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A Switchback Chat

Marguerite Viola is the co-owner and founder of Switchback Pizza, a local pizzeria in Emmaus, PA that she runs with her husband and business partner. Switchback is notable for its focus on utilizing fresh, sustainable ingredients, its amazing wood-stove fired crusts, and its little yellow building tucked next to a train switchback, as I wrote about when I reviewed their restaurant for The Muhlenberg Weekly. They recently celebrated the fourth anniversary of the opening of their restaurant, so I spoke to Marguerite about their journey with a special focus on sustainable dining in the Lehigh Valley.

Katherine Dickey (KD): Could you start by speaking a little bit about your background in restaurants and how Switchback got started?

Marguerite Viola (MV): Sure! I actually don’t have a background in restaurants before Switchback Pizza, but I have had a variety of different businesses and a long history with food. My business partner (and husband) and I started Switchback Pizza after we came back from Italy. We went to Italy and also Scotland and England to actually learn how to make cheese and salami. We actually thought we were going to have a farm. My business partner (our chef) has worked in restaurants for a really long time now, a couple decades, ever since he was in high school. 

When we were in Italy we stayed at this one farm for close to two months. They had a wood oven where they baked bread every Friday and we made pizza there. We were part of the WWOOFing program there, it’s Willing Workers on Organic Farms. It allows you to go to other countries and you’re really working but you’re not getting paid so you don’t need a visa. They put you up for free and feed you, so you work on their farms and you can choose [where you go]. So this one farm did agritourism and what they didn’t grow they got from their little region. It was amazing. She got her grain custom grown for her, they grew tomatoes, they raised meats, so it was just really amazing being there and eating their food and seeing how they made everything. 

So while we were there, we kinda had the idea that maybe we should make pizza, you can use anything on pizza. We had seen, we had been at a festival in Virginia where they had a mobile wood oven. It seemed like maybe we could do that, we actually thought we were going to have pizza as part of our farm, but it kind of just turned out that we ended up doing lots of pizza and having a restaurant and growing [food] being part of the restaurant and the other way around. So we came back–and that was seven years ago–and we bought a mobile oven and just started doing catering. At the time we grew all our own garlic out of a rental kitchen that was across the street from our friend’s farm. And that was how we started.

KD: That’s such a cool story. So you were on like an agriturismo– like a kind of touristy farm– or was it kind of more through the program and it was a working farm in the area?

MV: It was an agritourism thing. You can still go there, you can go there and you can stay there and depending on what you pick it can be like a bed and breakfast– it was an old 15th century mill that this couple had taken and very lovingly restored. They made their own salami in the basement from their own cows and pigs. While we were there, we hosted a few dinners for guests that came. For special occasions, they’d have these big long dinners so we got to help prepare those. So you can stay there as a B&B or you can get these add-ons and have these really amazing farm-to-table dinners in this old dining room with these huge farmhouse tables. And for the dinners they would cook the meat–they would have these antipasto platters, and then the pasta, and while people were eating that, the meat would actually be cooking in a huge fireplace in the center of the room. Really amazing, really amazing experience to be a part of. 

KD: I could see how that would inspire you. Could you talk a little bit about Switchback’s mission as far as sustainability, because you source a lot of stuff from local farms, right?

MV: Yes, we do. So from the beginning, we really wanted to, our focus has always been supporting our local community. I was an intern on The Seed Farm [in Emmaus] the year we started Switchback because, like I said, we thought we were going to be farmers. My husband was  apprenticing at a chicken farm, like a grass fed chicken beef farm that year too.

From the beginning we just wanted to take as much local produce and meat as possible and use that and showcase that on our pizzas.

And that’s really grown. At this point all our greens, almost all of our salad greens and our arugula comes from [Butter Valley Harvest] down in Barto. We get a couple other meats here and there but most of our meats on our regular menu come from Stryker Farm up in Saylorsburg. We compost at the restaurant so all the waste gets composted. This year we have a bigger garden. We have a big garden behind our house and we have lots of containers around the restaurant, so we grow a lot of what we use during the growing season. We also source only solar and wind energy for electricity. It’s always been a big part of who we are, just trying to do as much as possible to leave our little spot in the world a little bit better.

