Every town needs a pizza parlor. That’s certainly been the business model of Pizza Hut, Domino’s and Round Table, among others. Since many of them have recently filed for bankruptcy – including Round Table, Chicago’s Uno and the ubiquitous mall chain Sbarro’s – it might not seem like such a good business model after all
For Healdsburg businessman and Sonoma County native Michael Kennedy, challenges go with the territory.
“There had been three failed pizza parlors in the same site (at Vineyard Plaza, near Safeway) when my wife and I decided to open a restaurant,” he said. “Everyone told us it was a bad location, but we wanted to do it anyway.”
So in summer 2002,opened up with only 10 pizzas and four salads on the menu. Adding to the long odds, neither Michael nor his wife had ever run a restaurant before. Before long, however, the customers started returning, new menu items could be added, and diVine became a success.
“I think the biggest factor in our growth was getting involved in the community, and giving back,” emphasized Kennedy. “If I were to give advice to anybody, that’s what I say – you need to get involved in the community and expect nothing in return.”
He lives the advice he gives, having been involved with the FFA for 10 years, with the and the , plus offering school discounts, gift certificates and donating pizza for events.
Adding glory to generosity, Michael Kennedy was also in 2008. “It was probably the most fun I’ve ever had on stage for a good cause,” he told me. How did he win? “I committed to embarrassing myself more than the other guys.”
DiVine’s success let to its risky move across town four years ago, to the ill-starred location of the Tip Top at 20 Dry Creek Road just west of Healdsburg Avenue (across from the former . It had been a truck stop style “greasy spoon,” a Chinese restaurant and a bar & grill that was plagued by customer problems and police attention.
“It was in terrible shape when it came on the market,” said Kennedy. “Everyone else who looked at it walked out. But I gave 90-day’s notice [at the Vineyard Plaza location] and went to work. I was here every day for each one of those 90 days, along with some friends, and we opened on Labor Day Weekend, 2007.”
The new location quickly caught on, and the menu continued to expand.
“I never had any restaurant experience at all, but I like food," Kennedy said. "I knew I could make it work with the right people around me.”
He’s constantly developing new items for the menu – not just pizza but pastas, gourmet salads, a full line of burgers and more.
For instance, there’s a Chipotle Goat Burger (goat cheese, not goat burger) with pesto and caramelized onions; the Sunburst Pasta (with sun-dried tomatoes, red bells, garlic, chicken and creamy tomato sauce); and pizzas from Margherita to Pulled Pork, Spicy Sausage to The Spaniard (tomatillo sauce, mozzarella, chicken, artichoke hearts sun-dried tomatoes, feta and basil).
Pizza prices are comparable to that chain across the street -- and fresher.
“I create new things when I get hungry and bored,” said Kennedy. “For the past few years, I’ve entered 50 dishes in the Harvest Fair, and won 50 medals.”
Of added interest is the beer and wine list, far more sophisticated than you’d expect to find in a pizza parlor – and for that matter one that holds up to much more expensive restaurants in town. The most expensive glass of wine is $10, making diVine a favorite stop for local winemakers in a family mood.
For instance, they have 13 taps for beer, and regulars include not just Racer 5 () and Lagunitas IPA, but Death & Taxes, Blue Moon, Fat Tire and Boont Amber. The wine list is equally local an eclectic, with reds including MacMurray pinot noir, Brutocoa primitive, and other zins such as Wilson, Zichichi and Gia Domella. Not bad for a pizza joint.
The restaurant is well-attended most evenings, perhaps even crowded . The night I was in there most recently (I often drop by to see my daughter Nicole, one of the waitresses) I was about to order one of the new menu items, a Primavera Pasta, when about four teams of Little Leaguers and their parents came in to celebrate the first game day. Knowing the kitchen would be busy, I left to try it again another day.
“When you think about it there’s not that many family-friendly restaurants in town,” Kennedy said proudly when I asked about the popularity of diVine with such groups. “And we’re happy to have them.”