Eco-friendly strategy turns green into gold at Earth Bread + Brewery

If you like Ping-Pong, weird science experiments and soothing French dance music, Earth Bread + Brewery (earthbreadbrewery.com) may be the restaurant for you. If you love flatbreads and craft brews, you’re really in luck. And if you also care passionately about the environment, this sprawling, two-story pizzeria/brewpub, located in Philadelphia’s Mount Airy neighborhood, may be your idea of paradise.

Founded by the husband-and-wife team of Peggy Zwerver and Tom Baker in 2008, Earth Bread + Brewery defied the odds from the start. Its co-founders had zero experience in restaurant operations, and the Great Recession was underway, shutting down eateries across the country. “We paid no mind to that,” Zwerver recalls with a laugh. “Having never owned a restaurant or even worked as servers or bartenders in a restaurant, we opened a restaurant. We’re crazy.”

“Crazy” may not be the word for it. With unerring instincts for emerging trends and a knack for developing gourmet fare using mostly local ingredients, Zwerver and Baker were more like visionaries. And the Philly media quickly took notice, with rave reviews running in The Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Magazine and local bloggers praising the breads and brews with equal fervor.

Not bad for a pair of computer geeks who met and fell in love when they both worked as programmer analysts in New Jersey. “We were just ready to change professions,” Zwerver says. “We both wanted a business of our own and had a lot of ideas. We wanted to open a place where we’d like to hang out if we weren’t the owners. Philadelphia is a great beer town, so we focused on finding a space there. It was just a really good fit.”

Under the sponsorship of the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program, local artist Brian Ames painted the eyecatching mural on the side of Earth's building.

The Green Thing

To be fair, Zwerver and Baker weren’t complete novices. From 1999 to 2006, they owned and ran Heavyweight Brewing, a small microbrewery in Ocean, New Jersey. Their product went out to retailers, bars and brewpubs in six states, but peddling microbrews at the wholesale level wasn’t all that lucrative. “We decided we really needed to be on the retail end,” Zwerver says.

Mount Airy seemed like the ideal spot for the brewpub concept they had in mind: tucked away in northwest Philadelphia, it’s known for its progressive ideals and diverse population. “The neighborhood needed a place like ours,” Zwerver says. “There are a lot of young families here. At the time, there weren’t any brewpubs. Our business model was all about being environmentally minded and locally focused. Mount Airy is known for embracing people who have that philosophy. And prior to us, this space had been a nuisance bar, so the neighborhood was happy to have a family-friendly restaurant move in. We were pretty busy right away.”

Zwerver and Baker pride themselves on leaving a small carbon footprint in their personal lives and aimed to do the same with Earth. “So many restaurants are known for being wasteful, so sustainability was really important to us,” Zwerver notes. The restaurant’s chairs were bought at auctions, while the tables were made with salvaged farmhouse wood. The two bars—one on each level of the restaurant—were reclaimed from out-of-business watering holes in the region. Furnishings and fixtures were sourced in flea markets and antique shops. Sturdy plastic containers and ingredient bags are repurposed, while spent grain from the microbrewery gets donated to a horse farm to be reused as feed. They even use corn-based cups, lids and straws, which are composted along with paper napkins, coffee grounds and food scraps at a local composting site.

Earth’s kitchen has three waste bins—for recycling, compost and trash—with signage explaining what goes where. “We’re proud of how much we compost,” Zwerver says. “Once a week, we put out only four family-sized trash cans of garbage. We’re serving maybe 700 flatbreads a week, so that tells you that nearly everything is getting recycled or composted.”

Sustainability has a big marketing advantage as well, Zwerver believes. “I think a lot of people care about it, and not just in our area,” she says. “We advertise in local publications that focus on sustainability, like Grid Magazine, and our commitment to the environment is described throughout our menu and our website. We make a point of telling everybody.”

The Green Gourmets

Zwerver and Baker are just as conscientious about their menu. Whenever possible, the pizzeria features local or regional ingredients from nearby Weaver’s Way Co-Op and other area growers. “We’re exclusively using organic spelt from a family-run farm that’s a couple of hours away,” Zwerver says. “They grow it, mill it and sell it. There’s no blending—it’s all their spelt. We’re really happy with it. And for Earth Day this year, our special of the week used all ingredients from a local farm: arugula, baby carrots, radishes, baby leeks, chives and sorrel. Buying local can be more expensive, but people in this area really like to know where their food comes from.”

Despite having no experience as a professional chef, Baker developed most of Earth’s initial recipes, and executive chef Alexandra Fries arrived later to take over the kitchen while Baker mans the brewery. Zwerver says they showcased flatbreads from the start to differentiate Earth from the city’s many other pizza joints. Baked in a dome-shaped wood-fired oven that Baker built himself, the flatbreads were an instant hit. Writing for The Philadelphia Inquirer in early 2009, restaurant critic Craig LaBan said he was “particularly impressed” with Baker’s dough, “which has a perfectly delicate, crispy bottom, a lively, stretchy puff of a middle and a heat-blistered crust on top.”

A white pizza, called the White+Black, tops Earth’s bestseller list. Prepared with a roasted garlic sauce, it features bacon, figs, Asiago, Parmesan and arugula. A close second is the Seed, a sauce-free and appealingly crunchy number sprinkled with sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds and pine nuts, plus mozzarella, red pepper flakes and a lot of roasted garlic. Red pies include the Winter Ratatouille, with roasted onions, eggplant, diced potatoes, kale, tomatoes, mozzarella, Grana Padano, fresh basil, thyme and parsley, and the Meatatarian, which comes loaded with spicy turkey sausage, blackened chicken, pepperoni, bacon, Asiago and mozzarella.

