Slice Of NY Coming Downtown

April 4, 2003
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GRAND RAPIDS — The business plan is to make the downtown pizzeria as authentic as any eatery in the Little Italy section of New York City.

Through the ethnic croonings of Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra and Jerry Vale, the red-and-white-checkered table-cloths, the brick ovens and the rustic wooden chairs, Harri’s Brooklyn Pizza Co. will offer slices of pizza and Italian life in a setting that hopes to capture all the energy a friendly neighborhood stop can serve up.

“No one should ever feel intimidated or not want to come in,” said Steve Downs, owner of Harri’s. “I’ll enjoy the people coming in all the time. That’s what I like.”

Hari’s Brooklyn Pizza Co. should be serving thin crust and deep-dish Sicilian pizza, New York-style calzone and hot submarine sandwiches from the west side, lower level of Aldrich Place at Ottawa and Monroe Center by mid-April.

Downs, a native of the Big Apple who has lived here for the past 30 months, said he chose downtown for his new venture because of the energy he felt in the central business district after months of combing the metro area for a location.

He also noticed that downtown was lacking a true pizza experience, as he called it, which is at the very core of his business plan.

“Everything else was in a strip mall and it didn’t have an identity. Every little aspect of this business and my company is very important to me,” said Downs.

“Downtown is where the energy is and that is what I’m accustomed to, being from New York. I like the culture that is downtown and there is a buzz there. Cities the size of Grand Rapids need places like this and I noticed that there wasn’t one pizzeria downtown.”

Downs has a lengthy background in financial services, having worked in banking and corporate lending for nearly 20 years. After looking at plenty of business plans from others in his career, Downs just decided it was time for him to use what he has learned over those two decades to put his own plan together.

He is opening Harri’s — which, by the way, is named in honor of his three-year-old son, Harrison — after having served as the director of credit and operations for Steelcase Financial Services, the office furniture maker’s leasing arm. He managed the firm’s North American credit operations for two-plus years before being let go.

“Steelcase relocated me out here. They moved my family and me from the East Coast to Grand Rapids to accept this position. To make a long story short on that chapter is, back in October I was part of the layoffs that Steelcase incurred,” he said.

But unlike how many might feel, Downs is far from bitter about last fall’s turn of events.

“It has been so far a pinnacle,” he said. “But it’s been the best thing that has ever happened to me because it’s given me the opportunity to do what I’m doing.

“I know how to cook a mean pizza, too,” he said with a grin. “But my forte is getting this up and running and following my passion.

“I expect that my place will have what I call in my business plan “the pizza experience,” and I really can’t define that. But the people will create that and the environment will create that. It will be a place where people can come and have some good food. There is something mystical about pizza, it’s a social food.”

Harri’s will concentrate on pizza, calzone and special subs, and will cater to the lunch crowd by opening at 11 a.m. But Downs will also keep the doors open in the evening for those who have a night downtown planned, or who might want to pick up a pizza after work to take home.

“I tried to make the business as focused as possible. I didn’t want to have a variety of 15 different items and get into pastas and things like that. I wanted the business to be very focused so when people come to my place, they can know what to expect,” said Downs.

Harri’s will seat up to 50 diners in an atmosphere that should make them feel like they’ve landed in northern Italy, and will offer customers pick-up and delivery service by calling 776-7071. Parties can also be scheduled at Harri’s.

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