Restaurant years are way longer than dog years, which makes 2005 a long, long time ago in Tucson restaurant history—not the food-Precambrian, maybe, but certainly the deep Jurassic of local food consciousness. But 2005—the height of the real-estate bubble, the year that the first YouTube video went up—was when Steve and Renee Kreager, both just 27, opened the doors on a pioneering organic pizzeria at Tanque Verde Road and Sabino Canyon Road.
The Whole Foods on Speedway was still a Wild Oats, the local farmers’ markets were a fraction of their current size, and the food-truck round-up was a vague rumor from the Southern California coast. Children, it was another age.
But the Kreagers knew food, and they knew Tucson, having arrived in 1998 as a not-yet-married couple visiting family from the Detroit area on spring break.
“From the minute I saw Tucson, I loved it,” says Renee. “There’s a feeling to this place that I got immediately: You can be yourself here. And you matter.
“I felt I’d come home. Steve felt exactly the same way. So we moved.”
Warm, quick, and outgoing, Renee intended to be a psychiatrist—“I’m all about people and making relationships”—but had restaurant experience back in Michigan in a family-owned Lebanese place she’d loved. Once in Tucson, she got a job in an eastside café.
“The customers loved me, and I loved taking care of them. But I didn’t see myself in the food business forever,” she says.
The pizzeria that eventually became Renee’s Organic Oven would be born, organically enough, of her pregnancy with the couple’s son, Jeff, now 12.
A long-time vegetarian, Renee adopted an “exactingly organic diet” when she was pregnant. Three realizations came from her months of obsessively reading labels, tracking down trustworthy food sources, and preparing her own meals: One, she felt better than she ever had before in her life; two, sourcing pure, sustainably produced food required effort; and three, it was almost impossible to eat out.
The dining-out problem came to a head when family visited from the Midwest: Where could they all enjoy a meal together?
“I couldn’t believe that there wasn’t more pure food on Tucson tables,” Renee says. “I knew there had to be other people out there with the same frustration.”
The Kreagers were inspired to open a place that reflected their feelings about the quality and ethics of food, and their knack for making customers feel loved. Since Steve’s background was in pizza, a pizzeria was the natural choice. Still, the mission statement Renee wrote for their business plan was all about her desire to become an important part of what makes Tucson a community.
“My investor was, like, ‘Hey, from your mouth to God’s ear, but don’t you think there should be something in there about profit?’”
They opened in a small strip mall storefront with Renee running the front of house and Steve presiding over the kitchen. Nine years later, they’re in the same space, but food trends have caught up to the Kreagers’ vision. Renee’s is packed every day for both lunch and dinner, has 159 five-star reviews (at last count) from the fusspots on Yelp, and, in spite of its tiny footprint, grossed nearly a million dollars last year. But while the menu is several times its original size, nothing has really changed: The couple’s first employee still works for them, and every cook but one started out washing dishes. Steve’s mother currently works in the back.
“We are built on a steady staff that has remained committed to us and have made their way to where they want to be in our place.”
People are always telling her they should open another location.
“Oh no, we shouldn’t,” Renee says. “We spend time going physically to our vendors and picking up local goods and markets and storefronts, so we can’t be spread too thin. And I’m all about balance. I love my friends and family.”
In addition, expansion would entail risk: The cost for the ingredients the restaurant uses is high, and the Kreagers would risk spending too much by adding mass and multiple locations to the mix.
“More and more people want local, organic, humane, and sustainable—and good for them—but they don’t understand all that means. Our sourcing is intricate.”
Educating her customers about the ecosystem of Baja Arizona farmers, ranchers, beekeepers, brewers, wine-makers, cheese- and ice cream-makers, coffee roasters, tea importers, and other organic merchants supported by their dollars is a big part of her job, as she sees it.
“One of my suppliers told me that I pay more for chicken than anyone in Tucson except Janos. I am happy, and my true audience is happy, to pay for the highest quality ingredients and a living wage for our staff. My customers understand that when they’re in this little restaurant, they’re helping the whole ship sail.”
She refuses to argue or apologize for her prices—which move the occasional one-star Yelper to righteous, bargain-focused anger. But she and her staff are ready and able to explain the reasons behind the $30 16-inch pizza and the $6 4-ounce chicken breast.
“Food should cost more. Meat, particularly, is very precious. If you’re paying $2 for breakfast, what are you eating? If the guy who owns the place can charge you that, the way his ingredients are produced is disgraceful.
“If someone doesn’t see the value in our food once they’ve tasted it and we’ve answered their questions, well, they don’t. But our audience understands that we care about their food, and about this community, and about them. We run on a very small margin.”
Among the most fiercely loyal of Renee’s many devoted patrons are those with food allergies and intolerances. A couple of years in, the Kreagers decided to apply the same meticulous sensibility required to run an organic kitchen to producing gluten-free appetizers, sandwiches, salads, and pizzas—and one supplier told her that she was using more gloves than the Arizona Inn. Since then, with input from the Celiac Association, they’ve simplified processes by setting up a separate, gloves-only, gluten-free line and adding extra staff to make the two lines work. So far they’ve sold 12,000 gluten-free pies.
“Eating organic and local is a preference; people with food allergies and intolerances have a need,” she says.
But it’s not all clean living and higher consciousness at Renee’s. The restaurant fields a selection of organic beer and wine, and, thanks to Renee’s input, the bar makes a mean cocktail.
“There’s got to be fun, right? We keep thinking about what we’re going to do next, what our customers would like to try and we’d do really well. For a while, Steve and I have been batting around the idea of breakfast, and a contest between my ideal breakfast and his. In my corner, homemade granola and goat-cheese yogurt. In his, gravy with house-made sausage and biscuits. We’ll see which sells the most.”
Renee sits back with her coffee and smiles. “I like to think that we’ve brought the feel of the whole city in here. It’s not perfect. It’s never perfect. But lots of days, it’s beautiful.” ✜
Renee’s Organic Oven. 7065 E. Tanque Verde Road. 520.886.0484. ReneesOrganicOven.com.
Renée Downing has been eating and writing in Tucson for nearly 40 years.