Bill Bartz and Emily Knudsen have broken the traditional pizzeria mold and cooked up a unique dining experience at their Waseca hobby farm. The husband-and-wife duo transformed a horse barn and land on their 55-acre property into the wildly successful Pleasant Grove Pizza Farm, which sees 600-800 customers per weekend from May through June.
Just as it sounds, a pizza farm is an outdoor restaurant that operates on a farm, typically utilizing brick ovens. Pizza farm goers can bring their own chairs and beverages and enjoy dining al fresco.
Bartz and Knudsen began dating in August 2013 and recently celebrated their first wedding anniversary. Eight months into their relationship, Knudsen introduced Bartz to the pizza farm concept. She’d just visited the A to Z Produce pizza farm in Stockholm, Wis. and liked what she saw. At that time, Bartz was residing on his hobby farm on the outskirts of Waseca while Knudsen lived in Hager City, Wis. It seemed they had all the ingredients for a successful pizza partnership.
“I was always dreaming of ideas of what to do with my place, and after visiting A to Z, I realized it was a good direction to go in,” Bartz said. “Later on that summer, we really began working on the process of opening our own pizza farm.”
Looking around the existing steel barn, the couple put a plan into motion to convert the property into a pizza farm. They started their project in 2014, creating parking, removing brush and trees and figuring out customer flow and seating. The couple made their first batches of pizza sauce and dough that winter.
“The next spring, we had some money to build out our project with the kitchen and pizza oven,” Bartz said. “We cleaned the barn out, laid plumbing in the gravel of the barn, and got our conditional use permit from Waseca County.”
They finished construction using old barn boards and timbers from a neighboring farm, then installed a pizza oven. By the end of the summer of 2015, Pleasant Grove Pizza Farm was ready for its first customers.
“Because we opened in August, we could only be open for two months that first year,” Knudsen said. “But we thought, ‘We have to start somewhere, so let’s see what happens.’ We had a two-month window for being open and practicing to figure out what things were working and what things we needed to get better at.”
With Pleasant Grove Pizza Farm successfully launched, they took the winter to evaluate and improve their business plans, tightening up any processes that weren’t working as well as they could be. However, Knudsen and Bartz found that not much needed to change.
“Everything was truly working smoothly,” Knudsen said. “Things were just happening organically.”
Bartz credits their early success with keeping an open mind to how their business would develop.
“We had our customers in mind, and from there, everything just sort of happened and pushed us in the right direction we needed to be in,” he said.
Neither Bartz nor Knudsen has a background in the food industry, but they didn’t let that stand in their way.
“I was in the hospitality industry doing banquets, weddings and events, but I never really cooked or worked in a kitchen,” Knudsen said. “Bill was a carpenter and woodworker by trade, and we shared a love of food. That’s one of the things that brought us together … our sense of adventure and love of food.”
Their combined skills and willingness to learn proved a winning combination. Pleasant Grove Pizza Barn is a success, and Bartz said its growth over the past eight years is on par with its peers in the pizza farm market.
“And thank God for that,” he said. “With our unique niche business, you’re not going to blow up right away. If we had had the business we saw last year (in our first year), we would have failed. The slower growth was good for us. I became a master of the ovens, and Emily became a master of the pizzas.”
In its first few years, Pleasant Grove Pizza Farm got hit with a sampling of larger groups of people. It allowed the owners to see how they needed to pivot to accommodate larger audiences, a skill they mastered just in time for the customer boom they experienced during COVID-19.
“It provided challenges, but we navigated it by upgrading our equipment, getting bigger mixers, another oven, better food distribution and more staff,” Bartz said.
“We really saw a jump in the amount of our customers because we‘re an outdoor restaurant,” Knudsen said. “The slower growth before the Pandemic helped us make our property better for our customers.”
Pleasant Grove Pizza Farm offers eight from-scratch pizzas with ingredients sourced as close as a few feet away.
“We ended up expanding our garden during that time, too,” Knudsen said. “We want to continue to grow as much of our own produce as possible, so we moved our garden. It’s been great.”
Knudsen and Bartz grow basil, tomatoes, peppers, garlic and arugula on-site. These ingredients, together with honey sourced on the farm via Hannah’s Honey, make up one of their most popular pizzas, the Sweet Georgia Pie.
“It’s weird to say, but people have said our pizzas are the best pizza they’ve ever had,” Bartz said.
“It’s definitely weird to hear,” agreed Knudsen. “How did Bill and I end up making the best pizza? Who even are we?”
Who they are is a team. Bartz and Knudsen are the main cogs of Pleasant Grove Pizza Farm, but both are quick to acknowledge their team of friends and family members.
“We couldn’t do this without our staff,” Knudsen said. “We have the most amazing staff. We’re truly lucky.”
Over the years, the pair said they’ve developed as both people and business owners. The number one thing they’ve learned is how to grow.
“There was a lot of learning at the front end of the business,” Bartz said. “Until you experience the work, it’s more than you think. There was a bit of a reality check. Now I’m learning how important it is to have a high level of respect for your staff and give them more responsibility.”
Going into their ninth season this May, Knudsen and Bartz are eager to see their customers return to Pleasant Grove.
“I just love seeing the families,” Knudsen said. “I enjoy seeing our customers having this unique experience and seeing kids running around. People are having conversations with each other … there are friends and families meeting up and hanging out. I just love it.”
For Bartz, the last few years running Pleasant Grove with Knudsen has helped show him who he is as a person.
“I’ve always walked to the beat of my own drum,” he said. “I never quite understood what my calling or purpose was. Even though there have been financial hardships along the way, I feel like there is only a small list of people who could plow this path. It’s shown me what my purpose is.”
Knudsen and Bartz will continue to go full throttle at their pizza farm this year and are vetting ideas like introducing frozen pizza, a cooking show, a Pleasant Grove brand of canned sauce, and potentially adding a second location.
“We’re going to stay the course we’ve been on,” Bartz said. “We’re looking forward to continuing our growth with our customers and seeing what happens.”
Pleasant Grove Pizza Farm
Address: 41142 160th St, Waseca, MN 56093
Phone: (715) 523-0857
Email: [email protected]