2011 May: Five Questions

Anne Keller owns The Hot Tomato Café with business partner Jen Zeuner in Fruita, Colorado. The café is situated in a cycling Mecca and the two have incorporated their own passion for riding into their business.

Q: You’ve spent time carefully crafting a brand for Hot Tomato. What was the main impetus behind that?

A: Yes, we certainly spent time creating our distinct brand. Both my business partner and I came from backgrounds in the cycling industry. Neither of us had previous food experience but what we did have, though, was extensive experience with the idea of brand marketing, which pretty much drives all aspects of the outdoor industry. Coming from that background gave us a bit of a “leg up” in this regard, mostly as we understood how vital it is to create a strong image for your company, and we were able to take that understanding and apply that in our restaurant.

Q: Why is a sharp Web site important to your business?

A: I think a sharp Web site simply adds to that brand creation and reflects the image we wanted to portray. For us, a big part of that image was retaining a sense of fun and irreverence, so we purposely set out to create a Web site that captures that. On a similar note, I look at our Web site as a sort of “permanent advertisement.” I think that with the decline of traditional print advertising, a good Web site becomes such a strong selling point for getting your word and image out.

Q: You offer some atypical branded merchandising, like cycling jerseys and belts. How does your merchandising appeal to customers?

A: We have so much fun with our merchandise! Because we live in a cycling destination, and because we are cyclists, we set out to offer merchandise that would appeal to that demographic. It appears to be working –– we have days where soft-good sales make up a full quarter of our day! Plus, the creative process of determining what to sell involves the very serious operation of drinking some beers with friends and dreaming up what to offer next, which is never a bad thing.

Q: We love your signature pizza menu. What’s your top seller?

A: Our top seller is by far the Granny’s Pesto. It’s actually pretty simple, which is maybe part of the appeal –– just pesto, mozz, tomatoes, garlic and feta. We live in a fairly rural area, and it took some prodding to get our regulars to initially try the “green pizza” (which is now what we affectionately call it). But now, five years in, it is our most popular pie.

Q: Now that you’ve got a great menu, branding and regional acclaim, what plans do you have for growth?

A: World domination of course! Just kidding. We are slowly plugging along on a franchise package. I don’t foresee pursuing this growth on a massive scale, mostly our idea involves offering the Hot Tomato to other cycling destinations so we can keep the same fit and feel of our place. Plus, checking up on our franchises would be so much more fun with bikes involved.

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