Picazzo’s Organic Italian Kitchen may be known for many things, but two frequently stand out, and they are both the ideas of restaurateur and owner Rick Freedman.
One: In March of this year, all nine of the classic pizzerias – located in Flagstaff, Se- dona, throughout metropolitan Phoenix and now, Tucson – began using organic ingredients in everything. The word “organic” was also added to the restaurant’s name.
“The scary part of going organic is the expense,” said Freedman, a former high- end homebuilder who got into the restaurant business in 2002 with his first location in Sedona, where he makes his home with wife Carol.
“But I know that people should be eat- ing better,” he added, “and people know they should be eating better.”
According to Flagstaff Picazzo’s general manager, Garner Vincent, who began working there in college and never left: “people appreciate a conscious dining experience. And then it’s just an added benefit for everyone else.”
Freedman’s second innovation was actually the first, chronologically: Picazzo’s was among the first restaurants in Arizona to create and advertise a gluten- free menu – never mind that gluten, which is a protein found in many grain products, including wheat, is nearly unavoidable in Italian food.
Today, lots of restaurants are catering to gluten-free eaters, but eight years ago, practically no one had heard of gluten intolerance. Freedman himself learned of it in an unusual way: he knew three people who couldn’t stomach wheat, and they all worked where he got his hair cut.
There were three people in one place that couldn’t eat pizza in most restaurants? Freedman thought this was an untapped market, and he was right. Gluten-free cuisine may only represent about 10 percent of the business’s sales today, but Freedman said it is the kind of offering that can create brand loyalty and distinguish Picazzo’s from its competitors.
“You have to constantly reinvent yourself,” he said, which was why, despite tough economic times, he decided to take the restaurants organic. That meant finding new vendors, rewriting recipes, reconsidering budgets, and rebranding marketing materials.
Picazzo’s today employs more than 300 and serves food to between 30,000 and 40,000 people every two weeks.
The original vision was a fast-casual restaurant where guests would order at a counter and take a number, but the concept evolved to fit the first restaurant space, which was organized better to be a sit-down diner with a wait staff. The founding philosophy was to keep the menu simple: pizza, salads, appetizers and drinks. Because the space had a bar, Freedman and his partners got a liquor license and served wine and beer.
They followed a model of organic growth – no pun intended – navigating among choices as they presented themselves, and that’s still the philosophy today: “I just think that it’s kind of in me,” Freedman said of the business’s expansions into new markets.
Freedman got into the restaurant business for several reasons: he wanted a business that would be profitable even in a down economy, he missed a particular piz- zeria back in Portland, Ore., and he loves to cook.
Despite being successful as a homebuilder and also having worked in food distribution before building homes, Freedman says starting a restaurant was “tough.”
“It was tons of work. More work than I even imagined,” he said, framing the experience as “Groundhog Day.”
Yet, despite the work, he hasn’t ruled out adding additional culinary concepts to his restaurant portfolio in the future.
Freedman smiled slyly. “I’m always playing.” FBN