Come to the Table
A Tavola owners invite diners to a new pizza experience in Cincinnati
When you grow up in an educated and well-traveled family, you tend to get exposed to the world in new and meaningful ways. And when your grandmother and mother are great cooks, a passion for food enters your bloodstream as easily as any other pursuit. So it was for brothers Jared and Nick Wayne, who took a circuitous but nonetheless pre-ordained route to the food business.
The pair co-own A Tavola, a Neo-Neapolitan pizzeria in Cincinnati that emphasizes scratch-made items with a focus on top-notch ingredient quality and methods. They got their start in pizza somewhat inauspiciously, but it wasn’t long before they saw a path to measured success.
“I quit my job in real estate and didn’t know what to do,” says Jared. “A friend of mine had opened a bakery at about that time, and she volunteered her bakery. She said, ‘You should make pizza in here at night since we’re closed for dinner.’ So we started doing that. This was probably around 2009.”
Before that opportunity, Jared was already an avid experimenter of pizza culture.
“I used to live in Los Angeles, and a friend and I would do pizza nights there,” he says. “We converted a Weber grill into a wood-fired oven. We’d go down to the farmer’s market on Third Street in Santa Monica and buy fresh stuff and make pizza every Thursday night and have people over. That’s how I learned to make pizza. I just kept fiddling around with it.”
When the chance to open a pop-up in the bakery arose, the brothers called their venture A Tavola, which translates from Italian to English as “come to the table.”
Says Nick: “This was before pop-ups were cool. We didn’t even have that term for it. It was confusing to people, I think. It started off with just friends. It was BYOB, $10 at the door. They’d walk around and eat what they wanted. The word spread, and after about six months we got to where we were feeding a few hundred people. That’s when I was like, ‘Well, maybe we’re onto something.’”
Next, the whole “luck favors the well-prepared” cliché rang true again for the brothers. Cincinnati was in the midst of revitalizing downtrodden neighborhoods. The Over-the-Rhine section just off of downtown had long been an eyesore with potential. The Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation (3CDC) had its eye on A Tavola’s pop-up prowess.
“They set something up called 3CDC,” Jared explains. “It was sort of a public/private entity where they could take money from Proctor & Gamble and places like that, plus provide historic tax credits to get businesses like ours open. It was a pass-through entity.”
With tax breaks and other help, A Tavola became a brick-and-mortar reality with a wood-burning oven, a full bar and dine-in/takeout options.
“One of the people working with the city on this project had been in to several of our pizza nights,” says Jared. “She came to us and said, ‘Why don’t you come and look into some of these spaces downtown?’ So we made a deal with the city. It was definitely a calculated first step. It was, ‘Let’s see how this goes and see where we can take it.’”
Turns out they took it pretty far.
“My brother was working as an attorney at the time, and we became so busy that he ended up coming on board to help run the company,” Jared says. “He really functions as our CEO. He pretty much runs the business.”
A Tavola was the third spot to open in Over-the-Rhine under the 3CDC program. Revitalizing a neglected neighborhood is certainly never without its more interesting moments.
“I remember hearing gunshots the night we were painting this place,” recalls Jared. “It was definitely a risk at first. I remember thinking, ‘I hope we made the right decision.’”
With Nick on board to oversee the business side of operations, Jared was able to concentrate on his passion for food. Nick took to social media to help establish brand awareness, eschewing more traditional forms of advertising.
“We tried some things, but it’s expensive and the return just isn’t always there,” he explains. “Social media is what we found worked best for us.”
There was also a necessary educational component. While Jared describes A Tavola’s pizza as Neo-Neapolitan, he admits the name wasn’t easy for customers to pronounce and that Cincinnati was being introduced to a new type of pizza that it did not fully understand.
“They still murder the name,” he laughs. “So we had to put our customers on a learning curve. But, again, there’s a lot about the style that translates. When you go to Naples, for instance, the cheese comes from just over the hill. So we work with a lot of local purveyors to emulate that Neapolitan spirit of keeping it local. Our No. 1 seller is an arugula and fig jam pizza. The arugula is grown just miles away from here. It allows us to support the local economy and we get a better product that way.”
Nick adds that “I’ve found that many people are mistaken on what Neapolitan pizza actually is. To me it’s like a plate of water. If we were to actually serve true Neapolitan pizza — which we did consider at first — we’d get a lot of complaints that it’s too wet.”
They are still sometimes told the crust appears burned by customers who do not understand the charring effect is an essential component of the product. But when it comes down to brass tacks, they say, quality shines through and customers pick up on that and appreciate it.
“I think people are realizing that for a couple of bucks more they can patronize a family business,” Jared says. “You get a little bit more for your money when you do that, and I think customers are seeing that. It’s not really about competition. We’re extremely lucky that we can do this type of pizza in this market. Cincinnati is a really great market that rallies around its brands. An example is Graeter’s Ice cream. When you come into Cincinnati and try to compete with Graeter’s, good luck.”
To that end, Jared adds, “What we do here is we literally look at every single category: flour, oils, cheeses, salt … and identify the best product in that category. And that’s what we use. We use the best stuff we can.”
According to Nick, the bar at A Tavola is an essential part of the company’s success. The restaurant places an emphasis on craft cocktails and fine wines that naturally complement the food.
“It’s very important to what we do,” he says. “It’s part of the overall experience someone has when they dine here. You want them to feel at home.”
In order to move alcohol, A Tavola servers are encouraged to focus on suggestive selling.
“We have our servers verbalize it,” says Jared. “Server training can make or break anything. Selling a bottle of wine to every table is a game changer. We bring in amazing wines and amazing products. The stuff sells itself. You just have to let people know you have it.”
The same applies to the gelato that A Tavola makes in-house each day.
“We let people know we make our gelato fresh every day with milk from Ohio and the best sugars and chocolates you can find in the world,” says Jared. “People hear that and want to try it.
Obviously, our better servers sell more wine and more gelato. They can articulate the story well.”
Jeremy White is editor-in-chief at Pizza Today.