Source: Sherman Publications

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Twenty years of Papa Bella’s Pizza

by Susan Bromley

September 28, 2011

Above, Mark Bell and Joe D’Anna when Papa Bella’s Pizza first opened in 1991. Photo provided.
Mark Bell and Joe D’Anna 20 years later. Photo by Patrick McAbee.
By Susan Bromley

Staff Writer

Ortonville- Mark Bell and Joe D'Anna brought in just $37 the first Tuesday they were open for business as Papa Bella's Pizza, 425 Mill St.

"We wondered what we had gotten ourselves into," recalls Bell.

Business quickly grew through word-of-mouth, however, and this week, the independent hometown pizza place celebrates 20 years of success.

Bell estimates Papa Bella's has sold three-quarter of a million pizzas since they opened Oct. 1, 1991, averaging about 750 pies per week.

"We've been around 20 years because people like our food and you try to maintain that consistency," said D'Anna. "Our focus has always been on customer service and making great pizza."

D'Anna notes he has been in the pizza business for 37 years— he began delivering pizzas with the Dino's Pizza franchise when he was 16, driving a yellow 1968 Chevelle. He later met Mark Bell while working at a Dino's in Madison Heights.

The friends were having trouble finding work in 1991 when Bell was asked if he wanted to manage a pizza store in Ortonville, then known as "Papa John's Pizza." D'Anna suggested they buy the store. They researched the market and learned the area was growing and was not over-saturated with food establishments. The store would be sold to them relatively cheaply, so they decided to take a chance. The risk paid off.

D'Anna and Bell incorporated things they had learned at various pizza places they had worked at— using the dough recipe from Dino's, for example, and pepperoni from Green Lantern. They also used a vendor's recipe for cheese dip. Over the years, they have added to their product line, but haven't changed the pizza, submarine sandwich or salad recipes they started with, even though the pizza business itself has changed.

Bell notes that the biggest change in the pizza industry is the drive by some chains to feed families as cheaply as possible.

"We don't get too involved with that, because most people realize you get what you pay for," he said. "We've brought in a few things, but we try to maintain quality most of all."

Despite the new technology of conveyor ovens, Papa Bella's has stuck with the old-fashioned brick slate ovens they used two decades ago. Because consumers have become more health-conscious, Papa Bella's offers some healthy options, but Bell notes that pizza is still more of a "fun food."

Pepperoni and cheese pizzas are still the best sellers, followed by their BLT pizza and the special, which is topped with pepperoni, ham, mushrooms, onions, green peppers and bacon. Papa Bella's toppings selection has increased in recent years to include chicken, feta, spinach, sliced tomatoes, and red onions.

Bell and D'Anna still remember the customer who regularly ordered the oddest combination of toppings they've seen: hot peppers, feta cheese, green olives and anchovies. Bell has also had customers who requested artichokes and calamari be baked on their pizzas.

Papa Bella's opened with a staff of just four— Bell, D'Anna, Bell's wife Denise, and her brother. They now have 15 employees. Bell and D'Anna are working owners, with at least one of them in the pizzeria every day, ensuring the product is consistent.

After all these years, they still love pizza and what they do.

"You do what you know, you stick with what you know," said D'Anna, whose favorite pizza is pepperoni, ground beef, and onion, square with extra cheese. "I like the people and chit chatting with customers. We've watched families grow up— kids that were 8-, 10-, 12-years-old have grown up and when they come back and visit mom and dad, they come get pizza from us. One customer, when she goes and visits her son, he asks her to bring a Papa Bella's pizza."

"We're on a first-name basis with a lot of customers, it's like visiting with friends every day and it makes the job enjoyable," said Bell, who still eats pizza when he goes out of town, sometimes two or three times in a week from independent places, to see what they are doing.

D'Anna notes that different parts of the country have different tastes. What sells in Chicago, he said, wouldn't sell in New York and what is popular in California isn't in Georgia and Alabama.

The biggest challenge for D'Anna and Bell are the hours— working nights and weekends and holidays. The biggest night of the week if Friday and the busiest days of the year are Halloween, Thanksgiving Eve, New Year's Eve and Super Bowl Sunday.

"We've looked into expansion over the years, but it really comes down to this— we would have to split up and have one of us at one place, and the other at the second place. We enjoy time with our families, and had to ask ourselves, 'Do we want to work to live, or live to work?' We put a premium on family time."

Bell is married to Denise, and has one daughter, Paige. D'Anna is married to Karen and has two sons, Dominic and Joey.

D'Anna said customers can expect Papa Bella's to be around for many years to come.

"Twenty years from now, I'll still be making pizzas so I can get my kids through college," he said.

Papa Bella's Pizza, 425 Mill St., Ortonville. 248-627-4941.