Bakers Journal

Pizza road trip across Canada!

August 16, 2023
By Canadian Pizza

Dan and David Mitchell, both proud military veterans, opened the first Famous Peppers location in 2003. PHOTO: FAMOUS PEPPERS INC.

We’d like you to meet these successful pizzerias from across Canada. Some are well established, others are newer to the scene and thriving. All are driven by the desire to give their community high-quality pizza, value for money, time, energy and service.

Moo’s Pizza in Cobble Hill, B.C., on Vancouver Island is the perfect place to start our tour. Owner Melissa Cottam, known as Moo for her lifelong love of milk, opened her community-minded pizzeria in June 2012.

Cottam is friendly and modest – not the bragging type. But you can tell she is quietly proud of the way Moo’s supports Cobble Hill and surrounding area. She says, “We do take-and-bake for the schools and as fundraisers for local causes.”

Known for being a hands-on owner, she says, “People are meeting you face to face and that builds community spirit.”

Moo’s sponsors at least 10 different teams including dragon boat, hockey, baseball and circle track racing done with demolition cars. The pizzeria is now working with the new Kerry Park Recreation Centre. For the hockey season, Moo’s provides the rec centre with two pizzas to give people for their birthday in exchange for promoting Moo’s on their screen. Cottam says supporting teams is not difficult: “You can sponsor anywhere from $2 to $250.”

Cottam sources local ingredients and supplies as much as possible. “We get a lot of produce from Old Farm Market, all locally sourced through them,” she says, adding they are required to work through a distributor.

When it comes to marketing her business, Cottam feels putting money and pizza directly into the community is the way to go. “We have our regular social media that we do, but most of our advertising is through the teams. I’d rather give the money to local teams or a “hurt dog” – Moo’s helps support local animal shelters – than put it into advertising. We do a lot with the schools, as much as we possibly can, and the word-of-mouth is great.”

She likes tight-knit Cobble Hill. “All the businesses around try their best to support the community that supports them. We try to make sure everybody gets by. I’ve been part of fundraisers that raise up to $150,000. It’s a pretty supportive community.”

This summer it’s been business as usual, but in September Moo’s will host a community yard sale in its parking lot where they will be selling pizza by the slice to support the local cat rescue, a cause near and dear to her mother, who passed away in 2020.

Top sellers are the House Special, the potato skin, the combo and the meat lovers pizzas. “We always feature a pizza of the month, people usually go crazy for our inventions,” Cottam says, citing their reuben, curry, philly cheese steak pizzas and others. I’ve been working in pizzerias for about 25 years – 11 for myself. There isn’t much I haven’t cooked in a pizza oven,” she says with a laugh.

There are 17 on Cottam’s team, many of whom work there as a second job. Moo’s is open five days a week from 4 to 8 p.m. right now. That’s a recent development meant to give team members a break and prevent burnout. The pizzeria is closed on Sunday, a day to relax, and Tuesday, a day to catch up on paperwork and other jobs.

When we ask Cottam, what’s something you do that you wish you’d done long ago, she doesn’t miss a beat. “Take a day off!” Then, after some thought: “In the last couple of years one thing I’ve done is to have a little more compassion for younger workers who grew up in a different time. They’re not us. Compassion for younger staff goes a long way. Trying to be a bit more lenient. They will work harder if you give them a break. It’s taken me while to realize that.”

Dorinda Penner and her husband, Mike, have owned and operated the successful Sunshine Greenhouse, garden centre and landscaping business in Steinbach, Man., since 2000. In 2015, they opened Chinos Bistro, a café specializing in a wide variety of wood-fired pizzas and serving salads, side dishes and desserts.

Penner says their wood-fired pizza with creative toppings along with some menu favourites make Chinos a unique destination.

“I had a family member who was in Europe and visited garden centres. “In England almost all the garden centres have tea houses, they told me. We had seen one in Manitoba. My daughter had worked in a café in Ontario one summer and we thought, she has the interest, let’s get her involved. We were going to install an oven outside to help promote our landscaping business. Then we stepped back and realized if we’re going to invest, we need to be inside all 12 months.”

Famous Peppers’ Smokehouse pizza is popular on the menu. Photo: Famous Peppers Inc.

They opened up seating for 18 plus 12 on a garden patio in May 2015 and by October they expanded to seat 38.

