If it weren’t for a trip to the chiropractor and a loaf of bread, Melodie Holman would not be the happy owner of Pizza Katerina, in Oshtemo Township.
The day Paul and Kathleen Harris opened the restaurant at 635 N. Ninth St. in 2019, Holman was at a chiropractic appointment in a neighboring suite at the Sunset Plaza shopping center.
“After my appointment, I bought a slice of pizza and a loaf of bread,” Holman recalls. When Holman was growing up, her mom made everything from scratch, she says, “so when I ate that bread … oh my … it tasted like hers and it flooded me with memories. After that, I made all my chiropractic appointments to coincide with the restaurant’s bread days.”
The Harrises’ restaurant quickly developed a loyal fan base, and when they put it up for sale in 2020, Holman was once again in the right place at the right time, finding out about it through a friend. She and her husband, Jimmy, bought the restaurant in January 2021.
What is the significance of the name Pizza Katerina?
Paul and Kathleen Harris started this business in 2019 and named it in her honor — Katerina is Kathleen in Italian.
How did you come to own the business?
I became a regular and got to know the Harrises. Six months after the store opened, Kathleen learned her breast cancer, which had been in remission, tragically returned. Paul closed the business that day — February 21, 2020 — just before the pandemic hit. He continued to pay rent and their bills until finally in late summer he decided to put Pizza Katerina up for sale. A friend texted, “PK is up for sale and you should buy it.” Jimmy, my husband, and I were at home washing dishes. I looked up from my phone and asked, “Do you want to buy a pizzeria?”
I need to share how we were able to acquire the business because it shows the kind of man Paul is. Even in deep grief, Paul figured out a way for us to buy the business. We did not have the means to do so. Paul set us up with a payment plan that we could manage. He only asked that we retain the name Pizza Katerina in honor of his wife (Kathleen died in May 2021). I cannot overstate what a generous gift this has been.
How did you prepare for owning a restaurant?
My mindset was “I might fail.” Seriously. It’s just pizza.
Coincidentally, we had been experimenting at home perfecting recipes for dough and sauce for about 10 years, so that helped. And as I think back on it, the willingness to take on this huge risk probably comes from the loss of our house in the financial crash of 2008. We lost everything. Our entire net worth. The worst things that could happen to us, outside of health-related catastrophes, did.
What have you learned in nearly two years of operation?
I learned I had a home here that I didn’t know I was missing.
It might be hard for some people to imagine what it’s like to do something that you are sort of an idiot about. When we opened in February 2021, I knew nothing about running a business. I didn’t even know how to manage a cash drawer. We figured it out, though, together. After just two years, we are on the verge of profitability. That’s very rare for a business that pays top wage (staffers earn $13 an hour plus tips).
I still struggle with how to handle customers that take their frustrations out on my staff. They write mean things on our Facebook page: One didn’t like the ambience, another didn’t like where we store napkins, and worse. When people criticize this place and the people that work here, they are criticizing my home and people I love. It’s a small number, but their behavior has a huge impact. It’s hard.
What drives you?
My family, staff and the community we’ve created around the best pizza. I love watching the team grow in confidence as they learn new skills at each of the workstations. I love watching them teach each other.
We have great customers, and I love sharing stories about some of our regulars. One has her doctor appointment at West Side Medical Center, shops at Walmart and then comes in here for a mini pizza. And there’s a surgeon. It seems like every time he comes in, someone — often me —drops his pizza. Or we burn it. It’s like his order is jinxed. He’ll hang around and chat and laugh while we remake his pizza.
Why do you think Pizza Katerina has become so popular?
Because we have the best specialty pizzas you won’t find anywhere else. The level of creativity and inspiration and our goal of hitting all the notes are truly incredible. We are a small family business and we support other local businesses by using in-season ingredients from Husted’s Farm Market (on West Main Street), Russell Farm (on North Riverview Drive), Flourish Farms (in Plainwell), and Two Scotts Barbecue in Grand Rapids.
What’s next for Pizza Katerina?
We’ve built a community here and I want to expand in a few different ways. We had a table this season at the newly renovated Kalamazoo Farmers Market offering par-baked pizzas (baked partially and then frozen) to finish at home in 5 to 7 minutes. We’re expanding our offerings into some local stores. We plan to start a crowdsourcing campaign in the near future to buy a bigger oven. We’re going to grow with courage and honesty and integrity and openness.
And I would love to “pay it forward” like Paul did for me. Someone with backbone, drive, desire and passion … Let’s start another Pizza Katerina!
— Interview by Donna McClurkan, edited for length and clarity