KD: So as far as only solar and wind energy, how did you make that move to the sustainable energy and how did you go about that process?

MV: It’s actually very easy. At this point you just choose a provider that provides that electricity for you. I think it’s actually something we should be pushing for more businesses to do. It is a little more expensive, but just the provider we have its within 300 miles all the solar and the wind is all produced within 300 miles of Emmaus and it’s all newer plants. So with greenhouse emissions, climate change, anything we can do to be part of a solution is what we try to do. We can only do so much, because we can only afford to do so much, but I was really excited to make that change about a year ago and not rely on coal energy.

KD: What do you see as a trend with sustainable dining in the Lehigh Valley? You’ve been at this for a while, do you see more businesses moving towards this kind of like solar and wind energy and sourcing their food more sustainably?

MV: I see more people switching their food more locally. I don’t know who is sourcing their energy or how. But I definitely see more restaurants that are sourcing local food, which is awesome. So hopefully that food culture grows in the Lehigh Valley and we’ll see more places doing that.

We have great farmland here, there’s actually still farms in the Lehigh Valley. Neither my husband nor I is from here, but I feel strongly that we wouldn’t be able to do what we do anywhere else.

I mean, there’s been times when we can bike ride to some of the farms that we’re sourcing from. We’re able to know so many of our farmers, like, we have a CSA drop-off at our place and they’re growing their own vegetables 40 minutes from here. They’re in the Lehigh Valley. There’s a lot of people still farming here and it’s all really close to the towns so I think it’s an exciting place to be.

KD: So I was looking at your social media, and I see that you’ve been using wheat berries and doing your own wheat grinding. How has that changed how you make pizza?

MV: So we use the local grain for our bread, but we have not been able to figure out how to incorporate it into our pizza. Mainly because we’ve had our pizza–well, we’ve continued to improve on our pizza dough through the years–but our customers love our pizza crust as it is. So we have not changed the flour that we use for that. What we have done is we’ve started a sourdough bread program at our restaurant now and we also have frozen pizza. The frozen pizza that we’ve got is a sourdough frozen dough and part of that dough is local wheat. There’s Red Cat Farm up in Germansville and they grow wheat so we get the wheat berries from there. We just got a much better mill. That allows us to do more than we’ve been able to do in the past, because we were using more of a home mill. The quality is much better on our new flour mill. We also get some local rye berries for the bread. As we move forward, we’d like to run some pizza specials with local flour in those specific doughs and crusts for specials. 

KD: How do you decide what to source from local farms versus what you guys grow yourselves?

MV: I try to grow things that I can’t get from people locally: specialty peppers, specialty tomatoes. I grew two specialty heirloom tomatoes this year that probably wouldn’t really be viable for someone to grow just to sell commercially.

So, I try and pick things that I think will really bring value to our menu, to our customers that we love. 

Like kale, I can get locally throughout the year off and on but I can’t always get it. I don’t know, kale, for me, is really easy to grow so I’m trying to grow kale all year round for the restaurant. I’ve been growing the kale just for the summers, but this year to be able to use plastic and season extensions to be able to grow the kale over the winter because a lot of the farmers that I know just turn off after a certain point. Like, they don’t have kale after January or maybe even after November they don’t have kale. 

I try to grow things that are going to be an addition. Things like salad greens and arugula, to grow consistently are really challenging, it’s hard, so when we have a great farm that does that, it doesn’t make sense for me to do it. Next year, I’ll be growing a lot more herbs and things I can’t really find to see what we can do with them and how we can use them and have fun with them. 

KD: So you guys have a lot of really seasonal dishes and really specific dishes. What do you think is the importance of that when it comes to sustainable dining?

MV: Things taste so good when they’re fresh. Seasonal eating is so important to sustainability because its not being shipped anywhere. The fact that our fresh heirloom tomatoes aren’t coming from California in January is important, not that they even taste very good at that point [chuckles]. Learning how to do that and explaining that to people is really important to sustainable dining.

