Fruita cheers restaurant reopening

Anne Keller, left, and Jen Zeuner take a break in their daily routine of preparing to reopen Hot Tomato Cafe in downtown Fruita.

Jen Zeuner and Anne Keller are two of the more popular women in Fruita now that word is out their restaurant, Hot Tomato Cafe, will reopen in less than two weeks.

From the man who sold the women their new building to the countless volunteers who showed up to paint and clean the area, Fruita residents have rallied behind Zeuner and Keller, the restaurant co-owners, urging them to get the pizza place up and running, Zeuner said.

“I think we should say a big thanks to the local community for pushing us to get open,” she said.

Zeuner and Keller plan to open Hot Tomato on April 17 at its new location at 124 N. Mulberry St., which is behind their previous spot downtown. The women even kept their old sign with the gigantic tomato on it.

A street party with music, beer and pizza is planned for 11 a.m. that day.

They closed Hot Tomato in June because of a disagreement over the terms of their lease.

“Nothing was falling into place,” Zeuner said, “so you question if it’s what you are supposed to do.”

They planned to reopen somewhere within three months, but by August they had no idea where. They had no leads on vacant buildings that could be restaurants in the Fruita area.

In August, the women learned the building immediately behind their old location was up for sale at a reduced price. They contacted the owner, Jerry Renaud of Fruita. Renaud and his wife were Hot Tomato customers. He sold the women the building for $163,000.

“He was so fantastic,” Zeuner said.

However, concerns over the building’s previous use, a dry-cleaning business, led to four months of repeated environmental tests to ensure the property was safe to occupy and serve food in. In that time, three banks turned Zeuner and Keller down for loans.

Their financial situation improved at the end of November when they were pre-approved for a small business loan and all environmental tests came back clean.

Renaud vowed to help the women make it work and let them begin updating the building before they had signed all the paperwork for loans and buying the property.

“He’s a great local guy and a great customer,” Zeuner said.

On Feb. 2, the women took ownership of the building, and they have been working on it daily, wanting to reopen the restaurant in April.

“April is our busiest month,” Zeuner said.

Now that they own a building, the women have updated it to improve their investment and customers’ experience.

First, they have a patio with expanded outdoor seating, which both women listed as a top priority when searching for a new building. They had minimal outdoor seating at their previous location.

“Fruita has such great weather,” Keller said.

Second, they installed remote beer lines to have more beers on tap without having to haul kegs to and from the bar.

Third, the women put solar panels on the business, hoping to one day have the sun provide nearly 75 percent of their energy needs. Initially, the solar panels will generate about 25 to 33 percent of Hot Tomato’s energy needs.

The building has new insulation and electric and plumbing lines, and an updated heating and air-conditioning system, Zeuner said.

All that’s left is finishing interior touches and firing up the pizza stoves before the April 17 opening. The women are ready to leave the world of general contracting and construction and re-enter the Fruita small-business market.

“We’re to the point where we are just like, ‘We want to make pizzas,’ ” Zeuner said.


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