by Erin DeJesus, Photo: JP Westenskow
Tucson entrepreneur Ari Shapiro — who owned a coffee shop, Sparkroot, and several locations of juice bar XOOM — branched out with his first proper restaurant with the opening of Falora, a wood-fired pizzeria that emerged a decade earlier than expected. “The funny thing with Falora is that it was always my ‘retirement dream,'” Shapiro says of his foray into restaurant ownership. “But this space came available, and I basically accelerated the dream by about a decade because I couldn’t say no to this space.” After precariously installing a Stefano Ferrera oven and working with chefs Joseph Tellez and Kerry Lane, Shapiro’s vision emerged in Falora’s simple menu of Neapolitan-style pizza and salads. “We would just have these highly creative meetings where we’d sit down and talk about what we wanted this menu to be,” Shapiro says. “We decided that if we’re going to do this right, you’re not going to do it by breadth; we’re going to do it by depth. ”
Falora opened its doors in March 2013, and in a few weeks, Shapiro’s “retirement dream” will expand to include a neighboring bar, Sidecar, focusing on craft cocktails, wine, and beer. Just a few days after the restaurant’s official first anniversary, Shapiro chatted with Eater about switching up the Falora service model, getting ready for “prime time,” and new blood in Tucson’s pizza scene (two words: Pizzeria Bianco).
So, tell me a little bit about that particular space and what made it so attractive to you.
“There’s absolutely nothing like it in Tucson… it resonated on a very deep level.”
Tucson has some great architecture but commercially, a lot of businesses end up in more generic, strip-mall-type locations. But, this particular shopping center is the first one in Tucson; it was built in 1939 and many actually credit it with being the first little shopping center in the state of Arizona. It was designed and built by an architect named Josias Joesler. He had a very distinct style. He was very influenced by the Mexican squares and villages: the tiled roofs, the exposed brick, the tile inlay with the brick, the archways, the courtyard, there’s absolutely nothing like it in Tucson… it resonated on a very deep level.
How did build-out go?
One of the big challenges we had with this space was how to get the oven in. It’s a tiny space — it’s 900 square feet — and you can’t start by taking away old brick and creating openings. The only way in was one west-facing window, which is, ironically, the shape of the oven; it’s a dome-shaped window. The oven, we brought it in via forklift. It was two-and-a-half tons and it cleared the window by three inches all around. Had it not been for that window, there’d be no oven in this space.
Were there any surprises or unexpected delays that came during build-out?
I think the biggest surprise was that the oven made it in the window. It was an incredibly pleasant surprise, but yeah, maybe the only surprise was that when we had to bring the oven in… We were building the pony wall, which was going to be the countertop, and divide the dining room from the kitchen. I don’t know how they missed this, but the architect and the builder called me up: “We just realized that if we built this pony wall right now, we can’t get the oven over it.” So, we just dropped everything [and said], “We’re bringing the oven over today.” I was so nervous: I wanted it to be a perfect 70 degree sunny day when we moved this thing across town, but of course it was drizzling. That was maybe the biggest surprise: When we decided to put the oven in and that it went in so easily.
Has the menu undergone any major changes since day one?
The menu has not, which is remarkable; it’s a testament to how seriously we took it. Of course, there were the obligatory couple of things: We added a cheese plate at one point and then deleted it, we were doing bread at one point and then deleted it. It’s been mostly stable since day one, as far as the actual pizzas and salads. We’ve added a couple of interesting dishes like the piastra, which is our cold zucchini noodles in our homemade pesto. But I would say that the heart and soul of it is the same. What’s changed a lot since we’ve opened is when we serve that menu. We originally were doing lunch and dinner, and just recently, we eliminated lunch just to focus on dinner.
How was opening night?
“Our opening month was borderline like the wheels coming off.”
Our opening month was borderline like the wheels coming off. There was a lot more attention on us than I thought there was going to be, meaning a lot more people showing up. The food part was pretty dialed in, but the service part was not — because up until about two weeks before we opened, we were going to be more a fast-casual service model. We thought people were going up to the counter, order, and then they’d come pick it up when they call it out. But we made this decision two weeks before opening that we wanted to be a sit-down restaurant. That was a massive challenge because the staff that was hired was more like a counter staff, if you will, who didn’t have a lot of exclusive table service [experience]. We paid for that a little bit. Our early Yelp reviews were really harsh on that aspect, and it was tough; I’m not going to mince words.
What made you decide to change the service style just a couple of weeks before opening?
There were a number of reasons. Going into this, we thought we were going to be doing more of a morning program, because the landlords wanted us to have coffee program and I agreed to it even though it wasn’t really part of my vision. I think we knew that that part would be more counter-service, so we just thought it would roll over. But a lot of it had to do with the space. We started to realize that since we had put in this giant community table, that there’s no way we’re going to be able to manage a line forming here. It just dawned on us that the seriousness in which we’re taking the food should apply to the service side as well. It was the best decision we ever made.
How long did it take for you to get the wheels back on track, so to speak?
“It was a fun-loving bunch, but yeah, we weren’t ready for our prime time debut yet.”
Well, we definitely had staff turnover the first couple of months. It got better maybe two to three months into it, and then right about then we had a second layer of hurt, if you will, because both the alt-weekly here and the local newspaper reviewed us back to back, and they both gave us stellar reviews, a 10 and a nine. And we just got slammed again. Even though we had upgraded our servers, it still was tough. It was a difficult first six months I would say, just in terms of service, atmosphere; we weren’t necessarily ready for the crowds. As they say, we weren’t ready for prime time. … We had the spirit. We had the verve. It was a fun-loving bunch, but yeah, we weren’t ready for our prime time debut yet.
Tell me some about some of your favorite regulars.
Oh, my god, we have a bunch. There’s a couple named Corky and Mary that are fixtures in Tucson, and they are just really, really good folks. When we first opened, they threw a dinner for 26 of their friends at our community table — it was to celebrate Pisces, because it was the middle of March — so all their Pisces friends came in and they had this giant, it was like a beggar’s banquet. They’re just really appreciative of what we do. There’s been an artist that just moved here from Chicago named Ron Kovach, he comes in with his wife Gillian and regularly describes our pizza as “orgasmic,” which makes us blush a little bit.
With that in mind, how would you describe the pizza scene in Tucson?
“You know how people can remember where they were when Kennedy was shot?”
I would say that up until now, with all things in Tucson, it’s been a little on the sleepy side… but of course, now with Bianco coming, it’s a game changer. I can remember exactly — you know how people can remember where they were when Kennedy was shot? — I can remember exactly where I was, the time of day, when I got this phone call [confirming Pizzeria Bianco was coming]. My jaw hit the ground; it fell and almost dropped. I’ve admired Chris for years. I’ve eaten up there twice. I ate one of the last [pizzas] he personally cooked before he took time off from the oven. So, yeah, it inspired us, in a way — not competitively at all, because we couldn’t be happier that he’s coming to town — but it just made us realize, “Wow, pizzas are becoming important in town.” We have an opportunity now to be part of a dialogue that I don’t think anyone in Tucson could have predicted even two or three years ago.
Does it feel like it’s been a year?
No, it flew by, it really did. When I sit back and look at all the things that have happened and the changes that we’ve made and the evolution… yeah, I guess it would be hard to picture that being squeezed into anything less than a year. So, on one hand, it just flew by, but on the other hand, it feels like we got a lot done here in a year. I feel like at the doorstep of year two, we’re at the place where I don’t really see a lot of other changes coming. It took a year just to completely stabilize this ship, and now it’s about getting some really nice wind in our sails and sailing the open seas.