Welcome to Lifers, an Eater series focusing on the men and women that have spent most of their professional lives working in the restaurant industry. In honour of Pizza Week, Eagranie Yuh, amateur dough-slinger and author of The Chocolate Tasting Kit interviews Suzanne Fielding of the Rocky Mountain Flatbread Co.
This week, to celebrate pizza week we'd like to salute the folks who laid the foundation for Vancouver's thriving pizza scene. In 2004, Suzanne and Dominic Fielden launched Rocky Mountain Flatbread Company in Canmore, Alberta. Since moving to Vancouver in 2006, they've expanded to two locations in Vancouver. You can also find their frozen pizzas in some supermarkets. Suzanne chatted with Eater about a decade in pizza.
How has the Vancouver culinary scene—and in turn, the pizza scene—changed over the years?
When we came to Vancouver [in 2006], there wasn't much awareness in relation to local food and sustainability, whereas now, local food, urban farmers, sustainable seafood, sustainable ways of doing business are pretty normal. We were one of the founding members of Ocean Wise and Green Table. If you look at how prominent the local food movement is today, that's the most significant change.
What does an average day look like?
[Laughs.] I don't think there is an average day. It is quite an unpredictable business. I can do anything. We're also an education society, so [in the morning] I'll be using seeds in the school garden, teaching kids how to grow food and eat healthy snacks. And then I'm in the lunch rush on the [restaurant] floor, then in the dish pit doing dishes, then doing my marketing stuff and social media. It's quite varied everyday, which is good.
Tell me more about your education society.
We have a team of nutritionists and urban farmers and go into schools and teach students how to grow food and harvest it. We have relationships with Tennyson and Trafalgar schools that we've had for six, eight years. That allows for real change in habits with parents, teachers and kids with regard to what they eat and how to eat more healthy snacks.
Your website says you want to change the world "one slice of pizza at a time." That's a pretty bold statement.
We wanted to set up a business that could create positive change in the community, not just say that we survived and made some good money. We buy local as much as possible: flours from Anita's, local meat, urban produce. We get big tubs of produce—we don't even know what's coming in—and our chef's job is to make a special out of that. Restaurants are notorious for throwing a lot of food out, so we created a very integrated menu. The specials board helps give us the flexibility to have zero waste. And we compost everything in Vancouver. In the back of our Kitsilano restaurant, we'll compost everything right there, and we have a vertical growing system for mushrooms, sprouts, basil, arugula.
What are some of the challenges in your commitment to local and sustainable?
I say the biggest challenge is, with any business, it's actually making everything balance and coming out with a profit. There are so many opportunities to invest in things, and you want to invest in everything and you simply can't. And we're a family restaurant so we sell more kids' pasta plates than we sell beer. That's a huge challenge for us—to be able to cater for families, invest in sustainable practices, buy local food, and make everything balance at the end of the day. But it's doable.
You and your husband were originally corporate trainers. How did you end up in the pizza business?
I have no idea! For over 10 years I was a corporate trainer and coach to executives and big organizations in England. My husband's grandparents were hoteliers, so he grew up in hotels and hospitality. We wanted to create our own brand that stood for values around sustainability and family, and asked ourselves, what food business should we go into that's notoriously bad, or that people eat a lot of, and how can we create it in a way that's more healthy and nutritious? We landed on pizza.
Does your corporate training background apply to pizza?
In the pizza industry, you're putting together a team of people from a lot of different backgrounds, and especially in the restaurant business, there are a lot of egos. You face challenges every day in service, so teamwork is really important. And customers and diners—they might have had the most terrible day or the best day ever. How do you deal with customers coming from all those different situations? How do you allow your staff to be able to deal with it? My training has been invaluable.
What's the key to a great pizza?
If you're using really fresh, local produce and it's seasonal, that to me is the perfect pizza. And when the people that are making it really care and they're using their creativity to put the flavours together. Our farmers' market pizza changes about three times a week and it's whatever is coming in. It's by far my favourite pizza and it's our best-selling pizza.
And you have a gluten-free pizza crust now?
Yes, and it's so good that a lot of our staff and customers [who are not gluten-free] will say, actually, I'll have the gluten-free crust today. We also do a whole-wheat sprouted grain crust, made with Anita's flour.
What has been your biggest surprise over the years?
I couldn't have predicted the gluten-free thing, and when we opened I didn't realize we'd be so much a family restaurant. It's been a huge success, and how it came together with the local produce, relationships with local farmers, craft beer and the whole sustainability movement in Vancouver…it's a really pleasant surprise that gives me hope for the world.