People all the time say “Oh we love your corn pizza, can’t we have it all year round” but I think that’s what makes it special, that you can only have it when it tastes really great, when it’s from just down the road. 

KD: That’s really cool. So you said originally you were thinking of making your own sausage and your own cheese, do you still do any of that or is that sourced as well?

MV: Well for all of the regular menu stuff, for our regular menu items, that’s all sourced. We do make chorizo here and there for specials. Every once in awhile we make cheese. Usually we just source that and if we’re looking for a specialty cheese we go to one of the specialty cheesemakers that we know.

KD: The specialty cheese makers you know, is that all in area? How far would you say you have to go to find those kinds of things?

MV: There’s a few different people who make really great cheese. Valley Milk House makes amazing cheese and she works with a couple other cheese makers that make really great cheese. 

We do make a few of our cheeses. We make our stracciatella cheese and we use that all the time. But if we are interested in making artisan cheese, there are just so many people that that’s what they do for a living and they’re better at it than we are. So we make simple cheeses that we can make for our specials but when it comes to something like Camembert or Brie or an aged cheese, we don’t have to travel far because there’s really high quality cheese in the Lehigh Valley. 

KD: What is in your dream future for Switchback? Like, if you could do anything you wanted with the restaurant, how far would you go?

MV: [She laughs.] Far! I guess if I could do anything, we are currently working on becoming a cidery, so we are going to be making hard cider. It’s taking a little longer than I had hoped. We bought our building five years ago, it was a gym. Have you been to our restaurant?

KD: I have, I loved it.

MV: Originally it was a gym, well originally the building was a train station, but when we bought it was a gym, like a muscle gym. Like an Arnold Schwarzenegger type gym. There were pictures of him on the walls. And then the other side was a dog groomer. So we got it and we built the restaurant and we built an apartment and so we lived there. We moved out this year, so that side, what was the apartment, is now going to be a cidery.

I’m really excited to do that. I’ve been making cider for, oh gosh, almost 5 years now! I got to go to Canada last year to take a cider production class at a university. We source apples all local to the area and make the cider. We’ll be making hard cider over there and so eventually that will come to the restaurant, and that’ll be really great. 

It’s a dream, or a hope anyway, to be able to have more land and to be able to grow a small orchard for the cidery and grow fruits and grow a small garden, maybe a half-acre garden for Switchback. To do more of what we’re doing. 

I hope to be able to use more local grain in what we’re doing. 

I love showing people vegetables that they’ve never had before. It’s really fun. Like watermelon radishes. Have you ever had a watermelon radish?

KD: I don’t think so?

MV: They are pink, they’re bright pink and you can usually get them all winter so we use them in our salads over the winter and it’s always really fun! People come in over the winter and they’ve never had a watermelon radish and they’re like “What’s this??”

Being able to show people, expose people to more food, to foods that are from around here is really fun. So that is our ultimate dream, to be able to have some more land, grow more, especially heirloom vegetables and find those amazing flavors that you can only get from vegetables when you harvest them and use them right away.

And to be able to do the hard cider and be able to use that as part of our menu. 

KD: Wow, that was a lot and really good to hear. Sounds idyllic. What are some of your favorite dishes that you guys have developed, made, created, whether seasonal or regular menu?

MV: Um…

KD: Your personal favorites.

MV: My personal favorites? [She laughs again.] Well I guess there’s been quite a few salads over the years that I just love, like special salads. I grow a lemon cucumber, we had a lemon cucumber salad, that was really awesome. And I actually had not had lemon cucumbers before I started growing them. Drew, our chef, he had grown them when he had worked on a farm out in California, and so he was familiar with them. That was one of my favorite salads. 

The chorizo and tomatillo pizza, with peppers, is one of my favorite pizzas that we make but it’s been hard to find tomatillos. And I had them in the garden this year, but not enough, and so next year I’m trying to grow a lot more. I’m planning on tripling, or at least doubling, my tomatillos so we can hopefully have it for a whole month. There’s just something about that pizza that’s so good. [She pauses, thinking.] 

