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March 8, 2005 > Grab a Bite and Some Bytes at Pizza Patio

Grab a Bite and Some Bytes at Pizza Patio

Two neighbors with a Passion for People & Pizza

by Ceri Hitchcock-Hodgson

A few years ago, Stuart Barton and Brian Lewis had a vision - leave behind their corporate jobs and venture in to the world of entrepreneurship. Today, after months of hard work and labor their dream has come true in the form of one of Fremont's finest family restaurants, Pizza Patio.

At the time, Barton was in hotel operations having opened hotels across California, including the Ritz Carlton in Half Moon Bay. He was constantly on the go, traveling as much as 219 days in one year. Employees at the Southwest Airline ticket counter knew him on a first name basis. One day, at a trade show in Philadelphia, Barton realized that this lifestyle was not for him. He wanted to spend more time with his family by actually being in the same state with them. He decided to hang it up and pursue his dream - to own a pizza parlor. A good friend in Benicia owned a pizza place in and Barton saw the potential. Shortly thereafter he was on his way to the biggest pizza parlor convention in the world in Las Vegas.

Lewis, a former game programmer for companies such as Sega, had felt the effects of the Silicon Valley bust numerous times and with the urging of Barton, decided to take the plunge. Coincidentally, Lewis, an avid cook, had his own special pizza dough recipe that would be perfect for the planned venture.

With the support of their families, Barton and Lewis left their nine-to-five jobs and dove head first in the unforgiving world of restaurant ownership. The drive to start their own business came from their need to leave behind the grind of corporate America.

With the guidance of Barton's restaurateur friend and Lewis' technological expertise, the two embarked on the road to creating a pizza parlor that combined technological advances with a family friendly environment.

The concept of Pizza Patio was born, interestingly, as the two neighbors batted ideas to each other over their backyard fence that they have shared for the past 11 years. After discussing several ideas, including Pizza Piazza and Two-Neighbors Pizza, Barton and Lewis decided on Pizza Patio, with a dˇcor reminiscent of their own backyards. The fencing that encloses the gaming area resembles the very fence in their yards. There is even a running water fountain which has been turned into a makeshift wishing well, the proceeds from which they will donate to a local charity.

Pizza Patio is a work in progress, Barton and Lewis noted. They plan to add more to the main dining room to fully complete the patio theme including a possible basketball hoop, a sky-like ceiling and lamp post murals underneath existing light fixtures.

The pizza, like the restaurant, is a creation all its own. The pies at Pizza Patio are deep-dish delights topped with only the finest and freshest ingredients prepared each morning by Patio staff. At the end of the night any leftover produce and dough are thrown out to make way for the next day's fresh batch. This commitment to quality and freshness makes food costs higher than at other pizza places, noted Barton, but he would not have it any other way.

"Take care of the people and you're profits are going to follow, don't worry about that," he said.

The crust, however, is not the typical deep-dish Chicago style most customers are familiar with. It is Lewis' special creation he has perfected in his kitchen at home. The dough, like other ingredients, is never frozen and made freshly at the start of the day. Those who do not like the typical deep-dish style are encouraged to try Pizza Patio's version and see for themselves how the two compare. So far, there have been no complaints, only raves.

On any given night, the parlor's party room is packed with a sports team, a children's birthday party or some other family function. Upon arriving, baseball teams that call Pizza Patio home base, grab their team's name tag from the "Have you been spotted at the Patio?" board and slide it in to a display at the entrance to the party room. This, said Barton, encourages people to feel at home at the accommodating restaurant.

The computer is more than just a means of keeping the business going, it is another inventive aspect of Pizza Patio. Their slogan, "Grab a bite and some bytes with free wireless internet," says it all. While coffee shops such as Starbucks charge as much as six dollars an hour to connect to the Internet, Pizza Patio offers free Wi-Fi access to its customers. Lewis, a self-described tech savvy individual himself, enjoys bringing his laptop along with him when he goes out and saw the need to have Internet access at the Patio.

"It doesn't make sense to me for these places to be charging," explained Lewis. "Just about any restaurant nowadays is going to have a hi-speed Internet link for their own use. You have the link already why not just share it."

This philosophy is the cornerstone of Pizza Patio's success - to share the good times of Pizza Patio with the entire Tri-Cities area. Barton and Lewis want each customer to feel as if they are a part of the Pizza Patio family. The two even make it a point to memorize the name of each customer coming in to their pizzeria, repeating the newly-learned name three times to commit it to memory.

