This piece could be about Fruita- a town still finding its identity on the border of the dry desert and the tall mountains. It could be about pizza- perfection that is consistent with old school New Jersey values. It could also be about mountain biking- sweet and flowy singletrack that is certainly one definition of bliss. In actuality, all of these options are intertwined in what makes The Hot Tomato Pizzeria what it is, and Jen Zeuner and Anne Keller are the nucleus, defining what happens when two women follow their bliss and aren’t scared to take a chance.
When Jen and Anne found Fruita, they discovered it through seeking a cheaper rent and a place to ride bikes. Jen raced professionally, while Anne guided mountain bike rides. They found a love in each other and then in 2002, a future in Fruita, CO when they took jobs at Over the Edge, a popular bike shop in town. This wasn’t their end game, and originally, the thought they’d be here for a couple of years before moving on to other vistas to ride.
In 2005, this mellow, yet fiery duo decided they wanted to introduce the West Slope to what pizza should actually taste like. Jen grew up in New Jersey, and like most New Jersey souls, had some opinions about pizza. In her Jersey days, you weren’t allowed to touch the pizza as a woman, you were either making salads, taking orders with a smile, or swaying your hips between tables delivering the goods. There was no room for this tradition at The Hot Tomato, and from the purchase of their first pizza oven, Jen and Anne were hands-on in every decision and process.
The stigma of 2 gay women who were also those pesky mountain bikers was real, and it was polarizing when they began. “Who are these mountain bikers making this fancy pizza” was an underlying question in many of the locals who knew a Fruita without a mountain biking culture, and possibly didn’t always welcome this “rough and tumble” bunch every fall and spring.
Getting to this point was nothing short of intentional. Jen explains, “Before we even knew were going to do the Hot Tomato, we made a commitment to build relationships with people in the community. The perception of two gay female mountain bikers went away pretty quickly when what they saw was just two individuals that had a vision and were really hard workers.” Today The Hot Tomato is just as popular with the locals as it is with the tourists. This is something that is hard to achieve, and something Anne and Jen are proud of. “We knew going in that we were in a community that was either going to embrace us if we do this right, or they are going to shun us, and we couldn’t take that risk. We didn’t have a backup plan,” Anne remembers.
When guests walk into The Hot Tomato, it’s quickly obvious how darn happy everyone is. Jen and Anne have worked hard to move their restaurant out of the traditional way of thinking to provide an inspirational and exciting place to work. “Gone are the hierarchal days of celebrity chefs yelling at people and throwing pans in the kitchen – it’s not cool, and it’s never been cool. It’s not being glorified anymore,” says Anne. Team members always say please, and in the occasional heated moment, it ends with a “hugging it out” session. In a traditionally male-dominated foodservice world, these two women have brought compassion, empathy, and happiness into an environment that often owns a negative connotation of getting your butt kicked, and that has made all the difference.
These days you will find Jen and Anne on tour with their Patagonia sponsored film, “The Life of Pie,” and making efforts to help other entrepreneurs get their feet off the ground. Jen says, “I know for me personally, I’m really happy to see the way things have shifted, and I’m really glad I’m here. I want to continue to be here helping people do cool things. Our work has changed.”
It’s taken passion and grit, and a lot of trial and error, but as Anne puts it, “We’ve always looked for those outliers that we can take inspiration from, and we gravitate towards that.” It’s impossible to sit on the patio at The Hot Tomato and not feel the intention and love that’s gone into every square foot. If we all gravitated to this level of authenticity and delight in our communities, there’s no doubt it would become apparent that life can really be this good.
by Anne Sitton Winger
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