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IVP Celebrates 25 Years!

... in an industry where corporate chains clog the market, independents’ resources are limited and competition is stiff; a restaurant that finds its niche and fills it gracefully is rare, lucky, and wise. Ingleside Village Pizza, which celebrated its 25th anniversary last month, has been going strong ever since their doors opened to the public; under the devoted leadership of owner Tina Dickson and her dedicated crew, IVP makes it look easy.

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For a married couple, the 25th anniversary is a major milestone – spending a quarter of a century sustaining a relationship with the same person is an epic achievement. 25th anniversaries are traditionally associated with silver, known for its radiance and brilliance, and meant to symbolize the harmony and good fortune that have worked to bring the couple this far. For an independent restaurant, a 25th anniversary is easily just as much a cause for celebration – in an industry where corporate chains clog the market, independents’ resources are limited and competition is stiff; a restaurant that finds its niche and fills it gracefully is rare, lucky, and wise. Ingleside Village Pizza, which celebrated its 25th anniversary last month, has been going strong ever since their doors opened to the public; under the devoted leadership of owner Tina Dickson and her dedicated crew, IVP makes it look easy, though the work is often hard – for Tina, it’s a life full of harmony and good fortune indeed.

Tina Dickson, owner

Tina Dickson was just 29 when IVP opened for business on July 28, 1992; she’d been working as an area supervisor for Domino’s Pizza, but corporate unrest had made her job unsteady, so Tina returned home to her family in Macon to recoup and figure out her next career move. While waiting tables and bartending, she met a likeminded spirit in Saralyn Collins: “We were roommates, and we were bitching one Superbowl Sunday about our shitty jobs and our degrees and how we should be doing stuff with ‘em,” Tina said. “I had this background in pizza, and we thought, hey, Macon could use some good pizza.” The two worked efficiently to make that dream a concrete reality – Ingleside Village Pizza opened the following July. (Saralyn sold her share of the restaurant to Tina in 1995, and currently owns and operates Good to Go catering and Grow restaurant here in Macon.)

Tina’s got a vivid memory attached to that first day: “There were these two little boys riding around the street on their bikes before we opened the doors – Adam and Josey were their names – and they were determined to be our first customers.” The two got their wish, and their iconic moment is preserved in photographic form somewhere in the glorious chaos that is IVP’s trademark décor. IVP’s first day open was also Tina’s mom’s birthday – she recalls leaving the restaurant amidst the opening-day excitement to go grab a birthday cake, and also remembers her siblings, in from out of town to celebrate, pitching in behind the line cutting up vegetables to help out the busy crew.

Since its inception, IVP’s menu has remained fundamentally the same – pizza, salads, subs, and the famously fetishized breadsticks (true aficionados order them sloppy, doused with extra garlic butter and parmesan cheese). The simple, customizable menu allows guests to build a meal to their liking, the portion options make it easy and affordable to have a quick solo lunch or feed a big hungry crowd, and the quality of the food is always top-notch. One trend that IVP was in on from the beginning – beer, and lots of it. Of course, pizza and beer have always paired beautifully, but, as Tina says, “When we opened, most restaurants had maybe six beers to choose from. We started out with around 50. That was right at the brink of the whole craft beer thing, so we were kinda cutting edge there.” IVP now offers over 80 beer and hard cider selections, with lots of quirky, delicious options and great staff recommendations available.

It’s impossible to talk about IVP without talking about its aesthetic –  check the hundreds of reviews online and you’ll see mention after mention of the eclectic, funky, visually fascinating decorating scheme that’s always been a part of the restaurant’s appeal. A reviewer from the Mercer Cluster cleverly described it as “like the set of an I Spy book, if the theme were ‘inside the mind of an indie filmmaker.’” The original location featured an outdoor fairy-tale mural of a jester, a dragon, castles, and various other vaguely-trippy storybook-inspired visuals (sadly, this landmark has since been painted over); indoors, the floor was tiled in vibrant black and white, collages of band/political/silly/random stickers covered every available glass surface, and kitschy art reigned supreme.

But things really got weird when the original IVP underwent its first renovation – after tearing out the drop ceiling and spray painting the new, higher ceiling black, “I wanted Christmas lights up there,” says Tina. “You know – I wanted to look up and see pretty lights! Mike [Pittman, longtime IVP manager; lifetime weirdo creative innovator] said ‘Y’know, there’s this hanging thing I’ve been interested in trying out – a way we can hang lamps from the ceiling.’” Tina was, of course, all in. The two of them scoured Macon Transfer Company downtown for cool old light fixtures, which Mike then suspended artfully from the ceiling. When the restaurant moved across the street in 2009, they continued with the same concept –beautiful 1970s lamps, chandeliers, guitars, pizza peels, and God knows what else hang from the ceiling, and art of all varieties covers the walls. Some of Tina’s favorite pieces: a velvet Elvis given to her by her daughter’s 1st grade teacher, a Howard Finster painting gifted by David Thompson, and a framed front cover of the Macon Telegraph from the day Elvis died. Elvis is widely represented in the restaurant’s art – Tina gave in to her Elvis love about twenty years ago – she and The King share a birthday, so that seemed like a good enough reason for her to, as she says, “just roll with it” – a life motto that suits her well in many areas.

