The small French commune of Tain-l'Hermitage is known for its pitched vineyards that yield some of the world's finest syrah. It is not nearly so well known as the birthplace of copper ovens.
"France's soil is good for more than just winegrowing," explain Seth and Mary Jane Kircher, the husband-and-wife owners of The Copper Oven, a specialty pizza joint connected to Cayuga Ridge winery. "Our oven was born in Tain-l'Hermitage and we worked with a family in Maine who helped us with its final construction."
The oven is a marvel to behold, and that's before it fires up to 800 degrees for the task of cooking a pizza in two minutes. Visible from the main routes that line the western shore of Cayuga Lake, the oven attracts first-time visitors who simply want to know what it is.
Seth has an answer prepared.
"The oven itself is 6000 pounds of 'terra blanche', or white organic clay brick, which offers a thermal efficiency and durability that is superior to materials like firebrick or refractory concrete found in comparable ovens," he says, as if it weren't already obvious.
On a recent visit, Seth was home with their young child, while MJ was cranking away at the oven. My wife and I split a pizza topped with prosciutto, creme fraiche, parmesan, onion scapes, and balsamic vinegar for $12. We grabbed a glass of Cayuga Ridge Riesling for $6. The pizza was thin, crispy, and, while pretty to look at, it lasted just a few minutes.
Describing their efforts as "hyper-local," MJ explains, "I'm not sure we have a most popular pizza, but we do get regular requests for the 26 Mile. All of that pizza's ingredients are sourced from within 26 miles of where the oven sits in Ovid, so we'll use Lively Run Chevre, local caramelized onions, and a generous drizzle of Stonybrook Butternut Squash Seed Oil."
Copper Oven customers commonly ask the Kirchers: Why did you purchase a wood-fired pizza oven on wheels?
"Suffice it to say, during our initial business planning exercise, wheels seemed to be our best insurance policy," MJ says. "You know, in case other revenue streams needed to be considered, like catering or events."
But after opening The Copper Oven in 2010, the Kirchers have not had to go mobile.
MJ's dad is the winemaker next door at Cayuga Ridge, and she says the combination of Finger Lakes wine and wood-fired pizza is "a perfect fit." The recipes come from MJ; the expert sampling is handled by Seth. MJ credits her mother, whom she describes as "a master in the kitchen," with inspiring her to launch a pizza business.
There is also a service mentality that pervades The Copper Oven. Seth is in charge of the "social mission," which includes donating five percent of The Copper Oven's profits to Healthy Food for All in 2010. In 2011, the Kirchers shifted the focus to the Drink Finger Lakes Wine project.
"So far, sale of the specially made t-shirts have resulted in more than $450 in donations to the Finger Lakes Culinary Bounty," MJ says.
Spend just a few minutes chatting with MJ and you find that she and Seth bring a kind of existentialist bent to everything they do. They are extremely sensitive to their place in the region. They share a wicked sense of humor but are also quick to become contemplative.
More than anything, you get the sense that the Kirchers just want to establish a permanent home and identity in the Finger Lakes. It can not be easy to make much money selling pizza, but this is the kind of couple more focused on seeing the business survive. They appreciate the culinary talent in the region and they're quick to praise others. If the copper dome that catches travelers' eye can become a lasting fixture, that just might be enough.
There is one more ingredient at The Copper Oven that is often lacking in young businesses: accessibility. Seth and MJ take an inordinate amount of time simply talking to customers and answering questions. You can see the connections forming in just five minutes. It makes for longer days, but they believe it's worth it.
I wonder if eventually they will find a reason to take that thing to a thousand degrees or more. "We can get the oven hotter than 800 degrees, but there's nothing on our menu that needs more heat than that," they explain. Does no one want a pizza finished in one minute? 30 seconds? These Kirchers are a lot of things, but ostentatious about their oven, they are not. Oh well, We order another pizza. As much as I want it now, I'll just have to wait.