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New owner pledges to stay open despite struggle

By Carol Stiffler

When you buy an established restaurant like Seder’s Pizza, you buy a history. A small town knows its food options well, and it isn’t Seder’s Pizza unless it’s, well, Seder’s Pizza.

New owners Jo and Kirk Tranchita know that. When they purchased the business late last year, they committed to keeping the same recipes that locals have come to expect – the same sauces, same spices.

“But I added my little caveat,” Jo Tranchita said. “We’ll keep them, but I’ll add to them.”

Tranchita, her husband Kirk, and their son Caleb moved to the Newberry area from Ohio, where Jo ran a food truck called Mama Jo’s Cafe. They’d been visiting this area for a decade and moved up when they decided it was time to engage their retirement dream plan.

That plan was to own a restaurant and live on acreage that could support a maple syrup farm. Both pieces quickly fell into place late last year, and Tranchita re-opened Seder’s Pizza on January 2nd.

In addition to the wood-fired pizza, diners can savor an ever-changing menu of wraps, fresh bread, and soups when in season. Tranchita, whose husband’s father was Sicilian, learned Mediterranean cooking from him and makes her own tzatziki sauce. If you visited Seder’s last week, you might have seen the “My Greek Cousin” wrap on the menu – it should remind you of a gyro, Tranchita said on Facebook.

Special diets also get consideration under Tranchita’s care. She now offers a cauliflower crust option for gluten-free pizza lovers, and can swap goat cheese for mozzarella, olive oil for pizza sauce, and more.

“There’s always going to be options,” Tranchita said. “If you come to us with ingredients, I’m always up for that challenge.”

The fire is another challenge. Cooking pizzas in a wood-fired oven takes an acquired skill. For now, Tranchita says it’s working out based on luck and chance.

The pizzas cook in about five minutes at temperatures between 600 and 700 degrees. There’s enough room to bake two pizzas at a time. But if the crew gets busy elsewhere and the oven cools down – even to a roasting 400 degrees – it takes a long time to warm back up and any pizzas ordered in the meantime are delayed.

When customers don’t want to wait, Tranchita is hoping they’ll be satisfied with her varied menu of wraps, subs, and salads – she is working on sourcing her produce from local farms when in season.

But all these hopes are currently stifled by dramatically reduced business thanks to the coronavirus pandemic. Her dining room was ordered closed, and while some still order takeout or delivery, many customers seem leery of eating food prepared in any other kitchen than their own.

“We’re struggling,” Tranchita said. “We’re about 70 percent down from our goal, or what we expected for March and April based off the former owner’s numbers.”

She didn’t apply for any state or federal COVID relief because she thinks other businesses probably need the funds more. And she promised her employees they would remain open.

“Come hell or high water, we are going to stay open,” she said. “People are going to need a break from their home cooking. There are some folks, for whatever the reason, don’t have the means to cook. They’ll come in and get soup.”

Customers who can’t pay in full, or at all, are never turned away.

“I’ve always said if you can’t pay for it, that’s OK,” she said. “You pay what you can and we’ll make it up somewhere else.”

She is hopeful she’ll be able to re-open the dining area by May 1, even if she and her staff have to work while wearing masks.

Tranchita sees her new business as a service, and has spent her life serving the communities she’s lived in one way or another. From working as a park ranger in the National Forest Service, to saving lives as a paramedic, to working in food service, she chooses to serve.

As long as she can pay the bills, she believes her profit will come later.

“We’ve been blessed,” she said. “We’ve been able to live our dream a couple of times over.”