Acre Coffee opens a pizza shop to spur more growth in Sonoma County
The coffee business in the United States is basically a bunch of Davids going against a few Goliaths.
For smaller coffee producers to compete in the $90 billion annual sector, they have to find their niche against behemoths Starbucks, Peet’s and others ubiquitous with tremendous buying power and vast numbers of locations. That includes the small community of independent shops in Sonoma County.
Since its founding in 2011, Acre Coffee of Petaluma has found its sweet spot in providing a high-quality coffee along with a burgeoning food menu, featuring everything from a crispy potato hash to a brioche waffle. It now has six shops in Sonoma County and more than 100 employees.
With the notable exception of an ill-fated attempt by Taylor Lane Organic Coffee of Sebastopol, independent coffee shops here have mainly steered clear of the vast food menu Acre has established.
So for its next growth opportunity, the coffee purveyor has turned to pizza. You read that right: pizza.
“Why not pizza? Who doesn’t like a slice of pizza?” said Eddie Ceballos, director of operations for Acre Coffee. “It’s just not all about coffee. There has been an evolution of a food program that has evolved dramatically.”
The new Acre Pizza in The Barlow shopping district in Sebastopol opened on Feb. 1 to large crowds, said Steve Decosse, who owns Acre along with his wife and business partner, Sharon Fitzgerald, and Britt Galler of Truckee.
On Monday morning, customers were trickling in before 11 a.m. to try a New York-style pie that’s distinctive with a crisp crust and minimally topped with cheese and vegetables. One specialty pizza features baby broccoli, mozzarella and feta cheeses, lemon zest and forest mushrooms.
Decosse acknowledged the pizza business may strike some as a bizarre side project for a coffee shop operator, but he maintains it’s more a matter of survival for his java business that generates about $6 million in annual revenue.
“How can we vertically integrate something? To get to the level of cash flow high enough through lunch. And maybe even we stay open in a couple of stores to 8 p.m. at night,” he said.
“That’s the only way you can survive. You can’t do the model anymore where you offer four coffee drinks and a little cookie. It doesn’t work,” Decosse said.
The pizza gambit comes after Taylor Lane Coffee of Sebastopol attempted its own expansion with new food products under a former partner. That endeavor ended up floundering, and Taylor Lane was forced to close three locations and cut jobs. It has now concentrated on the wholesale market.
“The retail game is a lot of work,” said Phil Anacker, co-owner of Flying Goat Coffee, which has two locations in Healdsburg and one in Santa Rosa. “It’s not for the faint of heart.”
Anacker has focused Flying Goat on negotiating directly with his suppliers, so they can earn a living wage and ensuring he can keep a supply of high-quality coffee beans - even if he has to pay two to three times as much as Starbucks. He also sees an opportunity in Sonoma County and plans to open two more coffee shops.
The pizza bug for Decosse started with him as a 14-year-old living in the Ozarks and working at a pizza parlor, where he became a manager at 16. In 1990, he opened The Slow Club, a San Francisco farm-to-table restaurant. He also developed a Bay Area school lunch program with organic ingredients.
His decision to sell pizza in Sonoma County was helped along with some fortuitous developments. The restaurant uses a new oven produced by PizzaMaster, allowing Acre to do 12 pizzas every 10 minutes, with a high enough temperature that mimics wood-burning ovens. That enables Acre Pizza to make quality pies at a fast pace and to handle large orders.
“The idea behind it was scale it and do online orders. You can’t do it with coffee. Cappuccino dies after five minutes,” he said.
Decosse also found the right location in The Barlow, taking the old Village Bakery location abandoned by that bakery after last year’s flood at the food, beverage and retail complex. While acknowledging the risk of another potential flood, he also noted the high foot traffic that comes with the 220,000-square-foot shopping mecca was too good to resist. He originally thought he would have Red Bird Bakery of Cotati make the pizza dough because it takes up the remaining space previously occupied by Village Bakery, but Decosse decided to make his own dough for now.
“It’s all about potential,” he said.
Indeed, Acre Pizza already has worked with nearby Crooked Goat Brewing Co., so the beer drinkers can order pizzas from the taproom. The orders print out in Acre’s kitchen for faster delivery. Almost 30 pizzas were ordered on Feb. 2 from Crooked Goat patrons because the brewpub does not serve its own food. “We’re in a marriage with them,” Decosse said.
The formula for Acre Pizza is the same as Acre Coffee: focusing on quality ingredients and a well-trained staff. The fermented dough - which produces a crisp crust that doesn’t flop down as you attempt to eat it like other New York-style pies - uses organic flour from Central Milling Co. in Petaluma and mozzarella cheese made from buffaloes from Double 8 Dairy in Valley Ford.
“The pizza guys who are doing it are like, ‘No way I’m going to pay $40 for a box of flour.’ For us, it’s like why spare the cost,” said Alastair Hannmann, culinary consultant working for Acre Pizza.
Hannmann is a chef who has worked on pizza business projects for 20 years, after leaving a career in the financial services sector.
“Twenty years in the pizza business and I have been stoked to work with organic California flour,” he said. “The crust is like our foundation on what we are doing here. It is a minimalist approach focusing on high-quality, simple ingredients.”
Even with the ingredients, Decosse has kept the price affordable with large slices costing from $4.50 to $5.50.
The growth of pizza can help with the overall Acre coffee and food business, in which it is especially crucial to pay staff well and offer career opportunities given the high cost of living in Sonoma County, he said. He would like to do more Acre Pizza eateries given the initial response in Sebastopol, where it already has doubled its daily dough production for its crust.
“We didn’t expect this level of business,” Decosse said.
Acre so far has not taken outside investment money, but that could change with the pizza portion of the business to spur further growth.
“Nobody is doing pizza like this, so we can actually look at partnering with somebody on that. Instead of taking 10 years to grow six stores ... we could do 10 stores in two years,” Decosse said. “We can support that type of growth.”
You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5223 or email@example.com.
Business, Beer and Wine, The Press Democrat
In the North Coast, we are surrounded by hundreds of wineries along with some of the best breweries, cidermakers and distillers. These industries produce an abundance of drinks as well as good stories – and those are what I’m interested in writing. I also keep my eye on our growing cannabis industry and other agricultural crops, which have provided the backbone for our food-and-wine culture for generations.