March, 2020. Renee and Steve Kreager were about to embark on a new venture: moving Renee’s Organic Oven into a larger space. It was a complex but exciting undertaking, one detailed in an interview with Tucson Foodie less than two months earlier.
Renee, in charge of the process, was ready to sign the final papers. The landlord, the architect, the designer…everyone was on board, all the pieces were in place.
Then she talked to a friend in Italy.
“The very weekend before I was going to put my last signature on the last contract, my friend informed me what was going on, that so many people were getting sick and dying,” Kreager said. “My gut told me without question to stop.”
That was the beginning of a journey that, instead of an expansion, led to a paring down — including of the restaurant’s name — and perhaps a bit of growing up.
Like many restaurants, the Kreagers’ offered takeout only during the height of the pandemic. But when diners were welcomed indoors again in May, 2021, they found a place with a new look – and a subtly different name. Instead of Renee’s Organic Oven, the stylish sign above the restaurant announced that you were now entering Renee’s.
The change was not earthshaking; most patrons already used this shorthand when referring to the eatery. The decision to make the transition was, however, as thoughtful as everything Kreager does.
She explained that removing “organic” from the name was the result of wanting to be honest about her difficulties in always getting ingredients that fit that definition. “It's very important to me to have integrity in what I do,” she said. “And the supply chain is incredibly hard now. I didn't want to be espousing that I could get things that I couldn't. And I didn't want to be explaining it every time.”
Nevertheless, Kreager emphasized, “We are still committed to getting the things that are most important to us when and where we can.”
For example, Kreager said, “Sydney Spenser of San Rafael Valley Beef still personally delivers local grass-fed beef to our back door weekly. Noel Patterson brings us the most gorgeous honey from his Dos Manos Apiaries. We pick up dough weekly from The Gourmet Girls to prepare our delicious gluten-free pizzas. Alethea Swift from Fiore di Capra delivers her creamy chèvre to us as well.”
The honey and chèvre, along with apples and fresh baked bread, can be found on Renee’s popular Oh Honey Board appetizer.
By no means did everything behind the name shortening indicate only loss. In one important respect, it reflected a gain.
When the business was solely takeout, Kreager took the opportunity to regroup. She realized that she could still enact some of the changes that had been planned for the move, just in a different way.
Instead of adding tables, she reduced the number, thus allowing for a kitchen expansion and equipment update. A key addition was a cooking range. “Before,” Kreager said, “every single item we cooked in the kitchen was out of the pizza oven. But we sell as much pasta as we do pizza; it’s about half of our business. Imagine doing all that sauteing of sauces out of portable tabletop burners like we were.”
The expansion also eased congestion in the kitchen, the domain of husband Steve Kreager and Liam McCarthy, dough maker and focaccia baker extraordinaire.
Reducing the number of tables and changing their configuration also allowed for a redesign that gave the formerly hippie chic dining room a more sophisticated but still characterful look. A sparkly chandelier now dangles in the takeout area, and the walls are cream-colored on one side and decked out with a mural by local artist Danny Martin on the other. Done in black and white with just a few splashes of pink, Martin’s pulp-meets-pop art desert scene gives the dining room a vibrant and distinctly Tucson feel.
Limiting the seating — three booths in the dining room, three tables on the patio — also helped Kreager embody her vision of the ideal customer experience: intimate, soothing, casual but elegant. Each of the booths is separated by six feet from the next one and buttressed on each side by a pressed-tin partition, thus affording privacy. The attention to detail, down to lighting that can be individually dimmed or brightened, enhances the sense of having a personalized retreat.
So does the fact that, as is made explicit on the website reservations section, children under 12 are not permitted in the dining room.
Kreager explained, “Each and everything is placed on the table in such a way that I feel confident will remain there. I don't want parents stressed out bringing their kids. A lot of people are very grateful to have a place away from children.” She added, “It’s a unique feature that I understand is not for everybody. It's not a punishment and it's not because we don't love children.”
In fact, Kreager’s interest in catering to people with food sensitivities and in focusing on earth-friendly, organic cooking was sparked when Kreager became pregnant with her son in 2002. “I began investigating every ingredient of every food I consumed,” Kreager said. “I didn’t want to put anything into my body that wasn’t healthy.”
In any case, families visiting Renee’s can enjoy outdoor seating, for parties up to six. As the website puts it, “Patio vibe is here for the kids.”
Although the look and the name are different, the menu has largely remained the same. Among the longstanding favorites are the garlic knots, brushed with high-quality olive oil and fresh herbs.
The classic red sauce Everything pizza, including house-made sausage, olives, mushrooms, peppers, and lots of Bacio mozzarella, sells well too. The meat lasagna, featuring flat noodles made in house and local beef, tops the pasta preference list along with the carb-friendly Zoodles (zucchini noodles) primavera. The goat cheese cheesecake, made on the premises and topped with Luxardo cherries or pineapple vanilla bean compote, has many dessert-lovers swooning.
And then there are the spinach dip calzones.
“We always know when a re-run of ‘Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives was on TV,’ Kreager laughed, referring to the segment of the hugely popular Guy Fieri show that highlighted the restaurant in 2018. “On some days after that, we sell practically nothing besides spinach dip calzones,” the featured menu item.
All in all, Kreager said, “One of the reasons we switched from Renee's Organic Oven to Renee's was to let people know that we were still us. You knew what to expect to some degree but you should pause and see what's different. So it was really the most gentle way that I thought I could say to our guests, ‘Hey, I'm still here and I love you.’”
The top rankings for Renee’s on key restaurant review sites, with raves from locals and out-of-town visitors alike, all say, “Hey, we’ve noticed. And we still love you too.”
Renee's is located at 7065 E. Tanque Verde Rd. For more information, visit reneestucson.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 from New York University and was a guidebook editor at Fodor’s (Random House) and Frommer’s (Simon & Schuster) in New...