- After the tragic lack of her son, Lisa Dahl reworked herself right into a restaurant proprietor and self-taught chef. Now she’s the culinary queen of Sedona, Arizona.
- Dahl turned a former Pizza Hut into her first Pisa Lisa retailer and, regardless of some setbacks, hit the $1 million income mark in her first yr.
Story By Tracy Morin | Photographs by Scott Yates
As soon as dubbed “the culinary queen of Sedona,” Lisa Dahl strikes a commanding bodily presence, comfortable holding courtroom earlier than her hordes of admirers, prospects and staff alike. With a former profession in trend retail, she’s additionally without end impeccably dressed, not a hair misplaced—as if she weren’t juggling 5 totally different restaurant ideas in an obsessively hands-on method; 380-plus workers members as the biggest employer in Sedona, Arizona; a publishing profession, with two cookbook memoirs underneath her belt; and fixed recipe innovation as the chief chef, proprietor and CEO of Dahl Restaurant Group. We will solely ask, what’s her secret?
“Umm….” She pauses to suppose. “Being fanatical?”
A Recent Begin
Dahl, born right into a fashion-business household (her mom was additionally an entrepreneur), began her profession in retail and wholesale within the San Francisco Bay space, and she or he at all times had a ardour for making individuals blissful. “I’d labored in eating places in highschool and at all times cherished it, however I made my profession in boutiques,” she remembers. “I made a decision to make the culinary enterprise my profession after the tragic lack of my son, who was killed in a theft. I used to be guided to Sedona to start out my life over—to get perspective, change my atmosphere. Inside one yr, somebody provided me a location to purchase.”
At the moment, Dahl’s son, Justin, actually seems to be over each one among her places—every contains a devoted shrine to the good-looking younger man, dishes are named in his honor, and his oversize portrait graces her most dramatic idea, Mariposa. (The phrase mariposa, Spanish for “butterfly,” celebrates the potential for rebirth and transformation; it’s a uniting image on all the things from in-house artwork items to chef’s coats at her places.)
However earlier than all of that fell into place, Dahl needed to remodel herself, single-handedly, right into a restaurant proprietor and self-taught chef. She purchased the situation together with her then-partner and opened Dahl & DiLuca in 1995—nonetheless thriving as we speak. “I used to be not knowledgeable chef, however rising up within the Midwest I at all times had an curiosity in wholesome consuming,” she explains. “In Indianapolis, in my 20s, I made vegetarian specialties for a well being meals restaurant, and daily they might promote out. At Dahl & DiLuca, my boyfriend was the chief chef, and I used to be the sous chef. Individuals began falling in love with our meals, and I haven’t actually appeared again.” On the time, Dahl remembers, Sedona was identified for hikes and massages, not high-quality eating—however her idea launched a revolution to blow up that notion.
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With a give attention to “making nice meals and making individuals blissful,” Dahl & DiLuca quickly grew to become the place to go in Sedona. 9 years later, a chance arose to repeat the feat when she was approached with a location in a then-undeveloped space, the village of Oak Creek—well positioned simply south of Sedona, making it a gateway of types for guests and already studded with sprawling resorts and sweeping red-rock views.
Dahl jumped on the possibility and opened Cucina Rustica, outlined by its rustic takes on Italian and Mediterranean dishes. “Individuals thought I used to be loopy, opening in that a part of city—they thought I might fail,” Dahl remembers. “However it was one of many prettiest components of Sedona. Why wouldn’t individuals like it? We took an enormous threat. I don’t suppose there have been any eating places there but, however I felt locals would help it.”
Dahl needed to construct the idea from scratch, working in an present plaza however in an area that had by no means held a restaurant. Because of her fashion-maven’s eye, she revels in design and crafted an enormous, open-space really feel that evokes a sprawling Italian villa—good for big teams, events and occasions—with a menu that includes Dahl’s interpretation of traditional dishes. Quickly, similar to with Dahl & DiLuca, Cucina Rustica was the place to rejoice particular events in Sedona.
“We had a variety of challenges. We began with a bang and had some hiccups. The product was scrumptious, however we weren’t educated in regards to the pizza enterprise, per se. It was very humbling.”
