Though he was born in Los Angeles, Antonio D. Giner grew up in Argentina, traveled through Europe and lived in Mexico before settling down in El Paso, Texas. His travels exposed him to a variety of foods, but his love of fi ne fare and drink centers on Italian-style wood-fired pizza, something El Paso lacked before Giner opened Sunset Brewery & Pizzeria there in 2002.
“Originally, we had a brewery, too,” Giner explains, adding that it closed a couple of years ago as it simply wasn’t profitable. “We were a concept similar to Il Vicino in New Mexico. We really liked the idea of brewing and pairing our own beer with wood-fired pizzas.”
El Paso isn’t the most progressive city, and Giner’s brews weren’t fully appreciated by an audience that clamors for mass produced domestics like Bud Light and Miller. Still, he has stuck to his guns on premium beers by keeping his offerings limited to products like Stella Artois.
“People come in and want a cheap beer,” says Giner. “They ask for it, but I’m like, ‘Try something different. You might like it.’ You go in the grocery store and it’s 60 percent Bud or Coors products. This just isn’t the town for a brewery.”
For El Paso, the pizza at Sunset is also markedly different than the status quo. While major chains reign supreme in the city, Sunset’s pies (though they don’t adhere to all the rules set forth to qualify a pizza as Neapolitan) are made in the Neapolitan vein.
“It’s really the original Neapolitan pizza that inspired my pizza here,” says Giner. “It’s not strictly Neapolitan, but it’s modeled after the Neapolitan style.
“I wanted to bring something really different to the city. El Paso is so isolated. No one here was doing a wood-fired pizza, so that my favor because that was the niche I was after.” Early on, Giner had to educate the customer base about his product. Increasingly, that is becoming the case less and less as time goes on.
“All of our pizzas are 10 inches,” (in diameter) he says. “That’s the only size we do.”
Prices for said pizzas are remarkably low — $7.95 for most of them. While Sunset’s premium product would sell for more in other cities, Giner explains it this way: “You have to adapt to the market. The cost of living here is very low.”
Sunset Pizzeria is located in an upper-middle-class area near the University of Texas, El Paso (UTEP). And though his pricing is inexpensive, Giner says he doesn’t cater to many students. “We get more faculty members,” he says. “UTEP is mostly a commuter campus. It really doesn’t have a resident student population. Pretty much the only students that live on campus are the athletes.”
Nearby Fort Bliss, a major U.S. Army base, provides plenty of customers as well.
“We see lots of soldiers coming in,” Giner says. “El Paso is very spread out. There are 600,000 people here, but they’re all spread out. So it makes it hard to target different demographics. So, really, we focus on word of mouth to get people in. We just focus on the community as a whole. We focus on what we do, do it well, and take it easy.”
The philosophy is serving Sunset well. It allows Giner to do what he wants: concentrate on artisan pizza with proven methods and the best available ingredients. And though he was always infatuated with pizza, it may not have been his first choice for a restaurant concept had he not met Pizza Today “Dough Doctor” Tom Lehmann.
“I had a small restaurant in Mexico before,” says Giner. “We made Argentine food. But then I took a course with Tom Lehmann and it got me really interested in dough. I worked on our dough for months before I ever got this building.”
That said, Giner admits his dough “is no mystery. It has high-protein fl our, water, instant dry yeast, oil and salt.”
As for other prime ingredients, Sunset customizes a premium canned tomato sauce to meet its needs, uses whole-milk mozzarella and ricotta, and makes its own sausage by grinding and spicing Boston butt.
“It’s just another interest of mine,” Giner says of the labor it takes to make sausage. “I add a lot of spice to it to make it really flavorful. I also shred the mozzarella daily and grate the Parmesan wheels. It takes a lot of work to get the prep done before we ever open, but it’s worth it because it provides us with a point of difference from what’s out there — and our cusotmers like it.”
The aforementioned sausage is featured on the spicy three-meat pizza along with pepperoni, capicolla and cherry peppers. It’s one of Sunset’s top-selling pizzas, along with the Rustica, which contains mozzarella, prosciutto di Parma, mushrooms, artichoke hearts and kalamata olives.
“Of course, just like everywhere else, our best seller is a pepperoni pizza,” Giner says. “But our Chicken Chipotle is a good seller, along with our Bianca Alla Verdura white pizza.”
The Bianca Alla Verdura offers mozzarella and feta cheeses, grilled eggplant, artichoke hearts, mushrooms and marinated peppers.
Giner is the lone full-time employee at Sunset Pizzeria. “We have a lot of UTEP students here working,” he says. “And some of the guys in our kitchen work here in the morning and at another restaurant in the evening.”
Keeping all employees on part-time schedules helps control costs, an important consideration for Giner’s small operation.
“In the beginning I was just focused on keeping it going,” he says. “In the beginning, you can’t set your expectations too high. This business will burn you out tremendously fast if you do that. I started out basically working for pizza and beer and gas money. I worked it day-to-day to keep it going.”
While it’s a stressful way to go, it had its advantages for Giner in terms of not taking on loads of debt.
“Since we opened I’ve never had to put money into it, so that’s been nice,” he says. In this economy, that comes as a surprise to many. But Giner says El Paso’s isolation has worked in its favor in regards to the economic climate.
“The DEA, FBI … every acronym you can think of is here,” he says. “So with the economy, we’ve been very lucky because we benefit from the presence of the federal government.” ?
Jeremy White is editor-in-chief of Pizza Today.