A Neighborhood Pizza Joint Needs a Neighborhood

The Twin Cities pizza chain Davanni’s is celebrating its 40th birthday with a facelift. It wants to be young again and recapture its original glory as the neighborhood pizza joint.

In a recent article, the Star Tribune reported that many young millennials do not associate Davanni’s with their local neighborhood businesses, but rather think of it as a chain. And I know why.

The answer is the suburbs and their geography of nowhere.

I live close to the original Davanni’s on Grand and Cleveland in St. Paul. It has a neighborhood feel, which has not changed in my experience. The St. Paul location is a modest two-story brick structure that’s clean enough to not arouse suspicion, but dirty enough to be authentic. One can write off the grease stains as nothing more than charm.

This Davanni’s even goes the extra mile by writing clever messages on its sign (which commonly says things like, “Four out of Four Ninja Turtles Recommend Us”). If you’re looking for a neighborhood pizza joint, this is exactly the personality you want.

I’ve seen the Davanni’s outposts alongside the five-lane arterial collector roads in places like Eden PrairieCoon RapidsRogersArden Hills and Eagan, but I’ve always dismissed them. These buildings are not reminiscent of the original location, which is what a Davanni’s should be. Instead, they more closely resemble a small strip mall refurbished sometime in the mid 1990s, surrounded by asphalt, turning lanes, and fast moving traffic.

Location. Location. Location.

In an interview last week, Davanni’s CEO said, “Every store will get something. Some more than ­others. Our location on Cleveland and Grand is our golden goose. We’re not going to modernize that one.”

The goose that lays the golden eggs is their oldest storefront. This is a success that Davanni’s can replicate, but it cannot be beside the highway next to the Applebee’s. How can you be a neighborhood establishment without a neighborhood?

Davanni’s wants to cash in on millennials who confuse them with national chains. Craft beer is a good start, but it will be hard to overcome the frontage roads. When Davanni’s was locally expanding their footprint, an Arden Hills location would have made sense. They were following the trends. But now these suburban landscapes feel depressing and are places millenials want to escape, not hang out in.

The company will need to go where millennials want to live. And to be fair, they have done this. They have restaurants in downtown Minneapolis, Riverside and Uptown. My guess is that these locations don’t need much in way of modern renovations to stay busy.

They may want the clientele to change, but deep issues in the company culture do not seem to budge. Change can be a bitter pill to swallow. I’m referring to the company’s baffling political opposition towards a modest proposal to put bike lanes on Cleveland Avenue in St. Paul. Davanni’s positioned itself as the leading business opponent to the bike lanes, due to the loss of four parking spaces (despite the business’ ample off-street parking). These bike lanes were overwhelmingly supported by millennials — the precise demographic Davanni’s is trying to attract as customers.

If you want to attract millenials, I recommend giving them a safe option to visit your store by bicycle. Driving and car ownership are declining, and millennials as well as older adults are embracing alternate transportation. I have a work colleague who specifically chose a vacation destination based on access to bike share. Cycling rates will continue to climb and accommodating cyclists could be a business windfall.

Davanni’s situation isn’t dire. They make good pizza and hoagies (and apparently is a fun place to work). They might be a tad more expensive, but you get what you pay for. Yet, if Davanni’s wants to establish a neighborhood feel, then I recommend opening stores in neighborhoods. Only then will they replicate the company’s original soul.

The addition of craft beer is a good start, but Davanni’s won’t be able to drink themselves out of the suburbs.


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18 Responses to A Neighborhood Pizza Joint Needs a Neighborhood

  1. Monte Castleman
    Monte Castleman June 26, 2015 at 8:01 am #

    Moving beyond the absolute insult directed at the places I live in and love (really, if you don’t like the suburbs that’s one thing, but implying someplace isn’t a “place”. If you look in the dictionary the Shakopee Walmart where I shop is just as much a “place” as the Wedge Co-op). I’m wondering if the problem isn’t just that there are multiple locations, not where they are. If there were a dozen locations in the city, would millennials think of it a chain? We’ve all seen national fast food chains that have unique looking locations, yet we know they’re chains because we see others around. Think the Old Chicago in Duluth or the former Hardees in Red Wing.