— Lisa Dahl, Pisa Lisa
However with development got here friction. Dahl and her associate had been now not on the identical web page when it got here to imaginative and prescient and development technique. As would usually be the case all through her life, hardship opened the door for brand new alternative. “I used to be capable of finding the liberty I wished,” Dahl says. “It was onerous to finance shopping for him out, however with out that, I couldn’t have opened my first pizzeria.”
She’s additionally proper at residence amid Sedona’s mystical-leaning philosophies. “I imply, we had been Leo and Aquarius,” she sighs. “We simply weren’t aligned.”
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Her pizzeria, Pisa Lisa, arrange store in a humble spot, a former Pizza Hut on a significant route in West Sedona. She had at all times wished to attempt wood-fired pizzas, so she bought the smallest Mugnaini oven she might discover, with five-pie capability, to get began. However this idea didn’t fairly benefit from the rapid smash success Dahl had come to anticipate. “I’ll be sincere: We had a variety of challenges,” she says. “We began with a bang and had some hiccups. The product was scrumptious, however we weren’t educated in regards to the pizza enterprise, per se. It was very humbling. What we thought we mastered in high-quality eating was totally different within the fast-casual/pizza area. I used to be anxious. We faltered that first yr.”
“Individuals love a view….However I believed most eating places with views weren’t nice eating places, and that was the very last thing I used to be occupied with. I made the meals my point of interest.”
— Lisa Dahl, Pisa Lisa
Dahl factors to some “religious and enterprise epiphanies” that helped flip round her “tanking” 2,500-square-foot enterprise. Regardless of a scarcity of pizzeria data, her methods led to a robust comeback: On the precise day of Pisa Lisa’s one-year anniversary, income formally hit $1 million. “It nonetheless provides me goosebumps, as a result of we had been near failing,” Dahl says. “That enterprise grew to become one among my most profitable. My monetary adviser stated, ‘If solely you simply caught with pizzerias!’ Mastering the craft of creating particular person pizzas is one thing we work on daily, however on paper it seems to be higher than high-quality eating.”
Certainly, Dahl admits that she selected a really troublesome path—it’s simpler to create one scalable idea versus juggling 5 totally different ones, every with its personal character and distinctive wants. But when anybody can do it, it’s the tireless Dahl. In 2016, she added one other idea in Mariposa, a Latin-inspired grill that includes floor-to-ceiling home windows and spacious outside patios with jaw-dropping views of Sedona’s well-known purple rocks. “That’s the massive kahuna—an in a single day success that actually took on a lifetime of its personal earlier than we knew what hit us,” she says. “Individuals love a view, let’s face it. However I believed most eating places with views weren’t nice eating places, and that was the very last thing I used to be occupied with. I made the meals my point of interest.”
Mariposa has remained each probably the most rewarding and difficult of Dahl’s ideas, bringing the best highs and lowest lows because of its huge sq. footage, bedecked with rusted metals and pure stonework to meld seamlessly with the panorama. However Dahl wasn’t but finished. Pre-pandemic, she set her sights again within the village of Oak Creek. “I had this concept of coming again out to no-man’s land,” Dahl says. “There was an previous, drained plaza with an outlet retailer and never a variety of curb attraction. However I noticed that it’s one of many first buildings you see as you drive towards Sedona. I pictured Butterfly Burger and Pisa Lisa there as two anchors within the plaza’s nook places. I believed they’d be open inside six months of one another, however we had no manner of figuring out the pandemic was coming.”
Butterfly Burger—an idea with gourmand burgers, shakes and salads in a drop-dead horny, lounge-like environment—managed to clear $1 million its first yr, regardless of being open for simply six months when the pandemic struck. However Pisa Lisa’s second location slowed to a crawl. “Every little thing modified with the pandemic,” Dahl laments. “We needed to let go of 300 out of 340 staff. It was brutal. Pisa Lisa was within the growing and planning phases, and the availability chain and building delays gave me PTSD. It was a ‘hurry up and wait’ scenario. Plus, individuals would ask me, ‘How are you going to create the vitality of the unique?’ How would we get that addictive feeling that folks love—the sensation that it’s their place?”
