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.