Pizza is pure Italian all the way, right? That’s not the way Rick Martin sees it. Rick, the partner and founding chef at Limestone Pizza Kitchen Bar in Lawrence, makes pizza that’s deeply rooted — literally — in Kansas.
Rick grew up in Wichita, and his mother often worked evenings. Rick would make dinner for his siblings.
“I became the cook. I loved to do it. I had a passion for cooking even as a little kid,” he said.
His appreciation for food went even deeper. With several keen gardeners in his extended family, Rick and his siblings had access to fresh fruits and vegetables from their gardens.
“It was free food if we went and picked it. I ate a lot of that food growing up,” he said.
Rick wasn’t entirely sure where any of this would lead him. He grew up in the era before celebrity chefs, when stories of cooks making it weren’t very common. Still, he couldn’t ignore his passion and wanted to explore working in restaurants.
“I had to investigate for myself to see if it was something I wanted to do,” he said. “The industry sucked me in and I realized I had a passion for it.”
Rick spent some time in Columbia, Mo. before enrolling at the University of Kansas. After several years of going to school part-time and working in restaurants full-time, he had to make a decision. He quit school to focus on his culinary career.
At the time, he was working at Free State Brewing Company in Lawrence. He worked his way up to manager, then head chef. There, Rick worked with Chuck Magerl and started getting into sourcing food locally.
“During my time there, I came to appreciate Chuck’s pioneer spirit and love of local agriculture,” Rick said.
But Rick had an idea he couldn’t shake. He wanted to make pizza. It wasn’t a fit at Free State, but, as luck would have it, Charles Rascoll, an associate of Chuck’s, and his wife Debbie approached Rick about doing a concept restaurant in Lawrence.
At first, they planned to open an upscale diner with another investor, but that fell through. Rick, Charles and Debbie got together to regroup and Rick told them about his idea to do something with pizza.
“Their eyes lit up. They had been thinking of it, too,” Rick said.
After that, things moved quickly and Limestone Pizza Kitchen Bar opened in 2014.
“I was trying to find ways to work with those producers that wanted to talk up-front pricing,” he said.
Rick had great relationships with farmers and found a few that wanted to work with him in inventive ways.
“I had a farmer who started growing broccoli in his greenhouses that we could use in winter. I started going crazy. I loved it,” Rick said.
Word got out and more people starting approaching Rick with ideas. Scott Thellman from Juniper Hill Farms and Kevin Irick were two farmers who developed partnerships with Rick early on. Scott operated very much like a national food supplier company with up-front pricing and cohesive branding. Kevin wanted to grow specifically for Limestone and planted what they wanted on faith. An old-school farmer, Kevin modernized and embraced texting and emailing to conduct business with Rick.
“It’s been really neat to see the growth of those producers who were with us from the beginning,” Rick said.
Rick has also evolved and modernized. He developed his own web-based system for food costing called KitchenScratch. It lets him determine the actual cost of items on the menu. That way, he can ensure his pricing structure will sustain the business, and he can communicate with farmers more easily.
“I designed it to be able to build on this commerce that we’ve achieved. That has been very helpful in running the business,” he said. “All in all, if we’re producing more and attracting more people to grow here, Lawrence and the Kaw Valley become better destinations for farmers and people living here.”
In addition to finding local ingredients for toppings, there’s the foundation of any good pizza — the dough.
“We live in the Wheat State. That was easy to source locally,” Rick said.
Heartland Mill in Marienthal had been building their business to cater to the food industry, selling Kansas flour to restaurants. It was easy for Rick to plug into that model.
It’s difficult if not impossible to be entirely locally sourced, Rick said. But he’s done his best — right down to the wood they use in their ovens, which comes from local hedge wood.
There’s also the issue of availability. Rick developed a seasonal menu to capitalize on peak produce, but it can be tough to tell customers their favorite summer pizza isn’t available because corn is no longer in season.
“They have to say goodbye to their favorite pizza for another nine months,” he said.
Rick sees that as a strength.
“One hundred years ago that’s the way it was,” he said. “Growing up a kid who was hungry sometimes — those vegetables I ate out of my uncle’s garden were amazing. Those are some of the sentimentalities I really love to work on.”
Rick hopes his story will get others to think about their food differently, to appreciate seasonality and the effort it takes to produce.
Rick also hopes to elevate the restaurant business in his community.
“We’re seeing a sharp decline in interest in manual labor across the board in the tech age. Nobody wants to wash dishes anymore,” Rick said. “It’s a part of my mission to bring back the prestige of doing a craft job with your hands that’s an art, a craft and something to be proud of, even if you start out washing dishes.”
To that end, Rick teaches culinary arts for the Lawrence School District (USD 497) at the Lawrence College and Career Center. It lets him promote the food industry while creating a pipeline of talent.
“It becomes a family tree,” he said. “When I train students in high school and they go on to work for me or in a job where I help place them, that creates a family tree with the origin in my classroom, my instructional kitchen. And it helps them see how great restaurant and food service work can be. People in our industry are amazing people all across the board.”
Rick certainly knows firsthand how great the work can be, and his career is a testament to the value of hard work and learning a craft.
“It made me who I am today,” he said.
If you find yourself in Lawrence, stop by Limestone to enjoy pizza with a homegrown crust and savor the flavors of the season — while you can!
“I love vegetables and I love feeding my kids vegetables and seeing them really love vegetables, too. My wife’s a vegetarian, so I’m always trying to come up with ways to prepare them, to give vegetables their center stage. And anytime I create a menu, I want options for vegetarians.”
Favorite Thing About Kansas
“I love the wide-open spaces. I love that there are places you can go, even near Lawrence, where there’s no sign of civilization. And, of course, the people.”
“My family loves to hike. I love the water, too — swimming, kayaking, sailing — anything that doesn’t require a motor.”