“My husband and I grew up in Steinbach and love being part of this community,” Penner says. “We are primarily a farming area of the country with vast fields of grains. We have operated a garden centre since 2000, so when we opened Chinos Bistro we were happy to source local when available to serve to our community. We use local jam producers and when in season we use local produce. Our meats are sourced from a local butcher shop and the cheese is from Manitoba as well.”

Steinbach serves outlying, smaller communities and is a hub for about 40,000 people. Penner says it’s hard to pinpoint where customer traffic is coming from. “The restaurant is is a cozy timberframe structure erected within our retail greenhouse. There is some cross-over draw. Some come in looking for the bistro. Others come into the greenhouse and are pleasantly surprised to find a full-service restaurant inside”

This summer they are enjoying the patio season. They are licensed and have seating for 38 indoors and almost 30 on the patio.

Says Penner, “We create a feature pizza each month of the year and our local community promotes Burger Week early in September, so we are now planning our burger-inspired pizza for that week.”

What is something she wishes they’d done long ago? “Plan for a larger kitchen and refrigeration!” She explains: “We needed more preparation spacer. Then we thought, what else can we make that’s different?”

The answer was gelato and they sent their daughter to Italy to learn how to make it through Carpigiani Gelato University in Bologna. “We have 18 flavours starting in March, and in winter we go down to 12 flavours.”

“My husband and I were in our early 30s when we jumped into the greenhouse and landscape industry and no looking back. Now we are thrilled that our kids are involved and we are working to teach them the best way to be successful and enjoy life along the way.”

Adam Kluver has made an art form out of pivoting. Kluver took over a thriving pizza business and has built on its success by partnering with a beer company, rebranding and always keeping it at the heart of the town of Lancaster in eastern Ontario near the border with Quebec.

Lancaster Restaurant & Pizzeria opened in 1992. Kluver, 35, who grew up in Lancaster, purchased the business from his employer Denis Scrivanos in 2018.

Kluver has pivoted many times and recently bought a new oven after a major power outage killed his conveyor oven. He had to replace the oven and decided to rebuild the kitchen while he was at it. “We had to take down a wall, make it more efficient,” he says. “We put in a much bigger pizza oven and now don’t have to turn down orders. It’s working out really well,” he says of his gas stone con-veyor.

Kluver, who has been making pizzas for 22 years, is grateful to his former employer, Denis Scrivanos, for trusting him to keep the business going. “I worked for Denis and his son Nick when I was a teen-ager. I moved away at 20 to go to school for hospitality and restaurant management. I worked for a chain in Quebec. It wasn’t the type of job I wanted even though it paid well.”

Kluver’s former boss lured him back to Ontario, saying he would match his salary. “I quit my job the next week and commuted from Montreal to Lancaster. Eventually my boss said if I could do a down payment of $25,000 that he would hold a mortgage. He guided me for the first six months, showed me the recipes, how to organize receipts, invoices. He took the time to teach me everything.”

Kluver bought the attached house from Scrivanos and moved into it with wife Emmanuelle during COVID. They renovated the pizzeria to provide more seating.

“We completely renovated the dining room and bar – we now have the most comfortable booths you’ve ever had in a restaurant,” he says. “I increased my prices, sold less, but at least people could be comfortable for a longer time.”

When it became necessary this year to change the business name, he chose Sheehan’s Pub & Pizza to honour his Irish grandfather, Cyril Sheehan, who was known to enjoy a pint of Guinness. Kluver launched the name in March – Guinness Month. The company provided it on tap, installed fridges and taps and gave them a $2,000 advertising budget.

Kluver used the catchphrase “Irish name, Irish beer, same pizza” to let customers know about the name change on Facebook, where he does a lot of his marketing to Lancaster’s older demographic.

Besides its origin story, what’s unique about Sheehan’s? “We have a more expensive pizza. I always go with the highest-quality ingredients. When food prices went up, instead of going cheaper, I went the opposite way. I learned from my old boss that if pizza is your main thing, don’t skimp on quality.”

As for bestselling pizzas, their Lancaster Special is popular. It’s a filling, all-dressed pizza with added onions and bacon.

Kluver is committed to supporting local sports teams. “When I was a kid I didn’t have a lot of money. We did soccer because it was cheaper. Hockey teams, curling clubs, skating clubs – I specify that money go to those who can’t really afford to play organized sports.

