Delivers on Their Commitment to Organic and Sustainability
By Kat Schuett
Is it possible to save the earth one pizza at a time?
According to the National Pizza Industry Organization, Americans eat approximately 350 slices of pizza per second, totaling over 100 acres of pizza consumed every day. Imagine how many acres of farmland could be converted to organic if the pizza-eating population switched to organic. Then imagine if each of these pizzas were made using alternative energy and delivered in hybrid vehicles.
How much carbon could we prevent from being released into our atmosphere and how many pollutants could we keep from entering the earth and our bodies just by eating a more sustainable slice?
This is the inspiration behind Pizza Fusion, the first organic, earth-savingpizza franchise in the United States. Coined as “pizza with a purpose,” the recipe for their eco-pie includes a long list of green initiatives ranging from company-owned hybrid delivery cars and a 75 percent organic menu to renewable wind energy certificates which offset 100 percent of their energy use. The list continues with eco-innovations such as dining tables made out of recycled bottles from their own restaurants, potato-derived biodegradable utensils, and “paper” plates made from bugasse, the fiber left over after sugar harvesting.
To top off the ultimate green pizza, Pizza Fusion just announced this fall that they will be making their commitment to organic official by becoming the first franchise to mandate USDA Organic certification in all their restaurants.
“It’s the best way for us to let our customers know that we stand behind the authenticity of our product. People look at that seal and they know that there are no chemicals in their food that will hurt them,” said Vaughn Lazar, president and co-founder. “It shows that we are willing to go to the extreme to ensure that our food is as healthy and safe as possible.”
In the short time since Pizza Fusion opened their first restaurant in Fort Lauderdale, Florida in 2006, the chain has grown to 15 locations throughout the country. Pizza Fusion has also become a leading green role model to businesses around the world. While this growth has not been without its challenges, it proves that consumers out there want healthier, ethically-conscious options and while pizza alone may not be able to save the world—a tasty pie can be a powerful platform for change.
Leading the Way to a Greener World One Slice at a Time
When Lazar and his co-founder Michael Gordon started Pizza Fusion, they were both feeling uninspired by their jobs and were looking to start a business based on principles instead of just profits. Organic was key to their plan and after seeing Whole Foods open up in Boca Raton with lines of people wrapping around the side of the store waiting to get in, they knew there was a market for it. And what better way to get people to try organic food than through one of their favorites? “Pizza is the best gateway food to introduce people to the green food movement. Who doesn’t like pizza?” Lazar said.
After that, it just became about building on that healthy and green foundation.
“Michael brought up the point that if we are going to deliver organic pizza, we have to do it in hybrids. Then it became a game to see who could come up with the next green idea. It still is,” Lazar said. “We didn’t get our degree in sustainability from Bainbridge University, but every time we were presented with a choice, we chose the path that made the most sense for us and the planet. There was no magic green bullet. It was just about making simple little choices that all add up.”
In addition to those already mentioned, the chain’s green choices include low-flow toilets that use 40 percent less water, lighting that reduces energy usage by 18 percent, 100 percent organic cotton uniforms and a custom-made heat exchanger that takes the heat generated by their pizza ovens and uses it to heat water. This is so effective they don’t even own separate hot water heaters.
And, Pizza Fusion’s list of earth-saving deeds is still being added to every day. The company even put out a press release that they were going to mandate LEED green building certification for all their franchises. However, after finding out that one franchisee in Houston, Texas would have to pay $40,000 to get the LEED plaque on their wall due to unregulated third-party consultant fees, they decided to change the mandate so that all the franchises were built to LEED specifications instead.
“I can still go to bed at night knowing that we are meeting the most rigorous environmental standards out there,” Lazar said.
Reaching out to the community. Outreach is also a big part of Pizza Fusion’s green efforts. Inspired by Home Depot’s free educational workshops, Lazar and Gordon developed a free monthly “Kids’ Organic Class,” where kids, ages six to 14, get to make pizza and learn about everything from the health and environmental benefits of organic to hybrid cars and alternative energy.
Pizza Fusion also helped put together the Green Festival in Florida, which is not traditionally a green state. Everywhere they go, they bring more awareness to the green movement, Lazar said.
“We’ve become local green heroes. People want to associate themselves with a company like this. They would rather spend a dollar with us because they know that they are part of a ripple effect and that the extra dollar they spend will go into the pocket of a small organic farmer,” he added.
One of Lazar’s favorite stories is about a customer who bought a Toyota Prius hybrid and then stopped by the restaurant to share the news. “We were the first ones he came to tell about his new hybrid. He was so proud. It’s really great to see that we are inspiring others to get excited about going green,” he said.
Setting the bar for green business. Pizza Fusion has also become a role model for green businesses and the owners have been featured keynote speakers for several eco-educational events. In fact, the webinars that they have done with the National Restaurant Association (NRA) have had some of the highest registered guest numbers out of any of the webinars NRA offers.
“It just goes to show that businesses are very interested in going green. Right now it is to save money, and many are mainly interested in data and how being green can make them more efficient, but it is a step in the right direction,” said Lazar.
Lazar said he and Gordon see themselves as a green resource and welcome any questions from other businesses.
“We really feel that we have a responsibility to share what we have learned,” he stated. “We won’t give you our pizza recipes, but we are happy to tell you where to get recycled jean insulation or where we get our biodegradable to-go containers.”
