A family affair
By Tim Leeds
Although times and markets have changed for Nalivka's Original Pizza Kitchen, one thing hasn't changed much the way it does business.
"We're very particular in keeping the quality high," said Vivian Nalivka, who started making pizzas in Havre with her husband, Paul, in 1957.
Vivian Nalivka is still working at the Pizza Kitchen, but has turned a lot of the work she used to do over to her daughter and son-in-law, Mary and Pat Jensen. Over the years the business grew and changed and moved to a new location. Now it's back in Nalivka's home and more like its original incarnation.
Most of the cooking is now done by Pat Jensen, and Nalivka mostly works on the bookkeeping and baking. But the sauce and crust used are the same as they have been for 45 years, the sauce she created and the crust her husband developed. Pat Jensen makes the sauce fresh every day, and the dough fresh every day or two.
The pizzeria uses only fresh, high-quality ingredients. The quality of the pizza is the way Pizza Kitchen competes with the other pizzerias.
Since Pizza Kitchen doesn't have the buying power a national chain has, it has to keep customers loyal with quality, rather than special price offers or the speed in which the pizza is cooked.
Pat Jensen said the conveyor belt style of baking at chain pizzerias takes about 10 minutes.
"Ours, we have the brick ovens. It takes about 20 minutes," he said.
The price deals and quickness of other pizzerias can be difficult to take on, Mary Jensen said.
"The world is in so much of a hurry," she said. "You get a little stress" dealing with it.
Some things have changed. Vivian said that years ago all entrees and salads were made fresh every day, and now the pizzeria keeps entrees frozen.
It increases the preparation time for the customer, Mary Jensen said, but it also increases the selection.
The customer loyalty that keeps Nalivka's competitive remains even after some customers leave Havre.
Vivian said Pizza Kitchen does quite a business with pizzas that are partially cooked, then frozen and shipped all over the country to former Havre residents. The pizzeria recently shipped some to New York City, she said.
Another source of sales are people who return to visit and buy a bunch frozen to take home.
Vivian has other stories about customer loyalty. Some friends of her family were coming back to Havre to visit from California. While they were having their car worked on in California, they told the mechanic they were going to Montana. He told them that if they ever got to Havre, they really needed to eat at the Pizza Kitchen.
The loyalty goes beyond borders. A graduate of Montana State University-Northern was working in Australia, and told his co-workers that one of the foods he missed most was pizza, Vivian said. An Englishman responded that the best pizza he'd ever had was in a town called Havre, at Nalivka's Pizza Kitchen.
"He said, I stayed five days to eat pizza there,'" Vivian said.
It has always been a family business. Two other daughters, Renee Nalivka and Vee Ann Lammerding, work part time. Some of her children moved away from Havre but are still in the restaurant business, and Vivian said her parents, Lyle and Blenda Clarke, were very involved in the early years of the business. Her father delivered pizza until he was 80, and her mother worked right along with them in the pizzeria and made dinner rolls for Pizza Kitchen until she was 94 or 95, Vivian said.
Today she has grandchildren who worke at the pizzeria, and their friends are anxious to work there too.
The business has evolved over the years. The front half of the Nalivkas' house used to have a dining area, but that had to be shut down because of changes in codes, Vivian said.
In 1979, the pizzeria moved into the location the Canton Restaurant now occupies. Nalivka said her husband was battling cancer, and the cooking and activity in their home wasn't good for his condition. Paul Nalivka died in 1981.
The amount of catering people wanted from the Pizza Kitchen outgrew its location and it moved in 1991 into the building now housing Bullhook Bottoms Casino.
The restaurant closed in 1993 because of bookkeeping problems, Vivian said. But the demand didn't stop. Pizza Kitchen had so many requests for pizzas during the Christmas season that year, the staff had to use the porch and back yard at the house as a freezer to store 600 pizzas they sold, Vivian said.
The pizzeria reopened, once again in the Nalivka home, in 1994.
The pizzeria started because of a deli and a local Air Force base, Vivian said. She and her husband were running the Model Grocery on the 600 block of Second Street. Many servicemen from the base would come to eat at the deli in the store, she said, and many native New Yorkers made requests.
"The boys out at the base kept asking us for pizza. They kind of broke us into it," she said.
After experimenting a bit with making their own pizzas, she said, in 1957 they made a trip to Paul Nalivka's hometown of Chicago to learn more about making them and to buy their first pizza oven. They sold the Model Grocery in 1961, and opened the pizzeria.
This is the first in an occasional series of stories about Hi-Line businesses that are being passed from one generation to the next.