Not surprisingly, the menu offers plenty for vegetarians and vegans, including the Pesto (purple basil pesto, sliced tomatoes, pine nuts, mozzarella, basil and balsamic reduction) and the Veggie Verde (green bell pepper sauce, peas, green beans, Brussels sprouts, kale, pepper Jack cheese and goat cheese). But don’t be fooled by the gourmet flair; offered in large and small sizes, Earth’s flatbreads don’t come with high-end prices. The large Meatatarian is the most expensive item on the menu at $22.

Meanwhile, Baker’s suds have developed a loyal following of their own. On the first floor, customers can stand at the railings and peer down at the brewery, where Baker brews unique, ever-changing recipes in 230-gallon batches about once a week. He seldom makes the same beer twice, Zwerver notes. “Every time he does a beer, he changes it up somehow,” Zwerver says. “He comes up with these creative ideas and will just do whatever he wants. Right now, we have a rye beer with coriander and caraway seeds.”

Interestingly, Earth features only four house brews on tap. “The other seven draft lines are dedicated to other local breweries, which is unusual for a brewpub—most serve only their own beer,” Zwerver says. “Because our brewery is so small, the capacity just isn’t there for us. This approach gives my husband the flexibility to be creative and brew anything he wants. Most of our customers drink our beer, but should the styles notinclude one you really like, you can choose from all these other styles. You can order an IPA, a pale ale, a stout—the types that Tom maybe doesn’t feel like making,” she adds, laughing.

The bar features four house brews plus seven draft lines dedicated to other local brewers. This approach allows co-owner Tom Baker to create the beers he likes to make rather than worry constantly about what will sell.

Creating Nights to Remember

Zwerver and Baker may be earnest about the environment, but that doesn’t mean you have to check your sense of fun at the door. They use a wide range of promotions and events to draw crowds, with live bands performing on Thursdays and Sundays and Quizzo trivia nights on Wednesdays. The trivia contests often spotlight local organizations and businesses, building goodwill in the community. “We’ll have one round dedicated to a specific group, such as an artists’ group or the local theater troupe,” Zwerver says. “They’ll come in and give out extra prizes or swag, such as two tickets to the next theater production.”

On Tuesday nights, Zwerver sets up a Ping-Pong table for guests, while wine dinners on Thursday nights bring in a different crowd. “Every couple of months, our wine rep and our chef get together, taste the wines, decide on a theme—such as French or Italian—and come up with small plates that complement the wines,” Zwerver explains. “We offer four to five courses for $45 per person. It’s a lot of work to put them together, so I limit them to 25 people.”

Zwerver also displays the works of local artists on Earth’s walls and throws receptions for new show openings. That means art lovers in the area—as well as the artists’ friends and family members—know Earth well. “The artists can post the prices and sell their art right there, and I don’t take a commission. You’ll often see guests walking around the restaurant, just looking at the walls.”

As if all of that doesn’t keep Zwerver and Baker busy enough, Earth’s brunch specials pack the shop on Saturdays and Sundays. Menu items include the Breakfast Flatbread (a tomato cream cheese base, eggs, cheddar cheese and bacon) and the Salmon Flatbread (a cream cheese base, house-cured salmon, red onion, slices of watermelon radish, capers, sour cream, arugula and sesame seeds). “We bring in Cabriole, a quartet of musicians that play this beautiful style called French dance music,” Zwerver says. “Customers love to sit and eat and listen to the music—it’s just beautiful.”

And then there’s Tabletop Science Night, a kid-friendly presentation held once a month by a local university science professor. “He brings in his students, and they do demonstrations showing the reactions of different chemicals,” Zwerver says. “On Halloween, they put all these chemicals into a carved out pumpkin—called the puking pumpkin—and it spews out foam from the eyes and mouth. They’ll freeze a banana and use it as a hammer. The kids get to make gummy worms from scratch. They have so much fun, it’s hard to get the kids to go back to their tables and eat!”

Located in a neighborhood known for its progressive ideals, Earth scores points with its emphasis on sustainability and warm, family-friendly vibe.

A Heartfelt Commitment

Their previous lack of experience notwithstanding, Zwerver and Baker have done a lot of things right with Earth Bread + Brewery. Zwerver maintains a light and lively tone on the shop’s Facebook page, which has more than 3,800 likes and keeps growing, thanks to regularly posted photographs of menu items and updates on the latest brews from Baker’s tanks. The company’s e-newsletter—which touts specials of the week, upcoming bands and new beers—goes out to 1,300 customers every Tuesday. “When people get their checks, there’s always a card in the billfold that lets you sign up for the newsletter,” Zwerver says. “That works pretty well.”

A vast, brightly colored mural on the building’s exterior—sponsored by the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program and painted by local artist Brian Ames—helps to draw attention to the store. Once inside the building, guests are struck by the warm tones and hip but accessible vibe. The company’s website isn’t fancy, but it’s kept up-to-date, and its events page offers a calendar describing every promotion, from Monday night growler fills to wine tastings spotlighting an array of Italian Piedmont wines.

But Zwerver credits Earth’s success largely to its emphasis on sustainability, which has garnered positive media coverage and word-of-mouth, and its heartfelt commitment to the community. Saving the planet from waste and self-destruction begins at the local level—and it can be great for business, too, as evidenced by the rising popularity of hybrid cars and organic farming. As Zwerver says, “The truth is, with Americans becoming increasingly aware of how to live more economical and sustainable lifestyles, not only will changes within your business benefit the environment, but your customer base may grow, knowing that you care about where your pizza comes from: the earth.”

Rick Hynum is PMQ’s editor in chief.