July 21, 2022 –
Ben Crosky bakes pizza to build community.
The primary way he has been doing that since the start of the pandemic is with his Tender Fire mobile pizza oven that he parks on the weekends at the 1930s-era El Rey Court grass courtyard.
Crosky marvels at how strangers or friends mingle on the grass.
“We have regulars that come every single week,” he said. “It varies from two to 15 in a group. Being at a hotel, there is something about food and a hotel and tables. The perfect spot for outdoor pizza.”
Crosky started out in April 2020 with a helper, baking at first two pizzas, then 15, 17 or 19 a night. Now, with eight employees, more than 100 discs of sourdough crust with locally sourced toppings and a drizzle of olive oil pass through the Neapolitan-style brick pizza oven each day.
Word got around. Quickly.
Violet Crown owner Bill Banowsky became a fan while his movie theater was under COVID-19 closure and intended to serve a customized Tender Fire pizza at his business. That ultimately did not happen.
What did happen was affordable housing developer Homewise invited Crosky to go brick-and-mortar with Tender Fire at its El Camino Crossing affordable housing development on Agua Fría Street.
How does a guy with a pizza oven on an unsheltered trailer end up with a custom-designed new restaurant building?
Homewise Community Development Director Johanna Gilligan and Isaac Hammond-Paul, the nonprofit’s community development manager, started frequenting Tender Fire as customers in the summer of 2020, soon after Crosky started the business.
“We probably went every week or every other week because there were so few [dining] options at that time,” Gilligan said. “It was a special thing during COVID. Ben always focused on creating a sense of community around his food. You could feel it.”
Homewise for five years has been building its own sense of community with its affordable housing development, El Camino Crossing. The last phase is starting now with two commercial buildings — one for chef Fernando Ruiz’s Escondido, and the other filled with a Co-Fe coworking space and the 2,700-square-foot Tender Fire, which is expected to open in April or May.
“Originally, we had other tenants lined up,” Gilligan said. “When that changed, I started thinking what do I think would be a good match for the type of community we want to build at El Camino? There is a bit of a dearth of young, slightly more vibrant vibe [restaurants in Santa Fe]. Who might be a good match to create that sense of community that engages younger Santa Feans?”
The answer was right in front of them on their frequent trips to Tender Fire.
“He started a very successful business during COVID,” Gilligan said. “That really stood out to me. There’s a strong allegiance to that business.”
What Gilligan didn’t know when she approached Crosky was that after his first year with Tender Fire, Crosky had been toying with going brick-and-mortar.
“I’ve always wanted to design a restaurant,” Crosky said. “This was a dream. The first year was a prototype to see how I felt and how people felt [about Tender Fire]. Year two was growing the business and getting out and looking for space.”
He also started catering weddings and events.
“It just felt right, my first restaurant being part of a nonprofit, not downtown, part of an up and growing neighborhood,” Crosky said.
Tender Fire will go from a mobile pizza oven on a dirt parking lot to an 80-seat restaurant serving breakfast, lunch and dinner with a full menu and full bar. The original Tender Fire will remain at El Rey Court, and Crosky wants to launch a Tender Fire food truck.
“The place is designed to have good energy and form a community,” Crosky said. “The main feature is the pizza oven. You can see it from everywhere in the restaurant.”
It’s a larger wood-fired Neapolitan oven, able to bake a dozen pizzas rather than the two, 12-inch pizza capacity of the mobile oven.
Crosky plans an Italian-style breakfast with bread, pastries, espresso, chai, breakfast sandwich and “maybe a breakfast pizza.”
“We’re going to do a community lunch,” he said. “One menu choice. Big shared tables. I got the idea from the family meal for restaurant staff. This is our family meal for a larger family.”
Pizza will be the star player in the evening, but there will be pasta and other menu choices, too.
“This is a place where younger people can mix with older people,” Crosky said. “I want people to feel like they are at home.”
About one-fourth of Crosky’s financing for the El Camino Crossing project is through Mainvest, a regulated crowdfunding investment portal open to accredited and unaccredited investors. The minimum investment through Mainvest is $100.
“The idea is to get our community involved,” Crosky said. “It’s purposeful. It gives people a reason to come back. What we built is a reflection of my passion and listening to what the public needs and wants.”
Investor are buying revenue share notes and the Tender Fire investors are expecting a 30 percent return on investment by 2027, said Isabel Strobing, director of marketing communications at Mainvest.
Tender Fire seeks an investment total of $75,000 and had 13 investors pledging $29,300 by June 23.
“There are a pretty wide range of investments, from $100 all the way up to five figures,” Strobing said.
Santa Fe resident Julia Arnold invested in Tender Fire through Mainvest.
“I immediately knew that Tender Fire was something that I wanted to be involved in,” Arnold said. “Ben’s ideals align with mine: Get humans away from processed foods and closer to the earth, support small farmers and focus on bringing the community together.”
Before Tender Fire was in his mind, Crosky led yoga retreats. One such adventure five years ago brought him to a pizza party in the jungle in Nicaragua. Not long before the pandemic, he threw a pizza party for friends in Santa Fe.
“There was so much joy,” Crosky said. “Maybe I’m supposed to bring people together for food.”