A popular vegan pizza shop in downtown San Jose is under new ownership following accusations of sexual assault against the previous owner.
San Jose couple Ruth Baker and Wesley Tonascia dipped into their “hard earned savings” to acquire Pizza Flora last month, replacing Ryan Summers, who put the restaurant up for sale after allegations of sexual assault and a toxic work environment were made public this past May.
As the head of kitchen under Summers, Baker says it was hard to work for him, noting she constantly did her best to run the kitchen smoothly so he wouldn’t feel the need to micro-manage, which she claims he was prone to doing. Now, she has ambitions to improve the work environment and leave her own mark on San Jose.
“There needs to be more of a vegan movement in San Jose,” Baker told San José Spotlight while prepping dough in the First Street restaurant’s kitchen.
A vegan of almost 20 years, Baker says she has always been “highly aware” of vegan options in San Jose. When she first started the plant-based diet, her primary choice was Vietnamese food. When she began missing other staples, she started cooking her own vegan cuisine.
“I grew up in the kitchen,” she said. “One way to hang out with my mom was to help her out in the kitchen when I was a little girl. As young as I can remember, I would stand on a stool, flipping pancakes or mixing stuff.”
Her mom made everything from scratch, a philosophy she tries to bring to Pizza Flora. “It’s just better,” she said.
While not all the restaurant’s food is made from scratch, the sourdough pizza crust certainly is. Baker inherited a 15-year-old sourdough starter from her brother, a pastry chef in Austin, Texas. Pizza Flora in turn inherited it when she joined about two years ago.
“She’s like our pet,” Baker said, referring to the sourdough starter. “She eats like a dog: Once in the morning, once in the evening,” she continued with a smile after plopping a tall plastic cylinder on the table, the fluffy dough occupying the bottom two or three inches.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Pizza Flora’s previous owner, Summers, put Baker through an online class from Noel Brohner, a world famous pizza chef.
“That really turned our dough around,” Baker said. “We use the same amazing flour combination, but he taught us the refinement of handling. We get that perfect rise on the crust: thin in the middle, crunchy on the bottom.”
Baker has already taken a number of actions to avoid fostering a toxic environment, including setting boundaries and contracting with a human resources consultant. Almost immediately, Baker banned alcohol consumption while on the clock, a change she claims was welcomed by her employees even though it was normal under the previous owner. She also hopes an HR presence will help the restaurant’s eight employees understand their rights. Additionally, Baker brings formal management training from previous employers, something she says Summers never bothered to do.
Summers also owned Good Karma Artisan Ales and Cafe, another popular downtown vegan spot. Bob Schmelzer, owner of Circle-A Skateboards and Coffee, has acquired that establishment.
Up until recently, Good Karma served patrons out of Pizza Flora during the pandemic due to its large outdoor space. The two establishments no longer have any relation other than being neighbors, according to Baker.
“If they need some jalapeños or some green onions, we’d gladly share and vice versa,” she said, noting the employees are great and every interaction she’s had with Schmelzer has been friendly and cordial.
Pizza Flora has cut all ties to Summers himself. It’s unclear if Good Karma has done the same. Schmelzer, a known associate of Summers, denied repeated requests for an interview. Summers did not respond to a request for comment.
The community appears excited for a change of management. Pizza Flora’s Instagram post announcing the new ownership has hundreds of likes and dozens more comments than normal.
“Ruth has so much in her favor,” said Wendy Neff, a former co-worker. “She’s been a part of Pizza Flora for a long time, and she stuck with it through all of its challenges because she cares about the products, the people and the potential of what they can provide for the community.”
Neff, who will be opening a downtown vegan brewery and restaurant of her own in the coming months, stressed that female leadership is needed in San Jose.
“It starts with small businesses like Flora,” she said. “People have to rebuild their trust since the issues exposed this past summer, and I think Ruth is a great person to do that for folks.”
Baker seems to agree with the sentiment. “I want to show people I can do a better job,” she said. “I want to rise to the product.”