By Keysha Drexel
Heather Norris does not mind talking about the recipe for success that has made Jim Davenport’s Pizza Palace an institution in Mountain Brook for half a century–an entrepreneurial spirit, hard work and dedication to quality and service.
But the pizzeria owner gets a little tight-lipped if the conversation turns to the other secrets of the restaurant’s success–the recipes handed down to Norris by her mother, Ardyce Hollis.
“Some secrets will never leave that kitchen,” Norris said. “That’s the way it should be.”
The pizzeria is celebrating its 50th year in business this May, and Norris and her niece, Amanda Thames, are continuing the family tradition of serving up scratch-made pizza seven days a week on Cahaba Road in Mountain Brook Village.
The Pizza Palace was the brainchild of Norris’ father, Rex Hollis, who tasted pizza during his business travels in the 1950s and 1960s, Norris said.
“Back then, there weren’t a lot of places that served pizza, especially in the South. My dad always said that there was only one place in the whole state at that time–Shakey’s–where you could get pizza,” Norris said. “So, he said, ‘What the heck?’ and decided to give it a try here.”
Norris said her father always had an entrepreneurial spirit and was a bit of a risk-taker.
“As a kid, he had a hotdog stand, and he’d sell hotdogs in the Siluria neighborhood near Alabaster where he grew up,” Norris said. “That’s where he met Jim Davenport.”
Jim “Peanut” Davenport, a Shelby County native, was a baseball and football standout at the University of Southern Mississippi and entered Major League Baseball in 1958 to play with the San Francisco Giants. Davenport was with the Giants his entire career and retired in 1970.
When Hollis decided to open the pizzeria in Mountain Brook, he knew he would need a well-known name to attract customers to the new fast-food fare, Norris said.
“No one knew my dad at that time, but everyone knew Jim Davenport. He was a big name, and my dad grew up with him and thought having his name associated with the restaurant was a good idea,” Norris said.
Norris said Davenport was happy to lend his name to his childhood friend’s start-up and is still a regular visitor to the restaurant.
But despite her father’s vision of an untapped restaurant market in pizzerias, Norris said Jim Davenport’s Pizza Palace came very close to just being a dream.
“I remember my dad telling me that it took a lot of work to even get a bank to back them up on opening the business,” Norris said. “No one at that time could have dreamed that pizza would become so much a part of our culture.”
But Norris said her father believed that once people gave pizza a try, they would love it.
“He would go door to door giving people samples. I admired him for that tenacity,” she said.
Norris said she admired her mother tremendously for working the 90-hour weeks it required to get the business off the ground.
“They lived just across the street on Brook Manor Drive. They would work these crazy shifts, go home to sleep for a few hours and come right back to work,” Norris said. “My father was the one who had the great idea to start the business, but once it got going, it was my mother who did the work to make it happen.”
Norris grew up waiting tables and working at the cash register at the Pizza Palace. She also worked closely with her mother in the kitchen and learned her recipes.
When her mother passed away in 2000, Norris and her sister, Dianne McDanal, ran the business with their father. He died in 2009, and then McDanal passed away suddenly the following year.
Norris said after her sister’s death, she knew she needed help but wanted to keep the Pizza Palace a family-run business. So she asked McDanal’s daughter, Amanda Thames, to take over the accounting duties at the restaurant.
“I had grown up coming here with my mom and seeing my grandmother here, and when Heather talked to me about doing the accounting, I was really proud to be a part of the family business,” Thames said.
Thames said she thinks that by working in the family business, she is honoring the legacy of her grandmother, Ardyce Hollis, and her mother, Diane McDanal.
“Their spirits definitely live on in what we continue to do at the restaurant every day,” Thames said.
Hilda Tant said she was one of the first people to taste Hollis’ pizza. Tant’s late husband, John Tant, ran Burch & Tant Formalwear, now Mr. Burch Formal Wear, next door to Davenport’s Pizza Palace.
“I think we had the first pizza they ever made here,” Tant said. “I guess we were kind of the guinea pigs for Rex and Ardyce, especially when they were figuring out their sauce in the beginning.”
Tant said Davenport’s Pizza Palace is still one of her favorite places to eat, 50 years after she tasted that first pizza pie.
Tant was joined last week at the pizzeria for lunch by her daughter, Robin Wood, and granddaughter, Morgan Painter, both of Hoover.
“This place is a part of so many family memories for me,” Painter said. “I came here with my grandmother and mother growing up, and now I bring my son here and it’s his favorite.”
Wood said she thinks the pizzeria is “probably Birmingham’s best restaurant” and that she can hardly bring herself to eat pizza from any other restaurant.
“I like that they’ve never really expanded their menu. They didn’t try out all the trends. They just made something that was really good and stayed with it,” Wood said.
Norris said she thinks that tradition of sticking with what works is one of the reasons behind the restaurant’s longevity.
“For something that seemed way out there in 1964, pizza really has become a comfort food,” Norris said. “And our place is comfortable, too. It’s something that’s familiar and a place where you know you’re going to get the great food you love.”
But while the fresh ingredients and made-from-scratch menu items have remained the same over the last half century, Thames said Davenport’s Pizza Palace does embrace change, just very slowly.
“In October 2012, we added a second oven and did some slight renovations to the kitchen area to accommodate the new oven,” she said. “It really helps meet the increased demand and get our customers their pizzas faster.”
But even that change was something Norris and Thames said they made after much deliberation and careful consideration.
“We don’t really rush into changing things around here,” Norris said. “It’s just like with our menu–we find what works and we stick with that.”
But Norris doesn’t rule out the possibility of big changes for the family business in its next 50 years.
“I think it would be neat if we had another location that was also run by members of the family,” Norris said. “The main thing would be to make sure that no matter how many restaurants we had, we wouldn’t get away from what makes us good.”
For more information, visit www.davenportspizza.com or call 879-8603.