6175 Dunn Street, Niagara Falls
Call it a message from the universe, or perhaps it was opportunity knocking in its usual low-key way.
Whatever it was, it caught the attention of Michelle MacKinnon during a break while walking 100 kilometres through Niagara in summer 2020 to raise money for the Kidney March.
Michelle’s route took her past the Niagara Falls strip mall that once housed her family’s pizzeria. It’s where her husband, Dave, served as a pizzaiolo for 17 years until 2012, and where the couple’s boys, David and Andrew, grew up and worked their first jobs before David, 18, died of kidney failure.
Dave joined Michelle for her time out at the plaza and noticed the space that had sustained their family for so many years was once again vacant. He suggested re-opening a pizzeria there.
The pandemic had taken its toll on Dave’s other startup business out of town. Michelle, herself, had had already been sick with COVID-19 and was hesitant to return to the Montessori school where she taught.
So, with the help of business partners Derek Thompson, Chris Gleis and Dean Fox of Factor Forms, the couple moved back into their old, familiar space, launching The Pizzeria later that year.
“It is very strange how we ended up back there,” Michelle said. “We had to reinvent ourselves in a way we were familiar with. You can sit back and say ‘Oh, poor me. We’ve lost so much because of the pandemic’ but that has never been an outlook we have been willing to take. You either sink or swim. Thankfully, we’ve been swimming.”
That’s because Dave is serious about pizza. All that experience racked up over the years has made him a pie pro, and he’s not afraid to say it. Mostly, he just loves his job.
“We make an awesome pizza,” Dave said. “We’ve been around a long time. I really do enjoy the environment.”
And people really do enjoy his pizza, which Michelle also helps with when she wraps her day as a private, home school Montessori teacher.
Together, they focus on quality over quantity, offering a small selection of specialty pizzas, including their flagship Works pie, which features the classic combination of pepperoni, mushrooms, bacon, green pepper, onions, green olives and extra cheese. A Meat Lovers with pepperoni, bacon, ham, sausage and extra cheese also beckons.
But so do the creative chicken shawarma, Philly cheese steak, bacon double cheeseburger, barbecue chicken and buffalo chicken ’zas.
All Pizzeria pies, available with regular, gluten-free or cauliflower crusts, are dressed in homemade sauce and blanketed in Brick cheese before being decked out with toppings.
The menu is rounded out by all of pizza’s trusty sidekicks, including garlic bread, Mozzarella sticks, fries, onion rings, and, of course, chicken wings.
Those focused offerings are for good reason: keeping customers happy.
“The reason we do that is because we’re good at (those pizzas),” Michelle said. “You don’t have your hands in too many pies. There are too many opportunities to make mistakes, otherwise, so let’s do one thing right.”
It’s working. With the help of the Restaurants of Niagara Facebook page, the couple reached those hungry to support local businesses when they first opened The Pizzeria. At the same time, the group, and the customers it brought them, satisfied their own craving for connection with their community.
Those early days running The Pizzeria could last 18 hours, including prep and keeping up with orders. Soon after opening, The Pizzeria expanded into a neighbouring space to give customers more room to wait for their pickup orders. Post-pandemic, it holds the promise of becoming a dining room.
Still, the couple’s impact on their community goes beyond feeding people. They also operate the David Gregory MacKinnon Memorial Foundation, whose mission is education for families affected by kidney disease, and fundraising for scholarships and medical support.
Thompson, Gleis and Fox have similar philanthropic views. In 2020, The Pizzeria and Factor Forms donated $100,000-worth of toys to local charities supporting children. A year later, they bested that and gave $128,000 — all of it thanks to heeding the signs on that summer day two years ago.
“It all came together perfectly in an imperfect situation,” Michelle said about The Pizzeria. “We have a great staff that’s like family. We’re a team and I enjoy going to work. I love it.”
Author: Tiffany Mayer
Follow her on Instagram: @eatingniagara