Dahl deliberate for bigger quantity, putting in two wood-fired ovens. Like with the unique, her brother outfitted the ethereal area with rock-and-roll decor all through. After many impatient inquiries from locals and vacationers alike, its doorways opened in June 2022. Dahl foresees making it, along with a go-to native hangout, a spot for to-go objects—a spot to promote her personal retail items, like sauces, tomatoes and meatballs, alongside the 2 cookbook memoirs she penned to share her meals tales and recipes: A Romance With Meals and The Elixir of Life.
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A Flourishing Household
Dahl admits being “a bit of involved” about the opportunity of an oncoming recession—in any case, she’s been by way of it earlier than, round 2008, however again then she had solely two ideas to fret about. “You need to be cognizant of the ‘what if’ emotions, however I’m extra optimistic about pizza than high-quality eating,” she says. “We’re conserving our fingers crossed and conserving a watchful eye on numbers and labor, which might be our largest problem because the pandemic.”
Dahl has stored Pisa Lisa’s earnings strong by providing not simply pizza however a full menu, highlighted by artistic salads with natural substances and housemade dressings, plus a signature tomato soup, tapas plates, selfmade desserts, and punctiliously sourced gelato that transports friends to an Italian avenue nook. “If everybody orders simply pizza, we are able to’t pay the payments,” Dahl says with amusing. “It’s vital for individuals to have a full, well-balanced eating expertise, and we function issues that folks don’t anticipate in a pizzeria. I additionally attempt to cowl all dietary wants. The pizza is the star, however all the things else goes together with the expertise. When you’ve a lot to supply, individuals wish to sit down and share with pals, not simply run out and in.”
Certainly, Dahl realized early the significance of human connection in pizzeria positioning. After opening her first Pisa Lisa, she determined so as to add to the menu an evidence of the identify: When she was younger, her father used to tease her, “I would like a bit of piece of Lisa,” and in his thick Chicagoan accent, it seemed like Pisa Lisa. She additionally sourced a plate from Pisa as inspiration for the emblem and signal design. “I wished to attach my dad, who handed away,” Dahl explains. “He was loopy for pizza and would take my mother for pizza dates after they had been courting.”
The pizzas, too, are named after household: Da Dorothy and Da Herbie for her mother and pa, Justino for her son. “We’re related with them even after they’ve crossed over,” Dahl says. “Once I heard the order for the POS or referred to as their pizza names, it grew to become like a chant. It made me really feel they had been nonetheless related and having enjoyable with us. The connection to that household expertise and conserving household recollections alive—I feel that’s the vitality behind Pisa Lisa.”
At the moment, Dahl is eyeing growth past Sedona, looking for buyers for potential development of the Butterfly Burger and Pisa Lisa ideas, which, she believes, would achieve success in lots of markets throughout Arizona and past. “We’re poised to be engaging to buyers,” she notes. “It’s an ideal idea to be in markets throughout the nation.”
Nonetheless, regardless of a lot success now stretching over greater than 25 years—and a lot nonetheless on the horizon—Dahl stays humble. “I don’t really feel prefer it’s an empire,” she says. “It’s a variety of onerous work, a variety of sacrifice and an incredible quantity of pleasure. We constructed our fame on being a household enterprise—it’s simply that now we’re a big household.”
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Calling in Abundance: 5 Ways for Success
Along with her fanatically hands-on strategy, Dahl has prioritized varied ways to nail restaurant success:
- Be of service. Is it chilly exterior and the youngsters are hungry? Give them soup samples in-store as they look ahead to takeout. Little proactive touches like this are what create a heat, welcoming atmosphere.
- Put your self on the market. Dahl has competed in Beat Bobby Flay burger challenges—and carried out effectively, touchdown her in quite a few press shops.
- Attempt to enhance. “I’m competing with myself,” Dahl notes. “Once I received that Bobby Flay problem the primary yr, I already thought, ‘How can I do higher?’ You reside and also you study, and also you wish to get higher on a regular basis.”
- Foster neighborhood. Host native occasions, know your staff, give to nonprofits, and commit ‘random acts of pizza’ by gifting entrance desk employees at native motels.
- Create a tradition of pleasure. Attempt to rise to each event. This enterprise is a labor of affection.