John Conley comes full circle as Salsa Brava and Fat Olives sweep up six awards in Food & Drink

Best of Flagstaff 2022

Written by Gail G. Collins

A satisfying success in this life is to come full circle. Where one’s achievements align with the passions we set out to pursue, and while it takes a steady head, hard work and perseverance, it just might be our attitude—humble and grateful—that allows one to recognize and embrace that success.

In the beginning, any small business boasts one fired-up, know-it-all employee. Heck, he has invested heart, soul and bank account. It wasn’t any different for John Conley, owner of Salsa Brava and Fat Olives Wood Fired Pizzeria and Italian Kitchen.

Conley began cooking at 13 and has continued ever since. Coming from a large family, cooking kept him fed in more ways than one, and the loud chaos of a kitchen felt natural. After high school, Conley became a Heber Hotshot for the US Forest Service and attended NAU’s hotel and restaurant management program. Equipped with a penchant for Mexican travel and culture, a job at the original Salsa Brava was also a good fit. Then, rushing headlong, on the cusp of finishing his degree, Conley used his savings to buy Salsa Brava at age 21.

He shut down the place for three months and transformed it from counter service to a full restaurant, opening with one employee—John. “I had $200 to my name and slept in the shop,” Conley remembers. But that first week, firefighters battling a blaze needed 500 lunches each day for nearly a week—he was making money.

The new menu at Salsa Brava was unfamiliar, except in Sonora, known for its seafood, beef and produce. Shrimp and lobster enchiladas, Baja tacos and more, showcased flavors from the grill—al carbon—plus a range of salsa options. Thirty-five years later, that aim remains.

A lot of details have shaken out in the meantime, but the food is unshakable. The salsa requires 1,000 pounds of hand-cut tomatoes weekly, and with inflation and a hurricane, the price of a 20-pound case of fruit has skyrocketed six-fold. Also, COVID brought healthy changes to the salsa bar, where an enormous amount became wasted daily. Still, chips and salsa are free at Salsa Brava, and they come with a trio of scratch salsas.

“We spend four hours a day making salsa,” says Conley. “It’s the most expensive thing in our restaurant.” Best Salsa—an award well-earned.

Voted Best Tacos also, Salsa Brava’s choices range from Maui pork, carne asada, smoked chicken and carnitas to shrimp, cochinita pibil (Yucatan BBQ pork) and adovada pork, and the menu includes combination and traditional plates, enchiladas and fajitas.

Ashley Reipe is the general manager and managing partner with 15 years to her credit at Salsa Brava, and general manager and partner Katie Depuy steers the helm at Fat Olives, on site for 10 years. Both make running two restaurants on historic Route 66 possible.

Conley says, “I get the accolades, but they do all the heavy lifting—it’s great leadership in the GMs, trainers and support staff, who really believe in what we do.”

The restaurant employs 140 people, and the job balances a life outside of work with 40-hour weeks and full benefits. That extends to Conley, who weighs his striving to do a high level at work against the joy of his family kitchen, where the bacon is underdone and no one cares.

Passions don’t subside; they birth realities, and after Conley constructed a wood-fired oven in his yard and hosted myriad pizza parties, Fat Olives emerged. Celebrating 10 years now, Conley says winning categories for Best Italian and Overall Restaurant are huge. “What attracts people is the true pizzeria and trattoria idea—an oversized plate of pasta and meatballs for $15 in a neighborhood Italian joint.”

The pizzas are Neapolitan-styled—thin, bubbled crust—made with imported 00 Caputo flour and quality toppings, wood-fired in a workhorse Valoriani oven built in Naples, Italy.

As an award-winning starter, try the creamy indulgence of stracciatella. The house-made mozzarella—a 10-step process—is stalled at stage three and mixed with sweet cream plus ricotta, wood-fired and finished with Calabrian chili oil. The mixture is served on homemade crostini with arugula, extra-virgin olive oil, honey balsamic reduction, sparkling sea salt and cracked pepper. When ordering, add the prosciutto, aged for 14 months to slivered, pink perfection.

A decade ago, Conley wrote a cookbook, despite the warning no one would ever invite him to dinner again. He completed the project just as the opportunity to feature on a budding Food Network program landed. Celebrity chef Guy Fieri arrived with camera and audio guys to record an early episode of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives at Salsa Brava, and later, at Fat Olives. Since then, Salsa Brava Cocina has sold 20,000 copies over five printings.

The chefs became friends and further stints on Guy’s Grocery Games raised $300,000 in matching funds for Special Olympics and escapades on Guy’s Family Road Trip followed. Conley also serves on Mess Lords, where, to date, fellow chefs have cooked for troops in 23 countries at more than 50 US military bases.

As I meet John at Fat Olives, he is pruning grapevines, excited about the 300 pounds of grapes it yields, plus apples, chokecherries and garlic found on the property. Later, he adds with satisfaction, he will be in the kitchen, conjuring up a soup recipe before working on a new salsa next door.

“I want to cook the food I love to eat,” says that original employee, who has come full circle.

Look ahead to plans for a New York City kettle-boiled bagel shop, which will employ young adults with developmental disabilities, selling house made gravlax and a dozen flavored cream cheeses with a strong coffee program and catering services. BESTofFLG