizzaiolo: 3 Tomatoes & a MozzarellaWhen Nancy and Jeff Roskin moved from Connecticut to Scottsdale, Arizona, they felt the pizza in their new home left something to be desired. So they made their own.

“We decided to open up because the pizza here was disgusting,” says Nancy, a straight-talking East Coaster who worked as a paralegal and an interior designer before turning into a restaurateur. “The food overall was great, but the pizza wasn’t any good at all. The area needed a good pizza restaurant. We didn’t move out here to open a restaurant. We didn’t move with that in mind.”

In June 2000, 3 Tomatoes & a Mozzarella was born. Despite the fact the Roskins did not have restaurant ownership experience under their belts (Jeff was in real estate, though he had owned businesses previously), they knew a good pizza would be welcome in Scottsdale.

“We hired a consultant to get us started and that was a worthwhile investment,” says Nancy. “And we had a fabulous chef. She was 24 and we got her from the Scottsdale Culinary Institute. She was a recent graduate and she ran the restaurant. She was awesome.”

Unfortunately, the chef grew tired of the long hours this industry requires and moved on. “She wanted to have a life,” Nancy explains. “It’s the nature of this business that you have to work a lot of hours, yet there’s a lot of down time, too. And you have to be here on nights and weekends and holidays.” “You have to be open when everyone else is off work,” Jeff adds. “That’s one of the most diffi cult things about foodservice.”

Like the Roskins, the pizza recipe at 3 Tomatoes & a Mozzarella actually came from Connecticut. Knowing they wanted a product similar to what they used to eat back on the East Coast, the Roskins decided there was no sense trying to replicate an established taste through timeconsuming trial and error. Instead, they opted to purchase recipes and procedures from a master baker in Hartford.

“He helped us create our pizza,” says Jeff. “We paid him $5,000 and he gave us our dough recipe and taught us how to make it.” The dough is far from the only thing made in-house. In fact, aside from actually boiling down tomatoes into sauce, everything at 3 Tomatoes & a Mozzarella is scratch made. Sure, it’s labor intensive. But it also provides the restaurant with a quality image and an immediate point of difference from other eateries.

“We really do make everything in our stores,” Nancy says. “I wouldn’t have it any other way. We make our own breads, even: focaccia, sandwich bread, wholewheat crust. Everything. We make our own cannoli shells, tiramisu and cupcakes, too.”

For the sauce, the 3 Tomatoes kitchen staff starts with canned crushed tomatoes and makes additions to it from there. “We make two different sauces,” says Nancy. “Our Margherita is a traditional sauce and our Neapolitan is a chunkier tomato sauce.”

The menu at 3 Tomatoes covers the bases but is far from exhaustive. Because everything is made in house, Jeff says it’s important not to go overboard with the selections. Too many options, he explains, would simply be too taxing on the kitchen crew.

“When we fi rst opened, we didn’t want to have any pasta at all,” he says. “We just wanted to do upscale pizza, panini and salads. It’s not really our focus, and we didn’t necessarily have all the equipment to pull off a larger menu. But we eventually broke down and created fi ve pastas — and they all sell very well. We also do some soups now, too. Homemade, of course.”

Adds Nancy: “I’m really fussy about what I serve. I won’t serve what I won’t eat, and I won’t eat processed food.” Does the 3 Tomatoes customer base know the lengths the Roskins and their staff go through to menu truly fresh food? “Some of them do,” says Jeff. “The longtime customers who’ve been coming in for years now and who we’ve gotten to know have a pretty good idea.”

Nancy agrees, but adds that “I don’t think most of our customers realize the extent of what we go through, really. I mean, it’s possible to buy everything premade and run a restaurant without ever having to make anything yourself. It’s disgusting, and there are plenty of places that do that.”

So, why not tell that “quality” story on their menus? It’s something Jeff admits he’d like to do, but the unique physical size of the 3 Tomatoes menu and the unusually expensive menu holders they use leaves little space for anything other than the nuts and bolts of food items, descriptions and price.

“I’d like to be creative and let people know our story,” he says. “And I think that’s something people genuinely enjoy reading. But we’ve got nowhere to put anything like that. We paid $50 each for these (menu holders), so we’re going to be using them for quite some time. Maybe I’ll do a print out sometime to tell our story that way, something I could insert into the menu.”

Nancy says she’d like to add more pastas to the 3 Tomatoes & a Mozzarella menu because they move so well. It’s a contrast to the early days of running the restaurant, when America was locked in a short-lived love affair with a low-carbohydrate diet.

“The low-carb craze lasted all of three months,” Nancy laughs. “I’m glad it didn’t go on any longer, because some people were really getting into it and a lot of pizza and pasta restaurants got worried. I remember people adding all sorts of low-carb items to their menu and serving things like crust-less pizza and sandwiches with no bread. It’s not what we’re about and not the best-tasting thing, so we didn’t get too much into it. We added a couple of things that would meet that demand if customers asked for it, but that just wasn’t something we were really going to get into.”

Today, as is always the case when the economy sours, pasta sales are strong industry-wide. But don’t look for 3 Tomatoes to add a new lineup of them any time soon. There’s that lack of menu space hanging over the Roskins heads. Plus, they want to stick true to their original streamlined concept. “I so admire In-N-Out Burger for what they’re able to do,” Nancy says of the West coast chain that offers only burgers, fries and milkshakes. “They keep it simple and they’re unbelievably busy.” 3 Tomatoes & a Mozzarella is busy as well. Besides the Scottsdale location and another company-owned store in nearby Peoria, a franchised store in Las Vegas is bustling.

“They’re busy up there in Vegas,” Nancy says. “I thought it would take a little longer to build it up, because they’re in an underdeveloped area. But they’re doing $20,000 a week in sales.”

Things are so good that a second Sin City location will open soon in North Las Vegas. Meanwhile, the Roskins are trying to find a buyer for their first franchised location, which opened in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and did well before the franchisee closed it. “It was our fififi rst venture into franchising and we’ve learned a lot from it,” says Jeff. “We just didn’t have the right person in place. He seemed like a good fififififi t, he was young and ran the store well in the beginning. That store had sales over $800,000, but he got bored with it and wanted to move on to something else.” The Roskins are ready to get that store back on line, and they’re also excited to debut a new concept they have in the works, 3 Tomatoes Pronto. It’s a scaled-down, counterservice version of the existing 3 Tomatoes & a Mozzarella brand.

“That’s where the trend is going in restaurants right now,” explains Jeff. “It can be built out for less money, which makes it easier to franchise or to offer market development packages.

Obviously, the less it costs, the more you can sell.”

Jeremy White is editor-in-chief at Pizza Today.