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As Hillside Pizza grows, its drive to make a difference remains

  • HIP Pies from Hillside Pizza. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

  • Patrick Jones and Craig White of Hillside Pizza fold HIP Pies boxes at the Bernardston location. Recorder Staff/Richie Davis



Recorder Staff
Friday, January 12, 2018

BERNARDSTON — Inspiration keeps leading in new directions, even as Craig White keeps his eyes on the pies.

Pizza pies, that is.

Inspired by what was in 2001 Franklin County Community Development Corp.’s new commercial kitchen, White left his job as a Bement School chef and was inspired with Tai Chi buddy and social worker/organic gardener Bob Lindner to create Hillside Organic Pizza to help schools raise money.

Like dough, the business grew and grew, selling frozen pies at Green Fields Market and then adding restaurants in Deerfield (2006), Hadley (2009) and Bernardston (2010), along with a separate catering business that fed 54 weddings last year as well as Yankee Candle Co. and Smith College events.

The business dropped “organic” from its name, though it still boasts use of organic sauce and flour and other organic ingredients for its partially baked pies, which are sold to charities, which, in turn, sell them as fundraisers.

About three years ago, after White’s inspiration to help found Brattleboro’s Inspire School for students with autism and to offer jobs to some of its students and alumni, he was driving one home behind a van with a “HIPPIES ARE FOREVER” bumper sticker.

Hip pies. Hillside Inspired Pizza …. New bake-in-the-box packaging for its cheese and pesto frozen pizzas. The ideas kept baking in White’s head, growing the list of stores that now carry the pies, including Foster’s Supermarket in Greenfield in the last month, as well as Atlas Farmstand in Deerfield, North Quabbin Coop in Orange, Millstone Market in Sunderland, Atkins Market in Amherst, State Street Deli in Northampton, Cooper’s Corner in Florence and stores in Berkshire County and southern Vermont.

“We just got into 10 more stores,” says a pie-eyed White, seated in the Bernardston restaurant in the former Streeter’s General Store building that the business purchased two years ago to install a full commercial kitchen at its western end, with a full production facility in its basement. “The goal is to keep adding stores. We’ve realized there’s such a need for real jobs for folks with different abilities. How do we do that? We need to sell more HIP pies and more fundraising pizzas.”

Bernardston is the busiest of the restaurants, since it’s just off the interstate and has plenty of community support. INSPIRE students and others staffers with autism are preparing for Feb. 4 Super Bowl sales. The Bernardston operation has about 15 employees overall, and that swells when the catering business, which was spun off this Thursday to its manager Patrick O’Hearn — gets very busy in May.

“The real dream is to do more HIP pies. By next year, we hope to have 12 adults with autism. I want Patrick by next year to be working full-time.”

He’s pointing to Patrick Jones, a 27-year-old worker from Greenfield who began working two days a week a couple of years ago and now works three days folding boxes.

“The best part is working here making a bunch of pizza boxes and stuff! I’m the best box maker ever! My record is a little over 200 (a day.) It’s a lot of fun,” says a smiling Jones, who has told White that he’d like to work at Hillside until he’s ready to retire someday.

A half-dollar from every HIP pie sale goes to charities like Franklin Land Trust, INSPIRE School or to help the restaurant offer jobs to adults with autism, said White, adding that he hopes to increase that number from eight to 12 by next year, while also boosting their hours and pay.

“The most important thing is to get them a job, where they feel good about themselves, and to give their families some respite,” said White, with his wife, Amy, pointing out that the type of business is well-suited for people with a variety of abilities, from making boxes and grating cheese to moving products to the new 20-by-8-foot walk-in freezer in the basement that can hold 2,000 pizzas.

A sign in the restaurant announces that so far, the business has helped groups raise $486,000 for charities. By the time the Super Bowl is done, that score will easily top the half-million mark, assures White.

The mega-event has always been a chance for Hillside Pizza to score big with groups from Greenfield, Turners Falls and Mahar high schools because people like to have on-hand pizzas they can pop into the oven for Super Bowl parties.

“It’s such a natural fit,” said Ms. White, who accompanied her husband this week to talk to middle school students in Ludlow who expect to sell 1,500 to 2,000 pizzas and cookie batter, keeping $6 for every pizza they sell.

In addition to the 12- and 16-inch pizzas, which are sold by schools in southern Vermont and New Hampshire and around Hampshire County, some groups, like Dakin Animal Shelter, NELCWIT, South Deerfield’s Tilton Library, Big Brother-Big Sisters of Franklin County have sold Hillside Pizza gift certificates as fundraisers.

Last year, White figures, Hillside sold $100,000 worth of HIP pies — a total he hopes to triple by next year, as more stores get added.

While pepperoni pizzas are a big seller at the restaurant and in fresh fundraiser pizzas, it’s not possible to do without the complication of U.S. Department of Agriculture inspections, he says. But the hope is to add seasonal margherita pizza pizzas and Autumn Comfort butternut squash pizzas. Both are popular at the three restaurants, where total employment is 60.

Along the way, Hillside Pizza — which was named the CDC’s Entrepreneur of the Year in 2014 — also tries to support Atlas Farm and other local growers in buying produce, says White. With White proudly celebrating 30 years of “being sober,” the catering business has made a special effort to hire people from the area’s substance-abuse recovery community.

“It’s not about the money. It’s not about the pizza,” explains Ms. White. “It’s about the difference you make and the joy to be able to do that.”

On the Web: www.hillsidepizza.com

www.hillsideorganiccatering.com

You can reach Richie Davis at

rdavis@recorder.com

or 413-772-0261, ext. 269