    Maybe I actually cared about the pizza rather than if there were grease stains on the walls, but the Eden Prairie and Grand locations all seem to be about the same experience to me as the one I usually go to near my house in Bloomington. But selling decent beer is definitely the right direction. I’m not a Millennial but I still refuse to drink Bud Light.

    Finally, has it really been conclusively proven that Millennials are moving into the city? I know that thought is the darling of the liberal news media nowadays, but what about the statistic?
    ” According to U.S. Census Bureau data released this week, 529,000 Americans ages 25 to 29 moved from cities out to the suburbs in 2014; only 426,000 moved in the other direction. Among younger millennials, those in their early 20s, the trend was even starker: 721,000 moved out of the city, compared with 554,000 who moved in.”
    http://fivethirtyeight.com/datalab/think-millennials-prefer-the-city-think-again/
    This is from a site that analyzes statistics, without an ax to grind either direction.

    • Alex Cecchini
      Alex Cecchini June 26, 2015 at 8:33 am #

      That fivethirtyeight post was challenged by the folks at City Observatory: http://cityobservatory.org/twenty-somethings-are-choosing-cities-really/

      Though I will say that the data probably shows and will show that millennials will continue the last 60 years of American living patterns, with changes at the margins. As always, if we removed all the things that tilt folks toward single family homeownership etc etc things would be even less. But that is likely true for previous generations as well.

      With that, I’ll also say that I see plenty of snake people patronizing places like Buffalo Wild Wings or some other such place. Even ones in the suburbs with parking. I don’t know that Davanni’s needs to focus on their urban design/etc simply to attract this crowd. Yes, younger folks are realizing the benefits of smaller, local places with better food at the expense of the consistent experience one gets from a national chain. But I see just as many young people at the Hopkins Pizza Luce as the one on Lyndale. The atmosphere, food, beer, etc are all roughly the same. Hopkins may lose a few patrons at the margins because they’re located on a stroad (but also a bike trail), but many businesses can probably overcome that.

      • Monte Castleman
        Monte Castleman June 26, 2015 at 9:46 am #

        The name “CityCommentary” suggest a pro-city, anti-suburb bias, but it does seem there’s two ways of looking at it
        1) Of the Millennials that moved, more chose the city than the suburbs (CityCommentary)
        2) Of the Millennials whose preference for city or suburbs changed, more moved towards to the suburbs than the city (538)

        So like most statistics you can pick which ones support your viewpoint. But it’s all academic to me except that anything that keeps the value of my house in the suburbs low is good.

        • Adam Miller
          Adam Miller June 26, 2015 at 10:10 am #

          “But it’s all academic to me except that anything that keeps the value of my house in the suburbs low is good.”

          This is a very strange way to think about what is most likely the most valuable asset you own.

          • Monte Castleman
            Monte Castleman June 26, 2015 at 10:39 am #

            I now it sounds strange, but my sister and I have no intention of ever selling nor anyone to inherit the house. So more value just means more property taxes.

            • Nathaniel M Hood
              Nathaniel June 26, 2015 at 12:15 pm #

              I think a lot more Millennials are looking to live in the city. From there, it’s a matter of what they can afford. Our housing stock basically didn’t build much good urban stuff for about 20 years (1980s & 1990s).

  2. Adam Miller
    Adam Miller June 26, 2015 at 9:25 am #

    The one in downtown Minneapolis is rather strip-mally too.

  3. UrbanDoofus June 26, 2015 at 10:24 am #

    You guys can hash it out about urban vs urban and millennials. I’m not sure that’s as relevant as their bland branding and positioning.

