Analog Eating

Ari Shapiro, owner of Sparkroot, Falora, and Sidecar, is the conductor at the podium, orchestrating an unplugged eating experience.

May 9, 2015

In the BusinessIssue 12: May/June 2015
To make wood-fired pizza, first you need wood. The pizzas at Falora, owned by Ari Shapiro, are baked at 750 degrees.

To make wood-fired pizza, first you need wood. The pizzas at Falora, owned by Ari Shapiro, are baked at 750 degrees.

You have a coffee shop, a pizza place, and a neighborhood bar where everybody knows everybody’s name. How did you get into such diverse businesses?

Originally I was going to pursue a career in music, to satisfy my creative side. Then I was going to study law, for my intellectual side. But what I really loved was food, and the way it creates meaningful experiences on a personal level. When I first moved to Tucson, I started Xoom Juice and really enjoyed the food aspect even though the menu was limited. I also loved the personal interaction it provided me.

But I was itching for something more. A developer friend had this great space on Fifth and Congress with 25-foot ceilings. That space became Sparkroot Coffee Bar.

With Falora, it was all about Italy. I was always going to retire somewhere in a small town and cook pizzas for the rest of my life. I had the opportunity to grab a space in Broadway Village where the arched brick and windows actually reminded me of the mouth of an oven.

Sidecar bar happened because I loved what was happening on the west side of Broadway Village. There are five historic, beautiful neighborhoods with multiple generations of Tucsonans that live in that area. Sidecar is a place where they can gather and enjoy each other.

Tell me about the menus.

For Sparkroot, I brought Blue Bottle coffee in from San Francisco … they’re such pioneers in organic and sustainable trade farming. We went with a pretty strong food program, too. I’m a vegetarian but I love cheese. Instead of meats, I thought: Let’s do really interesting cheeses for sandwiches. We bring in cheeses from all over the world like Welsh cheddar and smoked Galician from Spain.

Falora’s hand-made pizzas are baked at 750 degrees in a hand-built Napoli brick oven fueled only with wood. The crusts are made with Caputo 00 flour that’s lower in gluten than most. And then there are the incredible salads crafted by my wife, Kerry Lane. She’s a vegan chef, trained at Tree of Life in Patagonia. What she can do with vegetables always amazes me, and our customers. It’s an incredible palette of creativity.

What are your biggest food influences?

I’ve been to Italy four times and the way they eat has always appealed to me. They think of food as high art, but in a more humble way. It’s very tactile, analog. My greatest memories are of grabbing a loaf of bread, a hunk of cheese, and a bottle of Chianti. Or a slice of pizza in New York.

Real pleasure comes from eating simply and eating simple foods. All you need to live are grains and greens. And cheese. That’s my food philosophy.

How does each location contribute to its distinctive success?

With Sparkroot, it’s very tied into the location. I’ve been asked to open more stores in other parts of town, but downtown is what makes it work. I love when I walk in and it’s been taken over by students and business people. There’s such creativity downtown. It’s so transparent, with windows everywhere. Wherever you are, you can see Congress and Fifth. You can touch the Hotel Congress sign.

With Falora and Sidecar, as much as I love downtown, I also think it’s important that central Tucson has cool, hip spots as well. And as a cycling nut, everything midtown has to be pedal-accessible.

How involved are you in choosing the menus for your restaurants?

I do what I call executive chef-ing. I have the overarching vision. But the people who are in charge have the creative control. I’m like the conductor at the podium.

How involved is your wife in the menus?

Very. Before she was my wife, she was instrumental in helping me develop the greens program for Falora. She originally applied to be a service person at Sparkroot. I told her she was way over-qualified but that I was also opening this wood-fired pizza place. I asked her to develop the greens program. The whole city talks about her salads. The pizzas are amazing but the salads even more so.

What foods do you source locally?

It’s important to us to be local, using foods that come from Mexico, California, and especially Arizona. We have a strong relationship with Sleeping Frog Farms. They’re doing particularly great things with a size that’s interesting–75 acres. Every week they send us a list of what they have, we choose what we want, and we create a pizza and salad off of those ingredients. People really respond to that.

Sparkroot cheeses come from all over and the coffee comes from California.

Southern Arizona, like all of the Southwest, is in the midst of a drought. How do your businesses help keep the environment healthy?

I think the biggest potential calamities the world faces are limited resources, like water and food. It’s exaggerated here. But we can all leave smaller footprints. We encourage cycling with our staff and with our customers. If you bike or walk to Sparkroot or Falora, we give you a coupon for your next visit. Having restaurants that are vegetarian is also very important. The water table and the water supply is being sucked dry by the cattle industry. America’s obsession with meat is causing a great deal of damage.

And we don’t encourage people to be gluttons. We don’t try to up-sell food. Our philosophy is simple: Come in and eat what feels good.

I hear you have something new brewing. Can you tell me about that?

Well, I could tell but then … well you know the rest. Suffice it to say that when my wife and I were hiking last summer, I had the strangest craving for a burger and fries. And I’m vegetarian! But that sparked some ideas. We did some research and we think we might have something very unique. Look for it at the end of this year.

Lorin Michel is a freelance writer, relatively new to Tucson, who plans to spend a great deal of time indulging her love of pizza, coffee, and cocktails.

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