The chocolate torte that we made, that Drew made, the chocolate tahini torte that’s now on the menu, that’s really good as far as having that around all the time.

KD: My mom had that when we visited and she loved it, like, loved it!

MV: Oh, great!

KD: You talk a lot about gardening, it’s clearly very important to you. What is something that you’ve learned about gardening that you don’t think you could have learned just by farming when you were doing the WWOOF program or when you were traveling, something that growing for your restaurant taught you?

MV: That’s a good question. I think I’ve been gardening since I was 13, so I’ve been gardening for a really long time. I think gardening for our restaurant has taught me a bit more focus, in trying to make sure that I can use it in our restaurant. 

Like, this year something really funny happened, I had my friend start me peppers and he started like double the amount that I wanted or needed so I had all these extra peppers. So I planted them all. And one of the peppers is the shishito pepper. It’s a flavorful sweet pepper but one in fifteen of those is spicy. And I’ve grown it over the years, more for myself, not something we were really trying to use in the restaurant, but this year we thought we would like to try it for different specials and put it on different things.

It was kind of a fun learning experience because I’m writing the menus and I’m trying to describe a type of pepper that is sometimes very spicy. That doesn’t really translate to like a pizza when you have lots of people coming in and ordering your food, from grandmas to eight year olds to people that love spice. The people that love spice, they’re probably not going to be the one in fifteen person that gets the spicy one. 

So it taught me some more focus on trying to think about, think ahead to how we’re going to use it. It’s really a fun collaboration: I get to grow stuff and Drew gets to figure out how we’re going to use it and we talk about it. It’s more of a team effort. Today I was clearing out the tomato beds and like I saved all the green tomatoes and he has a green tomato chutney that he’ll make that he’ll use those tomatoes for. I guess the collaboration is something–it’s really fun to grow it and see it get used in dishes and then serve it to people and have them to ask “Oh wow this tomato, I’ve never tasted this tomato before, like what is this tomato?” I don’t know, exactly, I think focus, maybe, and thinking ahead.

KD: Does it ever put pressure, because you said you’ve been gardening a long time, does it ever put pressure on this thing that you’ve loved and make it unenjoyable in any way? To make it feel like you have to produce for the restaurant?

MV: No, so that’s one of my rules for the garden, is that it has to be fun. I’ve kind of tried to take away that pressure. If we have too much of the stuff, we try and figure out how to use it and we grow stuff that we can try and preserve as well. Like I have all these peppers, and we’ve been dehydrating them and we’ll make a harissa over the winter. 

So it’s actually been the opposite, we didn’t have a huge garden when we were living in the restaurant because we were in an apartment there and we had just the containers and it wasn’t as big.

Now that I have this large garden, it’s really an inspiration because it’s why I make food. 

I stayed in France as an exchange student when I was 15 and they had an enormous garden, probably bigger than my whole yard. The family would just go out and harvest produce for lunch. They would harvest all the berries for tarts and tortes, and her parents lived next door and they would help take care of the garden. It was just mind blowing because everything tasted so good. I think being able to do that, it pushes me to the restaurant.

KD: I’m trying to think if there’s anything else I need to ask you, but this has been such a lovely interview, thank you so much for speaking to me.

MV: Sure!

KD: Is there anything you want to say just generally on the topic of either your restaurant or on sustainable dining or anything? Is there anything you feel needs to be said?

MV: I think it’s exciting that people are talking about sustainable dining and I hope becomes something that becomes important to more and more people. Climate change is happening and our food system needs to be changed. I’m always glad to see local restaurants, when they’re growing stuff or sourcing locally because the food tastes better and I think it’s better for the community and for all of us as a whole. Hopefully it will be something that more people and more people will care about. 

Switchback Pizza Company is open 3pm-8pm Tuesdays to Thursdays, 3pm-9pm on Fridays, and 11:30am-9pm on Saturdays at 525 W Jubilee Street in Emmaus, PA. It is BYOB.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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