In the Kitchen
Putting the pizzazz in pizza
By Bruce Sach
By Bruce Sach
To understand the success behind Piz’za-za Restaurant and Wine Bar in
Gatineau, Que., it helps to get to know the fellow behind it.
|François Fortier, the adventurer behind the successful Piz’za-za Restaurant and Wine Bar in Quebec.|
To understand the success behind Piz’za-za Restaurant and Wine Bar in Gatineau, Que., it helps to get to know the fellow behind it.
François Fortier is a bon vivant, a down-to-earth guy and an adventurer. And like many successful businessmen, he is an outsider who picked up a lot of impressions and experiences long before he ever dreamt of running a pizza restaurant.
The way François tells it, his first experience with great pizza occurred in Italy, where he and his brother ended up missing a ferry boat and camping at Anacapri. Their first taste of great Italian, thin-crusted pizza happened the next day soon after local hunters found them camping on their hunting grounds!
When François returned to Montreal, he searched for that same great pizza he had discovered in Italy. He did find it, and slowly created his own ultimate pizza scenario in his mind.
By the time he settled in Gatineau (then still called Hull), he had started in the restaurant business. He then went on to create a very well known restaurant and bar called Le Café 4 Jeudis. This funky place, officially a brasserie, became an institution on Laval Street in Old Hull and after 32 years is still going strong.
Laval Street took off and became the place to go as many restaurants and bars eventually made their home on the street. It became the trendy place to be for local Québécois and nearby Ottawa residents, not to mention the thousands of federal civil servants who toiled away in nearby office towers.
Then the world shifted. In the 1990s, the federal government began downsizing and many the civil servant found himself counting his pennies, if not his days.
Enter François, who saw opportunity where others saw despair.
Reasoning that civil servants would still be willing to pay for a good restaurant, but all the while respecting the trend of downsizing, he opened his Piz’za-za Restaurant and Wine Bar in 1994. He listened to his clients’ pocketbooks and to their evolving palates to arrive at a decidedly upscale pizza place with reasonable prices.
“It not only filled a void, it created an ambiance, and not just a product. At a two-for-one, people leave with a box,” says Fortier.
|Fortier’s servers undergo regular sommelier training.|
All the ideas he’d been nurturing came bubbling to the surface. Out came the thin crusts and the sparse toppings. Out came the fresh salads and the wine pairings. And, catching on to a growing trend in Quebec and throughout Canada, out came the use of local, terroir products, the finishing touch in a eclectic space with tons of ambiance.
In the beginning, it was word-of-mouth recommendations that made the difference. Today, with the Internet, special events are advertised well in advance.
The Special of the Day, an enduring tradition, includes a healthy salad and slice of pizza, for $12.75 ($11.75 Monday through Wednesday). Not much more expensive than a fast food place – but what a difference in food quality and experience.
And, as François is quick to point out: “A nice glass of wine is pizza’s best friend. And if you have two or three glasses, you definitely need something to eat.”
Servers at the Piz’za-za Restaurant and Wine Bar are knowledgeable about wines and the best pairings for their wide choice of pizzas. They undergo sommelier training on a regular basis. The wines being offered are available at local liquor stores and carry affordable price tags so the client can discover a great wine and easily find it afterwards.
Since two new pizzas are introduced every week, servers really have to know their wines. That is why they go undergo the regular training. The markup is not high. And as Fortier wisecracks: “We don’t like dusting our bottles.”
To make sure that the new pizzas will be met with approval, the restaurant has a system that allows clients to influence the menu through the website. Then, “it becomes a win/win situation,” explains Fortier. “Clients buy what they like, what they’ve told us they like. We understand trends better.”
By following customers, rather than leading them, Piz’za-za evolves at the same pace as its clientele. With this restaurant being in Quebec, there is a huge interest in using local terroir products. They are fresher, use less energy in transport and support the local economy. Capitalizing on the consumer interest in local goods, the menu features exotic pizzas using toppings that have included grain-fed smoked chicken from Gatineau’s Ferme Saveurs des Monts, smoked trout from Chelsea Boucanerie, lamb sausage from the Upper Gatineau River area and feta cheese made by Greek Orthodox nuns at a convent near Mont-Tremblant called Le Troupeau Bénit (The Holy Herd).
Sound too eclectic to be successful? There’s more.
In the upstairs part of the restaurant is a special place that can be divided into two or kept as a large room. Wine tastings hosted by the restaurant occur here regularly during the winter months and special, hard-to-find wines are brought in. It’s educational and includes special menus and cheese tastings. This allows new activities to take place without disturbing the ambiance and feeling for the regular crowd. Classes in wine tasting offered by independent bodies also happen and the whole operation makes its way onto a terrace behind the restaurant in the summer.
Fortier doesn’t skimp on the quality of materials he uses. Using the example of the “grain-fed smoked chicken, he explains: “We’re talking grams here. For the toppings we can afford to provide the best. We use eight different cheeses and the top grade of mozzarella.”
Everything is made in house, from the salads to the dough and all the toppings. Clients expecting fast food might be disappointed as quality takes time, however, guests can always nurse a great wine or beer from a Québécois microbrewery while they wait.
Fortier has made it a priority to ensure his staff is well trained and looked after. Managers and servers alike have stayed on for decades, with some servers taking time off to start a family, only to later return to the restaurant. Team-building activities occur
regularly and guess where the staff goes on Labour Day? The restaurant closes and everyone is invited to go camping! Between 85 and 95 per cent of the staff participate.
There is also room for advancement, as Fortier’s brasserie, going strong after 32 years, is open for transfers.
Fortier believes Piz’za-za’s location on Laval Street, just minutes from downtown Ottawa and the wilderness of Gatineau Park, reflects the way of living in the area. Customers can go cycling or cross-country skiing (depending on the season) in the morning and be back early to continue their day. “It’s a healthy lifestyle, and one that demands quality, healthy products.”
Fortier lives the lifestyle. An avid cyclist and cross-country skier, he is one of those locals who’ll go for a morning cross-country run or cycling adventure to start his day. He is also a local who brought his passion for fresh, high-quality ingredients to Italian-inspired pizza eaten in ambiance at an affordable price – a recipe for success in his market.•