Don Ryan knows how to make pizza, spinach pies, meatball grinders and a score of tasty delights. Many people know that and have been customers of Don’s Pizza on Warwick Avenue since it opened in 1982.
Don says the fare isn’t going to change, although he is “easing” out of the business for personal health reasons and to spend more time with his grandson, Ryan Ford. He’s also looking forward to visiting his son Daniel (DJ) – whose success in the film business he relates with pride – in California.
As for stepping away from the business that has been so much of his life, Don said he feels it is time. More importantly, he’s got the team to carry the restaurant forward.
Ashley Sullivan, who started working for him 11 years ago when she was 16, is acquiring the business along with Jason Angilly. Don’s was Ashley’s first job.
“I just wanted to work, but no one wanted to give you a chance when you don’t have any experience,” Ashley recalls.
Don took that chance. He taught Ashley how to make everything on the menu, and now he says she makes a better pizza than his.
Putting out a good product is what it’s all about, says Ashley. To that end, she adds, “we make everything right here.”
Spinach pies are Don’s biggest seller, with Ashley estimating 50 to 70 of the pies are sold on Saturdays.
When Don’s opened, the menu was more extensive with dinners and fish choices. He envisioned more of a sit-down establishment and sought to get a license to sell beer and wine, but “politics stopped us.”
He downsized the menu and built the foundation to a business that thrives on its reputation and as a recognized member of the community. Over the years, Don’s has sponsored numerous youth and high school sports teams. Pictures of those squads have always shared a prominent spot in the restaurant, along with images of his family.
Don and his wife, Mary, returned recently from Los Angeles, where they celebrated DJ’s engagement to be married and his success as a scriptwriter. He is writing for the Netflix series “Atypical.”
Don’s Pizza is mentioned in the current series and will have an even greater presence in the upcoming season, Don reports.
Don speaks in equally glowing terms about his daughter Christine Ford, who teaches at the International Charter School and followed in her mother’s footsteps. Mary taught at Our Lady of Mercy in East Greenwich for 23 years before retiring recently.
Reflecting on his career, Don said he would have done a few things differently. He studied accounting at the University of Rhode Island and then went to work as manager of the Burger King on Post Road. He helped open another store in Warwick. His first venture into the restaurant business was as a part owner of Basils on West Shore Road. It was a tough time. The Navy had closed Quonset and unemployment was high. It wasn’t smooth sailing.
“It was a lesson in partnerships. Money does strange things to people,” he said.
He went on his own. Don’s came next.
Don foresees changes to the restaurant, with perhaps one of the first changes being in the policy of “cash, check or pay us later.” Don never had a desire to get into credit and debit cards, and his customers know to bring cash – and if they forget to do that, well, Don will still let them pick up their order and return at a later time with the money.
Don’s has always been a family place beyond home. As Don puts it, “if we don’t know you, we want to know you.”
There was a time when the restaurant was open until 2 a.m. on Saturday and Sundays for those late weekend orders.
Occasionally, a customer who had had too much to drink would stop in, and as Don well remembers, Barbara Tate – who worked there for 10 years – insisted on calling for a ride or having one of the staff drive the customer home.
Many employees have passed through the doors at Don’s.
Don rattles off the names. FBI agent Chester Schreib was a part time kitchen worker for 10 years. And then he mentions Dave Souza, who started part time during Hurricane Gloria in 1985 and is still there.
Jason Angilly, who jumped in to help Ashley with the transition, is finding the work enjoyable. He’s not ready to go to online ordering, but has helped making changes to the kitchen.
He acknowledges, “Things have to change,” however the fundamental of “always working for the customer” will never change.
Don expects the transition will be completed in September, yet he’ll be dropping in every so often to assist wherever he can. He anticipates additional visits to his son and maybe dropping by to see his nephew Tim Hughes, who is vice president and chief counsel at SpaceX. Don has toured the operation and is sworn to secrecy.
He said watching a launch at Cape Canaveral is on his “bucket list.”
And what might he say about life’s work?
“Make a difference in someone’s life. That’s all you can do.”