One Year In: Stella Public House Bolsters Organic Fare in San Antonio
Centuries ago, when the Thomas Paynes and Alexander Hamiltons of the world wanted change, they took to pubs. Originally dubbed public houses, these taverns hosted the brains and brawn, the goofs and the guileful. They were the center of the town and politics; now, the idea of a public house is making a comeback.
Stella Public House in San Antonio, Texas, is a prime example. The farm-to-pizza concept that opened in April 2013 presents itself as a neighborhood gathering spot. Its emphasis on community is obvious, from the local ingredients and beers to its leading the charge on farm-to-table in San Antonio, where the movement is only just gathering speed.
Still, in its first year, the restaurant has had its fair share of challenges, from a “war zone” construction project in its backyard to an overwhelming rotation of beers.
Equally important as community at Stella is the motif that pizza making is a craft. The pizzeria makes its own cheese and sauce, and uses organic dough that derives from 250-year-old yeast culture. Its artisan, wood-fired oven is both fussy and fulfilling; it requires the right ratio of flour to water, has more than seven temperatures on the inside, but handled delicately, churns out delectable dishes.
"There's only one other wood-fired pizza place [in San Antonio], and a lot of customers didn't even know what that was," says owner Kris Hardy, a restaurateur who has been in the foodservice business for 13 years. "There had to be a lot of education on our part: these are going to be smaller pizzas, not your standard Sbarro or Dominos, and some of them don't even have red sauce on them."
"In the beginning, it was weird for them: 'that's organic?’" agrees executive chef Andres Castro. "Because San Antonio is still new on this concept. But after they give us the opportunity to show them our culture, our new idea of pizza, small plates, and desserts, they react very well."
Customers fell so hard for Stella, in fact, that when the menu rotates for each season, based on what farmers are growing and local availability, customers get upset to see their favorites go.
"When you're dedicated to seasonal ingredients, and brussel sprouts are no longer in season, everybody's real upset when you don't have brussell sprouts," Hardy explains. "You have to be close to your customer to have that conversation with them. We're getting better at that, too. It's really difficult to be in a position when you know that you'll always disappoint your customers when you change your menu. Even if the new things you're adding are great—people don't always like change."
Hardy and her team found that out the hard way with the beverage program. Stella’s beers used to rotate so frequently, sometimes a new brew would be out of stock in a week. Additionally, the emphasis on rare and offbeat beers meant the restaurant was quickly cycling through beers that few people had heard of.
"I think even for your average beer enthusiast, that was probably too eclectic and too fast," Hardy says.
Since then, the pizzeria has couched its beer program with a more stable, recognizable craft beer selection. To assimilate the food and beverage programs, Stella relies on its educated staff to make recommendations and also hosts beer dinners. Castro, for example, recommends pairing the Southtown Pepporoni, the most popular pizza at the moment, with a Founders All Day IPA. The beer has a light, lemony taste profile with some pine aroma and the characteristic bitter finish of an IPA, creating a complement to the jalapeno-cheddar pepperoni and chipotle tomato sauce in the spicy pie.
Unlike other Italian pizzerias, Stella does not bring in staff and ingredients from Italy, and its tomato sauce is exclusive. "We don't use the normal San Marzano sauce," Castro explains. "We're not following the steps of other pizzerias—[with them] you can taste the same quality of pizzas, because they're bringing the same products from Italy." He says a huge step for him, as a chef, is using organic dough, as he believes dough is the most important part of the pizza.
From the ingredients to the dough, why is sustainability and locality so important to Stella Public House? "Why wouldn't it be important to somebody is probably a better question," Hardy says. "I wanted a simple concept. If you're going to do food that's straightforward and unadulterated, you simply have to start with the best ingredients, and the best ingredients are those that are going to be found locally."
Stella has benefited from two primary drivers in marketing the restaurant: its public relations firm, Nom Nom PR, and word-of-mouth, bolstered by Yelp dinners. During these events, Stella invites Yelpers to dine at the restaurant, setting them up with beer pairings and explaining the concept. Each of the invitees has several hundred followers on the user-review website.
Despite the help of Yelp, spreading the word was not a piece of cake. Five months after Stella opened, the city undertook a construction project that shut down the main street in front of Blue Star Arts complex, where it's located. Whereas Stella once was easily accessible at the front of the complex, the restaurant is now at the back, thanks to the traffic flow. "We're still doing well, but it's a real challenge when you have a war zone going on around you," Hardy says.
The war zone didn't stop awards from rolling in. Last month, for example, San Antonio magazine named Stella Public House among its Best New Restaurants. Hardy attributes that to Stella's core—an emphasis on craft and the art of pizza—and the public house theme resonating with customers.
"The idea is, we're a place where the community can come together and enjoy each other's company," she says.
One year in, the seasoned restaurateur says the most important lesson she's learned is one she already knew. "It's one that always bears repeating, as an owner, and it is: find the right staff, find the right talent. It's the most important, and the most difficult, thing."
By Sonya Chudgar