Holy Tomato is what many would consider a hidden gem of South Jersey. Opened in May of 2010 by Terri Berkholder, Jessica De La Cruz, and Summer Stanley, their vision was one of undeniably delicious tomato pie and a quality of southern hospitality which truly made the establishment more than just a pizza place.
Located just south of heaven, or, I should say, Gloucester Township, this pizza place serves to-die-for thin crust pizza pies, famous house salads, and the best sopapilla cheesecake you could ever get your hands on. Despite the unique menu and retro decor, Holy Tomato is best known for being a place that has brought generations of families together and continues to do so through their incredibly inclusive nature.
I have been known as a regular customer of Holy Tomato for quite some time now. When my mother and aunt brought me to eat there for the first time in 2014, I had no idea of what kind of impact the establishment would have on me. Of course, I had fallen in love with their extra garlicky pizza, but I had also found a home.
The first year after my mother had passed away, my family and I struggled to find places to properly celebrate her life. Little did we know, we all had a special connection to Holy Tomato. This little but mighty restaurant was a place where my mother and I would have serious life talks, laugh until we fell off our chairs, and marvel with new curiosity in each visit at the ever-changing decor. We found new friends and new conversations with the people who work there.
They now know my entire family. On birthday's and anniversaries, we all come in together. My aunts, uncles, my best friend, and my mother's best friend and her family come together to celebrate her and share the same love for Holy Tomato's pizza and the love for life that she had.
I had the privilege of interviewing two of the partners in the management of Holy Tomato, Shawn Leahey, and Zach De La Cruz to uncover a bit more of the story behind Holy Tomato. These two have welcomed me repeatedly on my many visits, and I can only speak highly of them and what they do to contribute to Holy Tomato's success.
Shawn Leahey (left) and Zach De La CruzPhoto by Mia Montalvo
The tale of Holy Tomato begun with what was known as "Alfred's Tomato Pie." Owners and visionaries, Summer, Jessica (sisters), and mother Terri found what they thought was pizza gold at Alfred's shop after moving to South Jersey, a place much different than Oklahoma where they had been uprooted. Before Holy Tomato had become the dream, Summer and Jessica had worked in restaurants but had also been following a career path in business. Combining aspects of southern hospitality, backgrounds in finance/management, and the opportunity of Alfred deciding to sell his coveted recipe, the girls changed the game and made Holy Tomato their very own.
After two years of watching their startup grow, they realized that providing a good product and great service was what they knew best, but adding more people to the team was what would really allow it to flourish. When Shawn Leahey and Zach De La Cruz joined the team they already had twenty plus years of experience working in restaurants. However, what really made this experience different than all of the others, was their relationship with their coworkers. Holy Tomato is a family run business, but it has also created a family within the relationships built from an open door policy.
Shawn had been a close friend of Summer's from back in his college days, and Zach is Jessica's husband. When I asked them whether these relationships cultivated a more supportive or more hectic work environment in their restaurant they responded without one bit of hesitation. "We are all here by choice, none of us are here just for a paycheck. We all love what we do so much," said Zach De La Cruz. They mentioned that the positive benefits of being so closely-knit with one another were that they never felt that they needed to bite their tongues around aspects that needed improvement. Shawn explained to me that "The business is really managed by six different people. We all have different opinions and can butt heads at times, but we have such a constant dynamic and willingness to keep honesty as our priority with our family and customers that it truly works so well."
In addition to their open door policy, what really sets Holy Tomato aside from other restaurants is the quality of their service and ability to make you feel right at home. Learning that the family was from the South, I realized that implying this kind of impeccable service was just something that came naturally. New Jersey has a very different cultural feel than I can imagine anywhere in the South would, so it occurred to me just how important treating customers like a family would be to their values. Shawn explained to me, "Neither of us are southern, the girls have the roots - but just being a part of this family, it became ingrained in us." The men told me that they truly believed that at least eighty-five percent of their clientele, they had close personal relationships with.
"It is so important for us to build these relationships because the generations, and generations of families in this town is what will keep us going." - Shawn Leahey
Everything you see coming from Holy Tomato is completely natural and organic. The relationships, the intricate details in the decor, the ever-changing items on the menu - all entirely running from the inspiration within the house, or as Shawn said "spirit." Both raved about this being of one of the many benefits of being a small business. As a family, they are able to nurture an environment where ideas can be creatively spread and families will receive that energy in return. "The building means something to all of us, not just the business. Each and every piece of decor, some are even family heirlooms from our customers. We take care of them and in return, we can share this story for years to come."
Holy Tomato back dining roomPhoto by Mia Montalvo
I decided to end the interview, by asking one important question. "Where would you both like to see Holy Tomato in 10 years?" They responded with the typical small business owner response, that of course, they would wish to see the restaurant grow into something bigger with multiple units. Yet, what they told me should be my biggest takeaway is the main goal of the girls, which is to make Holy Tomato an everlasting landmark in South Jersey. They want it to be a place where I would bring my children, and their children, and continue to share this love. What is so great about this is that I am sure that there are so many other stories like mine, that are being cultivated in this very restaurant every day.
Holy Tomato will always be my home away from home.