Deep in the Heart of Texas
Cane Rosso wins 2017 Independent Pizzeria of the Year title
We first visited Cane Rosso about five years ago, when owner Jay Jerrier had one unit in Dallas’ up-and-coming Deep Ellum neighborhood. That store opened during a famous ice storm in February 2011; fast-forward a few years, and the company has since expanded to nine stores throughout Texas with a New York-style pizzeria, Zoli’s, bringing East Coast red sauce game to the area this fall.
Jerrier, a former tech employee, first launched his company as a pizza truck before finding a brick-and-mortar location in a newly gentrified Dallas neighborh
ood. In 2012, an episode of Guy Fieri’s “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” featured the restaurant and Jerrier says his business took off –– with a 40-percent jump in sales.
After the show aired, Jerrier felt successful enough to open a second restaurant. Since then, the company has amassed sales of about $16 million, earning it Pizza Today’s coveted Independent Pizzeria of the Year award.
“It’s one thing to go from one (store) to two where you can kind of leverage the same staff,” Jerrier says. “When you start to get busier and busier, now we’re kind of a ‘big boy’ company. In fact, our company is bigger than some of the tech firms I used to work for in terms of numbers of employees and revenues (and) the scope. One to two was not so bad, but with eight now and two under construction, we’ve learned a lot along the way. I was a generic corporate drone for 21 years, and there were two things I took away from there: what gets measured gets managed, and we put a lot of infrastructure to kind of keep track of things. I quickly learned to hire people to make your life easier, not harder. We brought on good people, and we’ve been able to build a really good team in the last five years.”
Cane Rosso wasn’t Jerrier’s first foray into restaurant ownership, however. A decade ago, he had been a partner in the now defunct Campania brand, which itself had earned our Independent Pizzeria of the Year award at the time. “I was an investor, and I wasn’t working there every day,” Jerrier says. “All those are closed now, and it’s kind of a cautionary tale about being undercapitalized and (having) too many partners, and I joke that I learned what not to do. I worked there, and I saw what I wanted to do, and that’s how Cane Rosso was born.”
At the heart of Cane Rosso are its ovens –– massive customized wood-burning ovens that sit prominently in each location. “When we first opened Cane Rosso, we kind of knew that these ovens that came from Italy were amazing pieces,” Jerrier says. “They’re equipment, but they’re the heart of the restaurant. They’re beautiful, and we really wanted to feature them. In our very first restaurant, we said we’re going to put the oven out in the middle of the floor so people can watch and we wanted to build a seating bar around the oven so people can sit and talk to the pizza guys and watch them make pizza. The Neapolitan pizza, it’s a really fascinating process. It’s three minutes from the time the guy takes the dough out until the pizza comes out of the oven. … Stretch it, top it and cook it –– it’s about a 75-, 80 -, 90-second bake time at 900 degrees. We think that’s just fascinating. Kids like to line up at the bar and watch how fast their pizzas come out.
“Stefano Ferrara in Naples builds almost all our ovens. We have them build them (in Italy), he puts them on a boat and ships them over here. It’s about 30 days to build, 30 days to ship depending on customs and then dragging them up here. Luckily for us, they come into Houston, so it’s reasonably quick. Once we get them, it takes about 10 days to cure, burning fires every day until you dry out the oven from all the water. It’s pretty fascinating to watch because you don’t realize how much water they use in shaping the bricks and putting everything together. As you dry it out, the water leaches out and by then it’s totally dry. You have to be really careful not to build the fire too high or you’ll crack the bricks. It’s a delicate piece. There’s no moving parts, no gas –– each one is a very unique piece. Each restaurant has its own oven that’s decorated differently. No two are alike.”
The latest Cane Rosso under construction will be at the Dallas Cowboys training facility, and they have a top-secret reveal planned for that unit’s oven.
“We have plentiful Texas oak here,” Jerrier says. “It’s usually white or red oak. There are a lot of barbecue places in Texas and they all need wood, so we use that, too.”
Jerrier admits its difficult to find pizza makers who have wood-fired experience in Texas. The domes on his ovens are low and they don’t use any form of gas, so training is imperative.
“We’re generally a pretty high-volume restaurant,” he says. “It’s one thing to be able to cook one or two pizzas at a time. When you have to do five, or six or even seven at a time … it’s a long process, but some of our best pizza guys have started off as dishwashers. They’ve risen up through the ranks.”