“During COVID they kept supporting the dormant teams. Sheehan’s gets a two-for-one logo in the ice seen by 150 people at a typical game. If you want to stand out, you need to be involved in the community.”

Kluver actively looks for ways that technology can make the restaurant more efficient. After noticing the time-consuming handwritten order-taking processs, he talked to his tech company. “Now we have three tablets for order taking and it saves a lot of time,” he says. “I like it because our POS takes care of inventory as well: as inventory counts down it displays as unavailable. This helps with inaccuracies. I switched and now the computer does the math.”

What’s something Sheehan’s does that Kluver wishes he’d done long ago? A smaller menu. “When I first took over, we had this massive menu. I stuck with it for two, maybe three years. During COVID there were shortages on a lot of items. I had to take things off the menu.

“There are several benefits: we store less product, it’s easier to order and keep track of ingredients and it’s easier to be creative with what I have.”

Famous Peppers Inc. is steadily building its brand based on providing high-quality, locally sourced and made pizza and other dishes.

The popular pizzeria opened in December 2003 in Cardigan, P.E.I., and moved to Charlottetown in 2011. They later added a location in Montague – about 30 minutes’ drive – inside Bogside Brewing.

Operations officer David Mitchell shares their story. His father, Dan Mitchell, newly retired from the military, opened the first location in 2003 and David worked alongside his dad. David also served in the military for 11 years. His mother, Louise Mitchell and sister Jocelyne are involved in the business as well.

“Food quality is what we do well. We refuse to compromise on the quality of what we make our food with. It’s not an easy process to do things that way. People who work with us are very proud of what we do. Sauces are fresh, never frozen. Meats are cured on site. Smoked products smoked in Montague and packaged and sealed in Charlottetown., says Mitchell, who previously worked at chain pizzerias. “We didn’t just want the marketing to be the the differentiating factor. It’s a painstaking, arduous, expensive task but that’s the way they want to do it.”

“My parents have started stepping back. My sister is in New Zealand and her husband does our marketing. I do most of the day-to-day stuff and my office is at our Charlottetown location.”

They have developed several different brands – among them Pathfinder Foods, Crafter’s Smokehouse and BBQ and Khoaw Pon Authentic Thai.

They deliver to local schools. Last year they supplied healthy meals to eight schools in the Charlottetown and Cornwall area through the PEI School Food Program. “It’s been a really nice partnership run by a non-profit. It’s a service to the community to make sure every kid has access to healthy food.”

Famous Peppers’ top-selling items include the Cardigan – “our works pizza” – which features pepperoni, ground beef, ham, bacon, green peppers and red onions and their maple chicken featuring chicken, bacon, spinach, red onions, mozzarella and their house-made maple cream sauce. “It’s a little bit different and people really seem to like it.”

About the sauces: We’ve moved all of our sauces to be vegan- and vegetarian-friendly. Everything we make, we make here in our commissary. We make our own cashew-based vegan cheese from scratch using potatoes, carrots, cashews, garlic powder and nutritional yeast. Our garlic spread is made vegan.”

Meats are gluten-free and their menu items feature a simple ingredient list. “It’s something that people really appreciate.” They order in premade gluten-free crusts. “It’s hard to make them yourself,” Mitchell says, adding that the crusts are so good they’ve had to develop procedures to ensure staff distinguish between regular and gluten-free.

They love Charlottetown and the tight-knit province of P.E.I. “We have a lot of locals that support us. We don’t open a restaurant to cater to tourists. We’ve always catered to the local community.”

Recently they’ve been pleased to work with a local organic farmer organization, a distributor called Growers Station that supplies all local ingredients to restaurants across the province. Another trusted partner, Harvest Wholesale, provides them with the rest of their produce.

He describes the pizza as thin crust with a dough made with few ingredients: “We allow it to cold-proof and cook it on a pizza screen in a conveyor oven.”

They have about 60 team members including many long-term employees. “We try to treat everybody with respect. That’s how it works.”

This summer they are launching a bistro that will give their Charlottetown location a larger seating area – 75 to 100 seats – and allow them to serve pasta, sandwiches, coffee and baked goods.

In December Famous Peppers will celebrate their 20th anniversary. “We feel blessed and honoured that people care about what we do.”  

This article originally appeared in our sister magazine, Canadian Pizza.

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