Fruita, Colorado — which sits between Grand Junction and the banks of the Colorado River in a fossil-rich corner of the state — is a bucket-list bike destination thanks to flowy high-desert singletrack, technical trails overlooking the river and a charming downtown where even the dinosaur statues perch atop bikes.
This wasn’t always the case; Fruita has seen a dramatic rise in its population and profile over the last 15 years as it’s been reinvented from conservative farm town to outdoor Shangri-La.
The transformation is due to trail builders, bike advocates and the rising popularity of mountain biking, for sure. But something else played a central role in Fruita’s evolution: a pizzeria called The Hot Tomato.
There, the slices are the stuff of legend, the beer is frosty and proprietors Jen Zeuner and Anne Keller have created a community hub where tattooed millennials, farming families and out-of-town bikers can come together over a shared love of pizza.
In a way, Zeuner and Keller’s trajectory has paralleled the town’s — they too found a kind of success that at one time seemed unlikely. In doing so, they’ve forged the kind of narrative many of us aspire to, striking gold by chasing their passions.
When the couple walks up to Best Slope Coffee to meet me on a sunny Saturday in May, an older man greets them first, telling them he’s been reading articles about them.
“You guys are big shots now,” he says.
Indeed. They are freshly home from a trip to the Wright Awards in Golden, where they were asked to serve as judges a year after winning the independent business honor. Before that, they were at 5Point Film Festival in Carbondale, where they were treated to an 800-person standing ovation following the screening of “Life of Pie,” a new Patagonia film by Felt Soul Media that profiles them. (“It was insane,” Zeuner says.)
That they were able to leave town during such a busy season is telling. After 14 years of running The Hot Tomato, they have finally stepped off the line.
But they’ll still show up today. It’s ‘80s Day, and with the Fruita Fat Tire Festival in town, it’s going to be busy.
“They don’t need us, but we’re going to go be silly with them,” Zeuner says. “We’ll hang out and keep the morale high.”
Zeuner is a former professional biker; Keller a bike photographer. They met in 1999 in Moab, and a trip to Fruita was their first date. When they moved to town in 2002 to work at Over the Edge Sports, it was a sleepy place.
“It felt like we had stepped back in time,” Keller said.
But the riding was fun, trails were being built and it was definitely on the upswing. Around 2004, as the riding began to get discovered, they started hearing a question more often.
“People were coming to town, and they were wondering where to have a beer, where to eat, where to just sit and hang out,” Zeuner said.
Neither had restaurant experience. But Zeuner, who grew up in New Jersey (“the land of pizza”) would often walk across the street to a pizza shop, and wasn’t shy about making suggestions.
“I was always like, ‘you know what you should do?’ One day he said to me, ‘you know what you should do? You should buy this place.’”
It seemed ridiculous at first. The more she thought on it, though, the more it made sense. In 2005, she purchased all of the equipment, gave her notice at the bike shop and started slinging pies.
That first season, she said, was “horrible.” Naively, she and Keller thought it would be like retail. It wasn’t. At all. It was humbling, overwhelming and incredibly taxing.
Zeuner said they could have easily been one of the 85 percent of small businesses that close within three years, had they not borrowed money from a close friend.
“There was no way we were going to let her down,” she said.
The following winter, they had to borrow money again to pay their staff. But they plugged along. Joined the Chamber of Commerce. Got involved with trail building and advocacy. Hired local kids, made themselves visible by washing windows or sweeping their sidewalks. And from the get-go, they built the Hot Tomato with a spirit of genuine inclusiveness.
“I think that we were very intentional with creating a place where everybody could feel comfortable, a place where people wanted to go to and hang out, get a beer, tell their story,” Zeuner said.
There were some whispers about their “lifestyle.” (The girls weren’t shy about being lesbians, printing early business stickers with sayings like “We snatch kisses and vice versa.”) They heard about people who refused to patronize the pizzeria because of it.
Despite that, they started gaining regulars, seeing some returns. And when they closed for 10 months to build out their current space, something happened.
With zero money, they had to do the work themselves. Friends or customers who were contractors would come by and show them how to run electric, use a jackhammer. Local kids would help clean. People brought food. Others popped in to check on them. It dawned on them that they were missed.
“I think that was a really big turning point for us, where we were like, ‘wow, people really want us here,’” Zeuner said.
It was a turning point for another reason too: the first year in the new space, they doubled their business, and it’s been growing since.
They offered outdoor seating, dialed their pizza and Stromboli recipes (all from scratch, insanely delicious), invested in a serious pizza oven and picked right back up with community involvement, hosting live music, throwing costume parties and occasionally showing up as the Action Sisters, two cranky but hilarious geriatric women from Florida.
As Fruita’s profile as a biking destination rose, so did The Hot Tomato’s. Fruita Mayor Joel Kincaid said that in many ways, the two went hand in hand.
“They’ve been a big influence on business growth and a positive role model for other businesses,” he said. “They’ve also built a community by creating a culture where customers feel welcome. When you walk into the pizzeria, you are not a number. You are actually a part of that community.”
Ben Knight, who co-directed “Life of Pie” with Travis Rummel, said they long wanted to share the story behind their favorite pizza shop.
“It’s easy to take Anne, Jen and this thing they’ve so gracefully and intentionally curated for granted,” Knight said, “but if you take a step back and consider the fact that it would all be impossible to replicate without them, without Fruita, without bikes … it’s clear how special it all is.”
“When we first thought about doing this, it wasn’t about, ‘I want to open a restaurant,” Zeuner tells me. “It was, ‘I want to create a cool place where people can come and hang out, and we can still ride our bikes and play in the outdoors and create jobs for ourselves.”
Well, I say. Congrats. That’s the dream, and you’re living it.
A smile breaks over her face. “It is the dream,” she replies.
A week later, they show “Life of Pie” at The Hot Tomato on a Saturday night. Some 400 people show up. Keller tells me in an email they were nervous about showing it to their hometown crowd.
“We felt more personally connected to whether or not the crowd liked it as opposed to an outside audience. But the response was amazing … If I could sum it up, I’d say it was fucking incredible.”
“Life of Pie” will show at Mountainfilm in Telluride, May 24-27. The film will be released online July 10.