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Sierra Pizza goes GMO-free

Jack Barnwell
jbarnwell@tahoedailytribune.com
Sierra Pizza cook Chadallac Runyan puts a pizza in the over after prepping it on Friday. Sierra Pizza's owner switched to non-GMO ingredients a few months ago.
Jack Barnwell / Tahoe Daily Tribune |

With a healthy mindset, Sierra Pizza owner decided to shake things up and introduced more natural ingredients into his menu.

Richard Ellis, 30, said he discontinued using ingredients with genetically engineered organisms for more organic ones a few months ago, especially after eating his own food.

“I did this for morality reasons so I could eat my food and feel better selling my food, especially for children,” Ellis said at Sierra Pizza on Friday.

A GMO is any organism that has been genetically-engineered for certain results. Examples include crops genetically-modified to withstand pesticides used to remove insects, or hormone-injected animals.

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Ellis bought Sierra Pizza in 2013 after 10 years of working as a cook in the Tahoe area. However, the Ventura County native hadn’t known he would take the organic track.

“I didn’t know what I was going to be doing with this restaurant in the sense of being so organic,” Ellis said. “When I bought the restaurant, I felt it was something I could do good things with.”

GMOs have made the headlines in the last few months, with Chipotle making the largest splash when it announced in April it would become more organic.

Ellis said he has always been a conscious eater, avoiding fast foods.

“Nutrition has always been an important focus for me,” Ellis said. “Food should be fuel and allow you to do things afterward, not hinder you.”

A slow winter season in 2014 prompted Ellis to begin eating more at home. That’s when he said he noticed his pizza began to disagree with his stomach.

“When I ate my food, I started to notice an intolerance in my stomach and it was correlated to the GMO ingredients,” Ellis said.

That prompted him to start making changes to how his pizza and salads are made.

“I was like ‘I can’t eat my pizza, I’m making the change and then I’ll change the menu later,’” Ellis said.

He said it’s definitely had an impact on the bottom line.

“I just bit the bullet and hopefully some good will come from it,” Ellis said, adding he’s attempting to avoid passing the costs on to his customers.

“It’s almost an upward battle because I’m alone in this and so I have to contract to purchase whole pallets of flour and special order my non-GMO oil,” Ellis said. “I just hope things get more popular and ingredients a little more accessible.”

Future changes include removing the soda fountain and offering a wider array of organic bottled drinks.

“That coke machine, it’s gone,” Ellis said.

Since the changes to his ingredients, Ellis said the reception has been mostly good.

“I feel that the conversations with the customers, I’ve heard positive reception and other people are questioning what is this for and why are you doing this.”

Ellis distinguishes between crops that have been naturally modified or crossbred for specific reasons from those that have been chemically altered.

“I’m not trying to be the guy bashing all GMOs but there are certain ones that are truly of concern,” Ellis said.

Raising awareness about healthy or organic eating continues to be one Ellis’ goals, whether with future hires or the community as a whole.

He lamented that some people in the workforce don’t have a solid understanding of organic food.

“I would like to employ people with more of that form of education of nutrition,” Ellis said.

Sierra Pizza itself has an atmosphere Ellis described as down-to-earth and low-key, where one can come to grab a slice and maybe a beer.

“It’s almost like a second kitchen where people can feel comfortable coming to get a meal by themselves,” Ellis said.

He also wants to extend the knowledge out to the schools and educators.

“I want to be the place where every school or teacher comes to my pizzeria for a party,” Ellis said.

As things progress, Ellis said he hopes the effort will have a greater impact for his customers and the community as a whole.

“The thing is that I truly do care,” Ellis said. “I don’t want to offer food that could possibly be detrimental to people if they eat too much of it.”


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