Jerrier says tossing the dough up in the air –– somewhat of a staple move for display kitchens –– is nearly impossible with Cane Rosso’s dough, which he admits is difficult to work with. “We do a 30-hour ambient-temperature proof, and we don’t refrigerate it. It’s really soft, and really sticky. It’s hard to throw around, because it will tear. You have to be very gentle with it.
“I always tell people (we’re) kind of like a football team. You’re trying to find skilled positions (like hiring) a wide receiver, or a quarterback, not just some guy to do heavy lifting. And it’s a very skilled position. It’s a ton of work. You’ve got guys (who say) ‘Well, I can make a dollar less an hour at Domino’s where I can just put a pizza on a conveyor belt and I don’t have to work that hard’ versus here, where on a Friday or Saturday night the guys who are working are beasts. It’s amazing to watch them work.
“Nobody who works here makes minimum wage. (The company employs about 40 to 50 people per store.) Anybody you hire who’s making minimum wage, they’re looking for another job. And here they work hard and they hustle and we do want to get them on board. … We pay a higher wage, but we have higher expectations.”
Labor costs run around the industry average of 30 to 32 percent, “but we hire guys who work hard,” Jerrier says.
Out of those massive ovens comes an extensive menu helmed by master pizzaiolo and executive chef Dino Santonicola, who hails from Naples and has been with Cane Rosso nearly since its inception. “From the very beginning, I tried to bring in people I knew could help get me there,” Jerrier says, adding that he’d drop his kids off at school and be at the restaurant until 1:30 or 2 a.m. During Cane Rosso’s early days, Jerrier was doing most of the prep and cooking himself. He hired Santonicola, and soon after his director of operations, Megan Santonicola, who met and married her husband while working for the company. The Santonicolas took over operations of the Dallas/Fort Worth stores. Jerrier has a separate team, Joe Gibbons and Jonathan Jones, operating Houston, Austin and South Texas. “Because we do so much volume, it’s too hard to have that span of control for both,” Jerrier says.
Although the company has multiple units, they’re still making everything on site at each store. Dine-in accounts for 80 percent of sales. Delivery makes up just a small percentage of the company’s business.
Says Jerrier: “We looked at doing a commissary, but for us like in Dallas, the ‘cow was out of the barn.’ We had five restaurants and they all had kitchens. It would help from a consistency standpoint to control things a little better, but at this point, we just haven’t pulled the trigger yet” due to high real estate costs in Dallas, where it’s hard to justify the cost of the build-out when employees are already trained in-house.
Most importantly, dough is still made at each store, and it has evolved since our last visit to Cane Rosso, Jerrier says. “I was lazy, and I wasn’t skilled. We would do a refrigerated proof and the dough was cold. We’d put it in the oven, just because it was easier to stretch. Now, we’ll mix it by batch, ball it up and let it proof at room temperature with tiny amounts of yeast so it develops a lot of flavor. It’s sticky and soft, so it’s really hard to work with, but I think it makes better pizza.”
Cane Rosso goes through so much dough that it is able to get private-label flour and they have their own Italian tomatoes. “We hand-mill the tomatoes with a food mill and salt and that’s it,” Jerrier says. “We make our cheese from curd. It’s a lot of work. That’s our highest turnover position. Those guys have to keep their hands in 180-degree water to stretch that cheese.”
Jerrier admits there are a lot of ways to cut corners in the pizza business, “but it results in a product that’s not as good,” he says.
Cane Rosso’s food costs run around 19 to 21 percent. Making so much in house, how do they keep that cost down? “We sell primarily pizza,” Jerrier says. “Even though we use high-end ingredients and we’re making Neapolitan pizza, we’re not putting stuff edge to edge. In a wood oven, even when we use good salumi, it’s better to cut it really thin. … While we put lots of toppings on, and they’re good toppings, the way we cut them and the way we use them –– when you’re making pizza, they should be low.”
Cheese is the company’s No. 1 expense, and Jerrier says they save nearly $2 a pound by making their own.
“Even though the Italian flour is more expensive than some American flours, it’s still not particularly expensive, and we can get a huge yield out of a bag,” Jerrier explains. “Our doughball may cost us 20-something cents, and a Margharita pizza, fully loaded, probably costs us $1.25 to make, and we sell it for $13. It’s our number two-selling pizza.”
Cane Rosso’s bestseller isn’t even on their menu. The secret menu “Honey Bastard” is a white pizza with mozzarella, hot soppressata, bacon marmalade jam and drizzled with housemade hot habañero honey when it comes out of the oven. “It’s No. 1 at every restaurant in every part of Texas,” Jerrier says. “It’s kind of one of those things that’s taken on a life of its own.”
