Good news for the Tucson dining community: Renee's Organic Oven is spreading its wings. After 15 years of balancing bespoke customer service and nationally acclaimed dishes with a tight bottom line and even tighter dining quarters, the restaurant is moving into a larger space later this year.
To the relief of many, the new location is just around the corner from the old one, in the same sprawling Foothills shopping square. Renee Kreager – the friendly public face of the restaurant that bears her name, while husband Steve Kreager holds sway in the kitchen – said, "We love that we're near major attractions Sabino Canyon and Mt. Lemmon. We didn't want to give that up."
Nor will Renee's cozy ambience be sacrificed. "We know that people love our intimacy as well as our genuine service, but we also know that our current space is a little too intimate," Renee smiled. "It's very closed and busy. We're looking at a design that will let people know they're still part of our dining ecosystem while having their own unique experience within it."
The design will feature a larger kitchen, a bar, and an outdoor waiting area, as well as more tables. Additional parking and greater visibility from Tanque Verde Road are other pluses of the mini-move.
(Note: The change of address will probably occur this summer and, because the new location is so close, the restaurant will only be shuttered for a short while, if at all.)
One thing that will not change is the menu, at least not for the time being – and then only to add new dishes, not to subtract any favorites. "The menu is very tried and true and loved," Renee said. Indeed, when she attempted to rotate out popular items such as the Thai Curry Pizza, long-time patrons rebelled. The pie returned early this year.
Creative, cross-cultural pizzas like the Thai Curry and Mid-East variety (made with hummus, feta, and olives) were ahead of the culinary curve when Renee's introduced them to Tucson in 2005. So were highlighting organic ingredients and accommodating food sensitivities, practices that predate the restaurant.
When Renee became pregnant with her son, she had a mindset shift. “I began investigating every ingredient of every food I consumed," Renee said. "Some of my family thought I was nuts, but I didn’t want to put anything into my body that wasn’t healthy.”
Although gluten-free pizzas are fairly common now, Renee's was the first to offer them regularly. As a result, the restaurant has had plenty of time to get them right.
"We tasted all the crusts available and now we are committed to Gourmet Girls," Renee said, referring to a local bakery that only makes gluten-free products. "We know that we are paying more, but we would never switch."
Similarly, the restaurant debuted zucchini noodles (aka zoodles) long before they became a supermarket staple. Because there's so much water in them, zucchini spirals tend to get soggy when cooked, but Renee's creates an al dente faux pasta that stands up to an array of sauces and protein add-ons. "It's all in the timing," according to Renee, who noted the Zucchini Noodle Pasta Primavera has been the number one bestseller two years in a row.
But it's the classic dough, perfected over time and made daily on the premises, that is "at the center of everything we do," Renee contended. She is referring not only to the pizzas, but also to the focaccia in such creations as the Tailored Tony, topped with beef in marinara, roasted red peppers, basil, and mozzarella; and to the baked-to-order bread that accompanies appetizers like Oh, Honey, featuring local Dos Manos Apiaries honey, chevre, and Arizona pistachios.
And, oh, the calzones, those doughy pleasure pockets! You can have them your way, adding ingredients like roasted chiles, arugula, mushrooms, and house-made sausage to the standard ricotta, mozzarella, and marinara filling. Or you can just go the route taken by Guy Fieri and his "Diners, Drive-Ins & Dives" crew and choose the spinach dip variety, oozing cheesy, garlicky goodness with every bite.
The "Diners, Drive-Ins & Dives" segment, which first aired in March 2018, drew hundreds of people to the restaurant – so many that it inspired the Kreagers to add patio seating to accommodate some of the overflow. Reruns still draw crowds, to the point that the couple has begun tracking the show's schedule so they can prepare for the deluge.
But even without the sudden customer bursts brought about by Food Network appearances and by major events like the gem show, Renee's has had to disappoint diners who found the wait for one of the small number of tables discouragingly long. Adding to the problem: the kitchen's diminutive size and limited equipment.
For one thing, Renee's does not currently have any flame griddles. The sautees – among the most popular dishes – are prepared on tabletop burners.
Maya Bourbon cocktail at Renee's Organic Oven (Credit: Jackie Tran)
"Because guests are honored for what they individually want, many entrees have a note, and the cooks read every one of them," Renee explained. This often creates a lag time on orders, which leads to a slow turnaround of tables.
With a larger, better-equipped kitchen, one cook won't bear the entire burden of starting and bringing a dish to fruition.
But it is not only the difficult-to-meet demand for tables that causes congestion in the restaurant. Takeaway makes up some 30% of Renee's business. Even those who phone in advance orders need to linger somewhere for a few minutes to retrieve them. In the new space, a patio with heaters/misters and cushy couches will serve as a waiting area.
So will a seven-seat bar, a perfect perch for those who want a sip and a schmooze while their order is being prepared. A self-described cocktail snob, Renee said the bar will be a bridge to a reinvigorated spirits program.
The program is already robust. In addition to a carefully curated wine and beer list that includes several Arizona varieties, you'll also find a selection of mixed drinks made with local and/or organic spirits. These include creations such as the Maya Bourbon—Maya Tea's blackberry sage tea, Whiskey del Bac bourbon, fresh lime juice, and a splash of orange liqueur; and the Desert Dweller, which spikes Cheri's Desert Harvest prickly pear lemonade with two ounces of Purity vodka.
Currently, servers are responsible for mixing drinks, and they're all made to specification from a manual.
"For every drink we offer, we have a diagram of how it's made, what it's supposed to look like, how much ice goes into it, how long to shake or stir it," Renee said. "You can't just order a Moscow Mule. We don't have the ingredients for that" — plus, it's not in the manual.
Hiring mixologists to work the bar will add new energy to the cocktail menu and free up servers to focus on bringing over food.
When the Kreagers decided that the restaurant's 15th anniversary would be a good time to shake things up, they faced a dilemma. They wanted to be able to serve their fiercely loyal customer base and new potential diners more efficiently, but they didn't want to jeopardize their already thin profit margin.
And so a GoFundMe campaign was born.
This turned out to be a smart move in several unanticipated ways. First of all, it forced them to solidify their plans. The couple had initially thought about expanding to a newly opened space next door, but concluded that starting from scratch was a much better idea.
And once they pinned down and articulated a rough blueprint, several investment "angels" offered a large portion of the original sum requested. This lowered the goal amount considerably, from $200,000 to $50,000.
In turn, having a less intimidating amount of money to raise inspired more members of the community to pitch in. "One person offered to do a scotch tasting," Renee reported. "Another offered to do goat therapy on the patio." In both cases, all the profits will be directed to the GoFundMe campaign.
"The main foundation of why Renee's is so respected is our service, which includes caring about individual food issues," Renee said. "If you can't care about what a guest wants, you have no business owning a restaurant."
It's abundantly clear that Renee’s Organic Oven is heading in the right direction, with a future that's looking brighter than ever.
Renee's Organic Oven, currently located at 7065 E. Tanque Verde Rd., is open from 11 a.m. - 9 p.m. Tuesday - Sunday.
For more information, visit reneesorganicoven.com.
Edie Jarolim has worn many hats, including a sombrero on a one-too-many-margaritas night. She earned a Ph.D. in American literature...