    My only interaction with them is via flyer left at my apartment building. Nothing looks old school, just as bland as the Papa Johns or Sarpinos. As lame as Chanticlear, who sounds like some sort of lubricant.

    If they spent some money on a good design that wasn’t so bland, people might take notice. They slapped some serif fonts on an oval, and expect that to convey how local and original they are. That’s absurd. It’s especially absurd considering that they dumped a ton of resources into their website and online order system which is miles ahead of many local delivery joints here. Close, but no cigar, Davanni.

  4. Monte Castleman
    Monte Castleman June 26, 2015 at 10:42 am #

    I’d just throw out too that I think Davannis is the best pizza around, better than Green Mill and certainly better than the large national chains. So whatever their problem is I don’t think it’s their food.

    • UrbanDoofus June 26, 2015 at 10:45 am #

      Which may totally be the case, but they don’t do a good job of letting anyone know.

    • Adam Miller
      Adam Miller June 26, 2015 at 11:46 am #

      Better than the national chains, but not as good (or as appealing an atmosphere) as Pizza Luce. And nowhere in the ballpark of Black Sheep or Lola or even Mozza Mia.

    • Nathaniel M Hood
      Nathaniel June 26, 2015 at 12:16 pm #

      I don’t think many people have a problem with Davanni’s food. I had a hoagie there just this week, and it was spot on. My experience with their pizza has been positive.

  5. Sean Hayford Oleary
    Sean Hayford Oleary June 26, 2015 at 11:12 am #

    What makes something “in a neighborhood”? If it has residential attached/nearby/in the same development? If it’s on a grid? If it’s walkable?

    I think having shops and restaurants in walking distance is great, both for residents and for the businesses, who can build hyperlocal loyalty. But I would suspect that most people drive to the original Davanni’s you mention — certainly not as high a percentage as people who might in Eden Prairie, but a majority nonetheless.

    Form also has its limitations. One of the best neighborhood-oriented restaurants to open in Richfield in ages is Lyn65, in an unsightly strip mall. It has thousands of residents within walking distance, thankfully, but the actual form is quite suburban. There are many examples in Minneapolis, too, like Sun Street Bread in the strip mall on 46th/Nicollet, or the small businesses on the southeast corner of 48th & Chicago.

    I don’t disagree that the suburban landscape can be depressing, and it’s not something we should build more of. But it’s where literally millions of metro residents live, and I don’t think it’s fair to condescend to the idea of a neighborhood joint simply because of an auto-oriented and no-longer-fashionable landscape.

  6. Sean Hayford Oleary
    Sean Hayford Oleary June 26, 2015 at 11:14 am #

    And of course, to your actual conclusion, I agree that Davanni’s should support, not oppose, bike lanes. However, from interviews with employees, it sounded like their opposition was more in solidarity with other businesses who were more impacted than their own concern about an unneeded 4 spots.

    • Nathaniel M Hood
      Nathaniel June 26, 2015 at 12:26 pm #

      The “not a neighborhood” feel is a direct result of the failures of single-use zoning.

      • Sean Hayford Oleary
        Sean Hayford Oleary June 26, 2015 at 12:31 pm #

        Yes, that seems to be the biggest culprit. But hey, it’s right on “Main Street” (TH 101).

        But, look at the context: it’s right by the middle and high school, and it’s really not far at all from good-sized SFH subdivisions. The form is such that the vast majority of people will drive there, but I’d bet if I lived, say, on Mallard Drive, I would think of Davanni’s and the schools as being “in my neighborhood”.

  7. MattW June 26, 2015 at 11:34 am #

    Their Uptown location closes at midnight, extended to 1am in the summer. They’re in prime location to do slices for the bar close crowd. Yeah, it’s a hassle dealing with drunk idiots from 2-3am, but when you’re selling slices at $4.50 a piece, that’s $36 a pie. Seems like a missed opportunity to me.