The Margharita is also popular, but so too is the Luana, which is made with sausage, hot soppressata, mushrooms, San Marzano tomatoes and housemade mozzarella. All pizzas are 14 inches and prepared VPN style, proving that everything in Texas doesn’t have to be bigger to be better.
Surprisingly, the Brussels sprouts appetizer (Brussels sprouts with pancetta, straciatella, Pecorino Romano, shaved almonds and a balsamic reduction) is a heavy hitter, and Jerrier calls cauliflower the “it” veggie of this season. They make burrata in house as we
ll, and change it seasonally simply by changing what they serve it with. Fried mozzarella just made its way onto the menu and is also selling well.
The restaurants had offered beer and wine in the past, but a full bar with signature cocktails is a relatively new addition for Cane Rosso as their respective cities made it easier to get liquor licenses. At the high end, liquor accounts for around 25 percent of sales, but “we’re not open late, late hours. We close at 11, even on Fridays and Saturdays. We’re not a drinking bar,” Jerrier says. Texas has a great craft-beer scene and signature drinks sell well, but Jerrier is working on his wine list to be more accessible for patrons. “Most people just settle on something and we don’t want them doing that,” he says.
As Jerrier and his investors expanded throughout Texas, “we kind of used a Nautilus approach to growth,” Jerrier says. “We started in Dallas proper and we kind of spiraled out. We went to White Rock first, which is only seven miles from our first location. Then the third one was Fort Worth, which is 30 miles away. The fourth was Fairview, which was our first suburban one. It’s still about 30 miles away.”
Jerrier calls Dallas “provincial,” meaning that residents tend to stay in their respective areas. That’s good for Cane Rosso because the restaurants don’t cannibalize each other. And as young professionals get married and move out of the city into the suburbs, there’s probably a Cane Rosso nearby, giving the company continued name recognition.
One of the biggest challenges Jerrier has faced is regional preference. Folks in Houston aren’t big fans of Dallas, so launching a company that was based in Dallas was challenging. But hiring a local –– Johnson –– and creating a menu specifically designed for Houston –– with pastas, more vegetables and some Gulf seafood –– has helped Cane Rosso thrive in Houston. Three units opened within a five-month window, which Jerrier admits put a strain on capital and human resources.
“We’re finally getting our feet under us in those locations,” he says. “Whereas the Cane Rossos in Dallas are stable and going gang busters within 90 days of opening, it’s a little longer on the outside markets.”
The newest location –– located near the Dallas Cowboys training facility –– will bring in tourists and locals alike. “We’ve got our hands full for the rest of ’17 with the opening of two restaurants,” Jerrier says. “We’re continuing to get Austin and Houston where we want them. I think for ’18, we’re going to start looking for opportunities for ’19. We’ll have 10 operating units –– plus three ice cream units, which is a company we bought at the end of 2016. We are going to continue to roll those out. We try to tag them close to our units. … Once we prove we can stably operate within the state of Texas –– we think we have documented systems and a lot of the infrastructure that can support a little bit farther reach –– in 2019 I’d like to see us go outside of Texas. We get calls all the time from people wanting us to open one here or there. We’re not going to New York or places like that where it’s super crowded. We’re set up to franchise, but we haven’t. We have a franchise program, but we haven’t offered it to anybody. We’re just not ready to do that yet. … We should exit this year at $22 or $23 million. Kind of our roadmap is let’s get to $50 (million) and see what happens.”
After developing Cane Rosso’s full-service brand to the point that it is ready for expansion, what’s next for purveyor Jay Jerrier? The rebirth of a traditional New York-style concept called Zoli’s that Jerrier had opened but shuttered after his former landlord decided to redevelop the land.
Jerrier, whose Neapolitan concept earned our 2017 Independent Pizzeria of the Year award, grew up on the East Coast and had a staff member who’d been making traditional pizza for more than 30 years. Dreaming up Zoli’s gave them the opportunity to play with square pies, garlic knots and different offerings not found at Cane Rosso. “We joke about it,” he says. “We say if you hate Cane Rosso, you’ll love Zoli’s.”
Why not just stick with the Neapolitan pizza that has brought Jerrier success? “Partly
because we love that style of pizza,” he says. “Neapolitan pizza is really divisive. A lot of people say ‘you know, this pizza sucks. There’s not enough toppings. It’s too wet.’ We wanted to make the kind of pizza that we love, too.”
Zoli’s uses a deck oven, and they’re playing with stromboli and Sicilian pies. “Everything that you can’t get (at Cane Rosso), you can get here.”
Mandy Wolf Detwiler is managing editor at Pizza Today.