Breaking the Mold of Chain Restaurants
One of the ways Pizza Fusion is getting the word out about organic and sustainability is by growing their company. Not too long after they opened their first restaurant, Lazar and Gordon met Randy Ramano, a customer who had a franchising background. Soon they were working with him to put together a plan and just nine months after opening their first store, they signed on their first franchise.
“We didn’t want people to see us as the big bad chain restaurant coming to town, but we knew that if we really believed in this idea and wanted to see it grow, then the fastest way for us to do that was by franchising,” Lazar said. “The other alternative would be very capital-intensive and would have taken years longer to get to the point of growth that we have already experienced so far.”
Plus, Lazar commented, by franchising they can give other like-minded people an opportunity to own a business that they really believe in and be an active part in spreading the green movement. In fact, the company screens potential owners to ensure that they believe and value the company’s environmental mission. “You don’t need to come to us dipped in green, but you have to believe the mission is important. It can’t just be about making money—there are a million other business opportunities out there for that type of person.”
Supporting local communities. Another important aspect that differentiates Pizza Fusion from other chains is that each owner is encouraged to look for unique ways to localize their restaurant and make it a true reflection of their community. The corporate office supports this effort by sourcing produce from local farms, but the owners will also bring in things like local wines, cheeses, meats and other items to feature. Many owners also localize the décor. In Seattle, for example, the owners incorporated reclaimed wood from the floors of a local high school, which also happened to be Jimi Hendrix’s alma mater. They also found an old wind turbine at a junkyard and used it to drive in the alternative energy theme of the restaurant. Another franchisee used recycled wine bottles from a local winery to make dining room tables. Other owners develop a community feel by getting involved with local green events or bringing in local musicians to provide entertainment.
Another idea that Lazar would like to see in the future is a story wall at every location that tells each owner’s unique experience of how and why they got involved with Pizza Fusion. “We challenge owners to make it their Pizza Fusion. We don’t want them just telling our story all the time. They each have their own story of why this was important to them,” he said.
While owners are given lots of room for creativity, it is not exactly a free-for-all. Everything still must be approved by corporate to ensure that it fits with the organic and eco-friendly message of the brand and the established brand image (universal logos, colors, etc.). Franchisees must also meet certain requirements for green building based on LEED specifications—and now must also go through organic certification.
Organic Sourcing and Certification
Organic has always been a defining factor of Pizza Fusion, and now they are taking it to the next level by mandating certification. However, from ingredient sourcing to earning the USDA organic seal, the road to organic has not been a piece of cake (or should we say a piece of pizza).
Working out kinks in the organic supply chain. One of the biggest challenges for Pizza Fusion was a hurdle that many organic companies face—supply. For the first several months after opening Lazar and Gordon had to pay retail prices at Whole Foods and manage over 17 different supplier groups in order to get what they needed. One reason is that there were not many broadline organic and natural distributors, and the ones that they could find only made deliveries once a week. This wasn’t working. As a restaurant, they needed fresh produce delivered at least two to five times a week. Working with national conventional distributors was frustrating as well. “We’d ask for organic chicken and they would say, ‘What is the difference?’” Lazar said.
Then they found the Cheney Brothers, a regional broadline distributor based in Florida whose owner took a liking to Pizza Fusion and believed in what they were doing. Cheney Brothers not only worked to bring in items Pizza Fusion needed, but was inspired to create a green distribution department which now sells many eco-friendly products to other companies. The distributor has even started using biofuel in some of their trucks.
As Pizza Fusion expanded into other parts of the country, they began working with the American Distribution Alliance, a network of privately-owned regional distributors. They also now work with the Produce Marketing Association, which helps locate local produce distributors.
Working with these groups, Pizza Fusion is able to stay as local as possible and keep their carbon footprint to a minimum. And, instead of having to work with 17 individual suppliers like they did in the early days, they now only have an average of 5 distributors per restaurant.
Getting the seal. Pizza Fusion’s latest news is that their first location in Fort Lauderdale has successfully completed the organic certification process. This was no easy feat, though. “Due to the fact that certifying restaurants is still a relatively new process, there were a lot of details to sort out and a good amount of homework to do in order to verify certifications along the supply chain,” said Ashley Rathgeber, director of procurement. “All in all, it took almost an entire year to complete.”
Currently, restaurants and retailers who seek organic certification are certified as organic handlers. The product itself is not certified, but the ingredients and the handling procedures are all required to meet the National Organic Program standards. Rathgeber said the main changes they had to make revolved around protecting the integrity of the organic ingredients. For example, using separate cutting boards for organic and non-organic and testing rinse water to ensure that all sanitizers have been properly removed from anything that will come in contact with organic products. They have also had to change some ingredients such as salt. Most salt that is available in bulk has synthetic anti-caking agents, which are not allowed in organic foods. Another important step was making sure that the word “organic” was being used properly. Pizza Fusion cannot put the seal on their front door, but they can notate on the menu which items are organic. Currently they are working with their certifier to try to develop a color-coding system for the menu to make it even easier for the consumer to distinguish organic and non-organic items.
“It’s a lot of work to earn and maintain the organic certification, but it is worth it to us to show how far we are willing to go to protect our organic integrity. I’m really happy that we were able to become the first certified organic restaurant franchise,” Rathgeber said. “Hopefully it will inspire others to do the same.”
Indeed, Pizza Fusion has already inspired many and is sure to enlighten many more of us with each tasty bite as they continue toward their mission to save the world one organic, earth-lovin’ pizza at a time.
Kat Schuett is the editorial director for Organic Processing Magazine. You can reach her at email@example.com.