RICK GRAEFE / JOURNAL Chris LaRocca of Crushed Red restaurant.

Rick Graefe

The hot, fresh Clayton eatery Crushed Red isn’t likely to be a flash in the pan. That’s because owners Chris LaRocca, Jason Tilford, Mike Marino, Ralph Kalish Jr. and Powell Kalish have done their research when creating this recipe for success.

“I started thinking about this concept about seven or eight years ago,” LaRocca recalls. “The timing just seemed to be right, with the concept being ‘fast-casual’ in nature. We also like to call it ‘fresh-casual’—it’s the way that we, as a nation, are moving in our dining habits.”

He points to the demand for a higher quality in food, while maintaining speed of service. “Let’s face it, how often do we have time or the desire to go through the ordeal of checking in with a hostess, being seated, looking at the menu, waiting for a server, and all the other steps of service at a restaurant?”

The restaurant opened on Feb. 13, with offerings such as chopped salads and wholegrain pizzas with organic tomato sauce and toppings like blistered corn, roasted asparagus, grilled pineapple and caramelized onion. Crushed Red buys local when possible, and the organic infusion continues with the salad dressings, iced teas and even an organic beer.

Tilford is the chef behind the menu, which includes a specialty pizza called Yukon Gold Rush—LaRocca’s favorite. “I came up with that concoction, and Jason looked at me like I was crazy. But I told him, No, it’ll sell! It’ll sell! Oddly enough, it’s not only my favorite, but it’s  the staff ’s favorite, as well.” The pie includes parmesan cream, hickory bacon, Yukon gold potatoes, olives, and rosemary with gorgonzola and mozzarella, LaRocca notes. “It’s an unlikely combination—and that’s what makes it so good. But you have to add steak—that’s the secret.”

Another secret that LaRocca isn’t sharing is the pizza crust recipe. “When we found an oven that could cook a pizza, start to finish, in 90 seconds, that started the whole pizza evolution that we were going to migrate into this concept,” he remembers. After finding the oven at a restaurant show in Chicago, they went back several weeks later to visit a test kitchen. “We just kept trying to screw up pizzas.”

After purchasing an oven, Marino (formerly of Panera Bread) stepped in, and through the course of about nine months, the dough was tweaked and created. Once they achieved the recipe they wanted, they sent it to a blender, which now makes it to their specifications, puts a private label on it for Crushed Red and ships it directly to the restaurant. “This way, we don’t have a prep cook mixing 14 different ingredients and mis-measuring, with it coming out one way today and another way tomorrow,” LaRocca explains. “We’re able to instill consistency with the product. And this is like the Coca-Cola recipe: I’ve got it in a safe, and nobody knows what it is. We do the same thing with our dressings, and we have a proprietary cheese blend that is manufactured for us. So, we’re really thinking far down the road in terms of duplicating the concept.”

With planning and preparation, the hope is typically to reduce the element of surprise. But one piece with Crushed Red has astounded LaRocca: “It’s really surprised me, that if I had to do all over again, how little I would change.” The daily line out the door at lunch might confirm that.

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