Jordan Tobins showed up at the grand opening party for Sweet Tomatoes in Newton Centre in 1998, fresh out of college and with no pizza-making skills. That didn’t stop him from trying his hand at it.
Hedy Jarras, who knew Tobins from the summers they had both spent vacationing on Cape Cod, hired him, and immediately they clicked. The shop’s thin-crust pizza drew rave reviews and crowds of devotees. Jarras made Tobins a manager, and they began planning more shops.
But Tobins had his own ambitions. He left in 2000 to start a pizza company, Upper Crust. On the way out, Tobins took some crucial information: Sweet Tomatoes’ business contacts and expansion plans, according to Jarras and her former business partner, Christopher Owens.
A few months later, the first Upper Crust restaurant opened on Charles Street in Boston’s Beacon Hill neighborhood. To Jarras, Owens, and many others at Sweet Tomatoes, it looked and tasted like the pizza they made. Not only that, Upper Crust occupied a space Jarras had been eyeing.
While Jarras has not claimed that Tobins acted illegally, she objects to the way he established his business.
“He took what I had and ran with it,” Jarras said recently in her first interview on the soured relationship. “And it bothers me that he didn’t do it the ethical way.”
But that’s not how Tobins remembers it. The 34-year-old gives credit for his love of pizza-making to Owens’s other restaurant chain, Hot Tomatoes, said George Regan, a spokesman for Upper Crust.
“It was there that Christopher Owens showed Tobins how to roll out pizza dough,” Regan said.
There is no question, however, that Tobins was aggressive from the start as he learned to thrive in the fiercely competitive world of pizza-making. Over the years, Upper Crust has grown to 17 stores, from Newburyport to Plymouth. Its fresh, fragrant, and pricey pies have won acclaim. But Tobins’s former employers, and some of his own employees, take a dimmer view of how the chain was born and came of age.
Tobins’s desire to emulate the Sweet Tomatoes model was obvious to Jim Covart, a purchasing agent who buys ingredients for Sweet Tomatoes. After Tobins quit, Covart said, he called with an unusual request.
“He said, ‘We want to become your customer. We are going to use the exact same things [Jarras] is using,”’ Covart said. “When I spoke with [Jarras], she told me that he had taken her menu.”
Covart declined to bring on the new client.
Upper Crust talked to numerous vendors when it was getting underway to inquire about pricing on ingredients, Regan said. “There is nothing proprietary about the ingredients used in making pizza,” he said.
Jarras met with a trademark lawyer at the time but was told it could be tough to prove that Tobins didn’t slightly change her recipe. So she decided to focus on her own business.
Still, it was hard to ignore the budding popularity of Tobins’s creation. At the Beacon Hill store, lines of hungry customers spilled into the street. The restaurant cultivated a hip urban vibe, down to the bicycles it used to deliver thin-crust pies. The shop even caught the attention of corporate titan Jack Welch, who lived in the neighborhood. In his best-selling book “Winning,” the former General Electric chief executive gives a priceless shout-out to Upper Crust: “The pizza is to die for.”
Welch’s quote became the tagline for an Upper Crust marketing blitz that featured the curly-haired Tobins in chef whites, surrounded by boxes of pizza. Encouraged by his burgeoning fame, Tobins, a Sharon native, set his sights on a second store. In 2002, he opened in Brookline on Harvard Street, another location Jarras had considered for Sweet Tomatoes. The next year he launched a shop in Key West, Fla., with his father, Barry, and kept looking to add more restaurants back home. The company later took on new partners, Josh Huggard and Brendan Higgins, who have minority stakes in the business, and hired young managers like Patrick Joyce.
“I bought into it being a fun, exciting work environment, a youthful company that was growing,” Joyce said. “I didn’t buy into what it became: cutting corners [on labor] to enhance the bottom line.”
As his business flourished, Tobins relied on many immigrant employees - almost all of whom arrived illegally from a single village in Brazil - to fill out his expanding kitchen staff.
At first it was a happy shop. But employees began to chafe at not being paid for overtime, and, when they took the issue to federal labor authorities and won, Tobins was furious.
He was especially tough on workers who wanted to do what he did when he started out: build their own businesses on a borrowed model.
Edmar da Silva was one with dreams of making his own way. He planned to start a thin-crust pizza shop, called Crispy Dough Pizzeria, with other Brazilian employees at Upper Crust.
Tobins had other ideas. In February he sued da Silva, accusing his longtime employee of stealing trade secrets, violating his employment contract, and fraudulently using personal information to obtain a credit card by listing Tobins as a cosigner, according to a copy of the lawsuit filed in Suffolk Superior Court. Upper Crust’s employment agreement included a three-year prohibition on employees working “directly or indirectly” for a business involved in making pizzas, calzones, or other similar food products within a 15 mile radius of any Upper Crust location.
Jarras, of Sweet Tomatoes, heard about the lawsuit but decided to steer clear of the legal wrangling.
A few months earlier, she had received a call from Tobins’s lawyer. He demanded that she remove a copy of Pizza Today, a trade publication, from a rack in her restaurant. In a story in the magazine, Jarras is quoted recalling how a former employee and friend stole her recipe. Tobins was not mentioned by name, but the quote apparently got his attention.
Ultimately, Tobins and da Silva, who declined to comment for this story, reached a settlement in April. Crispy Dough is now open on Tremont Street near Mission Hill.
Jarras, meanwhile, kept her copy of Pizza Today. The magazine story hangs in her Newton shop, in a red frame that matches the color of her pizza sauce.
“It’s my little protest,” she said.