Spreading the word about the wonderful product is part of the Pizza Patio plan. Each day, the two owners take six of their mini pizza to local businesses resulting in weekly deliveries to such places as Kaiser Permanente and Washington Hospital.

Pizza Patio also serves mozzarella sticks, Buffalo wings, fresh baked cheese panini, salads (topped by grilled chicken, if you wish), soup, cookies and has a large area of sodas and other drinks. They also serve beer and wine but, in keeping with their family friendly atmosphere, keep the blinking neon beer signs to a minimum.

Coming in to the former Scooter's Pizza place, the two had their work cut out for them. The former pizzeria had been closed for nine months prior to be acquired by Barton and Lewis and needed a lot of work to meet their vision. For 16 hours a day, the two men worked to create the restaurant that they envisioned, even sleeping in the store so as not to lose valuable time.

One day a former employee of Scooter's, Donna Goodwin, walked through the doors of Pizza Patio and began to cry saying, "I never thought this place could look like this."

That compliment was a real boost to the exhausted owners who had poured every last bit of energy into to transforming pizzeria. They hired Goodwin to complete their staff along with her daughter, Kim. Today, the restaurant boasts a relatively small but very close-knit staff.

"Our employees are loyal. We all sit down and have dinner every night. We want the customer to feel that, to feel that is part of the Pizza Patio environment," explained Barton.

"The Pizza Patio family," interjected Lewis.

Their plan seems to be working. Employees can be found coming in on their days off asking if they can work!

Initially, the entire restaurant was to encompass the Pizza Patio theme of patio tables, umbrellas and a running fountain. After their labor-intensive struggle, the two decided to keep the party room as it was with long benches and a big screen TV, just right for large parties and baseball teams. Unlike other pizzerias, Pizza Patio's party room can be booked without a deposit. This policy has proven to be a popular with the room booked most nights of the week, often with back-to-back parties. Kids especially enjoy coming to Pizza Patio not just for the food but for the fun, as well. The pizzeria's gaming area is a hit with kids as it features ticket-dispensing games like those found at Chuck E. Cheese. Kids turn in their tickets for fun prizes including tiny toys, whistles and Whoopee Cushions.

"The big story is family. That's 100 percent what we're about," said Barton, whose daughter along with Lewis' sons, often come in to help out.

At any given time, Barton or Lewis are present at Pizza Patio because, they feel, it is essential for owners to be totally involved in all aspects of the restaurant, from the front counter to the dishwashing station. You can find Lewis working on the computer system in the early afternoon and Barton waiting tables in the evening.

Barton was an Air Force brat who moved wherever his family was summoned, including Japan and North Dakota. Lewis, a native of Pennsylvania, took a trip to the Bay Area after graduating from college, fell in love and moved here permanently 15 years ago. Both now reside in San Leandro.

The key to their success seems to be slow growth in order to create the type of quality and product that they feel is up to par. Although numerous businesses often order lunch from the pizzeria on a daily basis, the walk-in customer is their main priority.

Barton came up with the "Mr.B" pizza, a combination of mushrooms, garlic, pepperoni, sausage, pesto, and a Ranch dressing base. He admits, though, his favorite topping is simply pepperoni. Lewis, too, has his own creation, the "Sweetie Pie," made up of mushrooms, red onions, bell peppers and sausage.

When asked to compare their pizza to that of popular chain stores, Lewis replied, "It's a different world."

Added Barton, "[Our] product alone is a superior product."

"We're not the best pizza makers. What we're good at is we're good with people," said Barton.

Many customers would agree and disagree with his statement. They are surely excellent at customer service, leaving each feeling part of the Patio Family. And the pizza is said to be one of the best in the Tri-City area.

So busy are Barton and Lewis with perfecting Pizza Patio, that they have not even had their Grand Opening ceremony yet. It is scheduled for this summer, nearly a year after they opened.

"I am very passionate about everything I do. We were working 17 hours a day with only one other person helping us." Barton explained. "People came in here and said 'I don't think you're going to get this place done in time. Don't tell me that because that's going to make me go harder."

Together, Barton and Lewis have turned their desire for new careers in to what is becoming one of the most rapidly growing and successful, restaurants in the Tri-City Area.

Pizza Patio is located at 3395 Walnut Ave., in Fremont. Contact Pizza Patio at (510) 790-1166.

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