Canadian Pizza Magazine

Morris East heads high-end in Halifax

By Julie Fitz-Gerald   

Features Profiles

Local artisanal cheeses, charcuterie, delicious cocktails and wood fired
gourmet pizza: Morris East is the creative vision of Halifax native
Jennie Dobbs, and it’s taking the city’s pizza upmarket.

Local artisanal cheeses, charcuterie, delicious cocktails and wood fired gourmet pizza: Morris East is the creative vision of Halifax native Jennie Dobbs, and it’s taking the city’s pizza upmarket. This intimate, 37-seat neighbourhood restaurant with exposed brick walls and unique design elements is a long way from Dobbs’ financial career in the United Kingdom. Having done well in the finance industry but always yearning for cooking school, Dobbs decided to shift gears in 2007 and follow her heart back to her hometown of Halifax.

Former financier Jennie Dobbs 
Former financier Jennie Dobbs caught the pizza bug. Now she’s got a second location underway and a new cookbook about to be released. 


 

Within four weeks of being home, Dobbs found a retail space and a mentor to help her navigate the world of food service.

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Her vision was simple: “I wanted to have a little creative neighbourhood restaurant. I really wanted everything to be small, but beautiful and delicious; some really great wines but not a huge wine list, great pizzas, delicious desserts, fun cocktails and delicious starters.”

As it turns out, pizza lovers were eager to try Morris East’s thin-crust pie. The response was incredible, said Dobbs, and it led to the opening of a second, larger location in the Bedford West suburb of Halifax. The new 100-seat location opened Aug. 1 and boasts an open exhibition kitchen, wine bar and dedicated take-out centre.

“This is the next genesis of the business,” she said. “I started to realize that pizza in the suburbs was very fast food oriented and, with the growing food culture across Canada, that potentially people wanted a pizza product that wasn’t from the typical fast food chain.”

Morris East has tapped into the growing trend of upscale pizza, but has stayed true to its Nova Scotia roots, garnering loyal customers who have been driving the business. Featuring local ingredients and placing an emphasis on customer service has proved to be a winning combination.

“Everything we do is focused on customer service,” she said. “I think that we try to embody restaurateur Danny Myers from New York and his philosophy on enlightened hospitality. We try to embody that enlightened hospitality by putting our customers first in every decision and in every meal we serve them.”

Dobbs has a talented staff that understands the importance of customer service, many of which joined Morris East when it first opened its doors in 2007. Attesting to the level of customer satisfaction delivered in the restaurant, Taste of Nova Scotia recently presented its annual Prestige Awards and Morris East’s own Amber MacLean clinched the win for Server of the Year. 

As part of taking its customer service to the next level, Dobbs recently rolled out the new Morris East app. Customers can download the app from iTunes. The Morris East app and online ordering system was developed by Chow Now, a California-based company that agreed to use Dobbs as its first beta tester here in Canada, much to her delight.

Dobbs’ entrepreneurial spirit and constant quest to continually one-up her restaurant’s customer service has garnered attention from those around her. Dobbs was nominated for the RBC Canadian Woman Entrepreneur Awards in 2010, 2011 and 2012, and was a finalist in the 2012 Ernst & Young Atlantic Entrepreneur of the Year in the hospitality/tourism category. Being recognized in this way has been a boost of encouragement for Dobbs.

“It means a lot, because I think it’s a really challenging job; there’re a lot of daily challenges that you face. It feels really good to be acknowledged for it and it does make you want to do better. You wake up feeling encouraged to do a better job and it confirms that you’re on the right track.”

At the heart of it all is an unbridled passion for food. In an effort to continue tempting taste buds, Dobbs changes about 30 per cent of her menu with the seasons, although this is becoming increasingly difficult to do with her regulars’ favourite dishes. Dobbs also manages to make 10 per cent changes every day to menu items like flatbreads, ice cream and charcuterie.

“I look at what new products we have access to at different times of the year, as well as cheeses, sausages, other trends, and new interesting flavours that we might be interested in trying. Around the holidays we also do a holiday menu. This year we’re doing a red wine-braised short rib pizza with caramelized onions, house-made cranberry sauce, a chiffonade of brussels sprouts and Gruyère.”

With Dobbs’ passion for food in full bloom, she is set to release her first cookbook, A la Mode. The book, slated for publication in 2014 by Nimbus Publishing in Halifax, will focus on pies and tarts that are both savoury and sweet, and will also highlight craft beer and local wine to complement her dishes. “I’m trying to update it for modern tastes, giving a modern flair to traditional recipes,” she explains.

With her second location in full swing, a new app and online ordering campaign rolling out, and a cookbook on the way, Dobbs has no shortage of exciting things to keep her busy. She said her goal now is to hunker down and perfect her role as restaurateur.

“My focus now is to become a really good operator. I think that we do a fantastic job at serving food with exceptional customer service to the highest standard, but I really want to make sure that I’m as operationally efficient as possible. In a lot of ways I felt like I went from being a small little independent restaurant to being an HR manager because there was so much staff. I’m working through it by hiring and trying to evolve the team, putting in a little more structure around HR, and getting good policies in place.”

Dobbs has successfully tapped into the trifecta of successful trends and practices: outstanding local foods, exceptional customer service and a sound operating strategy. For this business-savvy Nova Scotian, the sky is the limit.


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