Eight and a half years ago, IVP relocated across the street from its original location; their first day open in the new space is easy to remember because it’s also the date of Obama’s first inauguration– January 20, 2009. Tina didn’t initially intend to move her entire operation – when the building across the street, which had once housed Pick Up Meals, became available, she first explored it as a possible carryout-only expansion of the original IVP, hoping to eliminate some of the dining room crowding during busy times, but then she heard the building’s owner was interested in selling, and that idea was too good to pass up. “Moving was great in so many ways,” Tina says. “It’s great to own the building myself, to be paying money towards something for myself, and it’s great not to have AC issues and roof leaks, but I do miss the setup across the street – I could stand in one place and see everything over there, and I liked that.”

She’s quickly made the new place feel like home, though – there’s a distinct personality and sense of pride that emanate from the restaurant – each decorating decision, each hand-lettered funny sign, each piece of surprisingly controversial artwork (naked boobs on a painting y’all, hide yo kids hide yo wife) feels as though it’s been consciously, intentionally selected and arranged by someone who cares about creating an immersive, unique experience. And that’s Tina – she’s a hands-on owner/manager, working hard in the restaurant several times per week, and never far away when she’s not there – but she’s also cultivated a great, caring staff who put out quality product and take pride in being part of such an iconic establishment.

I have to make this personal for a moment – when IVP first opened, I worked at the now-defunct Ingleside Books down the street, and I loved hauling whatever book I was in the midst of in there with me at lunchtime so I could sit alone, read, people-watch, soak up the good vibes, and eat my slice of ham pizza and glass of sweet tea. Fast-forward a few years – my best friend Kelly met Mike when he was her waiter there, and they’d quickly become friends, then roommates; soon, we were all very close friends. I worked at a chain bookstore at the then-thriving Macon Mall when Mike approached me with a job offer from Tina. At the time, I was horrified – I’d never waited tables before, unless you count a two-day stint at Johnny V’s diner during which the dishwasher didn’t show up my first day, so they stuck me in the dish pit to scrape cigarette-butt-festooned piles of grits and gnarly egg bits off breakfast plates; I returned for a second day despite feeling low-key traumatized and ended up leaving early after a coworker berated me for doing something dumb with burger patties. I had all intentions of just chalking all that up to experience, but my dad, appalled that Johnny V hadn’t paid me for the work I’d done, made it his mission to go collect my check for me – which he did, of course.

Sentimental digression! Anyway – my main emotion was panic when thinking of myself trying to handle heavy pizzas with nuclear-hot cheese that could possibly dissolve a customer’s skin if dropped onto a lap, but I was also deeply gratified that Tina actually knew me in person and still thought my awkward ass had enough finesse to work in her restaurant, so of course I said yes. And I worked there on and off for years in the late 1990s and again in the early 2000s, most memorably while pregnant with my oldest kid, who is now 15 – pregnancy cravings had me eating fat slices of pepperoni, pineapple, feta, and garlic during each work shift, and my growing belly in overalls helped charm people out of more shared tip money for the staff. I loved that job, loved the way it helped me feel more self-confident in simple but necessary ways, loved working with Tina and saying things that’d make her laugh her gregarious wonderful laugh, loved the close, friendly camaraderie I had with all my co-workers – it’s one of the best jobs I’ve ever had, and so many of Tina’s former crew members feel the same way. Here’s what some of them had to say:

William Dantzler, aka Willie D, owner of Fresh Produce Records, worked at IVP washing dishes for several years – “It remains one of my favorite jobs ever,” he says. “Going to work at IVP never seemed too much like work because I basically got to go hang out with my best friends and we’d all keep each other entertained.” Chuck White, a former manager, says “Honestly, every week had something in it that was pretty memorable. The crew was so diverse and awesome, cool stuff just happened.” And Darren McClellan, who worked as a line cook for years, says “IVP was a unique work environment – as a crew, it was an identity. We all bickered like a family, laughed like brothers and sisters, and we’d even head out for the evening together – some of us more than others. My favorite thing was opening up on a cold winter day and sparking up the ovens. The heat and smell of breadsticks! Warms me to this day.”

It’s not just crew members who get sentimental over IVP – new customers fall deeply in love-at-first-sight, repeat customers become extended family members, and expat Maconites find that there’s a place in their heart- or maybe belly – that no other, lesser pizza joint is able to fill. Lauren Joyner still “get[s] their text message coupons even though I live in a different state 201 miles away. I don’t have the heart to stop them – plus, what if I’m back in Macon one day?” Pam Pinkston “dreamed of IVP” while she was living in California – “I searched and searched for a pizza place out there that could compare” she says, “but always came up short.” Ashley Doolin, account executive for The Creek FM, remembers “the first time I walked through the doors almost a year ago after moving to Macon – Tina Dickson’s smile just lit the place up. I knew I was finally home – especially because Tina and I share the same love for eclectic décor!” And local artist and entertainer Mark Ballard, longtime resident of the Ingleside neighborhood and longtime patron of IVP, recounts the following great customer service story: “One of my pet peeves is too much salad in a small bowl – I hate trying to cut it up and mix in the dressing while lettuce and tomatoes are falling out onto the table. One day, I asked if I could order a regular salad but have them put it in a larger bowl – they said sure! So I thought since I was already making that change, I’d go ahead and personalize my salad a little more – no onions, extra tomatoes, croutons, and mozzarella cheese like they use on the pizza. And two Italian dressings! It didn’t take long until they knew when I walked in the door that I wanted a ‘Mark Ballard’ salad – when we’d meet friends there, they were curious about my order, and some of them started ordering ‘Mark Ballard’ salads also. The recipe used to be taped beside a picture of me near the register. Tina will probably kill me for sharing this, but it makes me smile! Plus, like she says, extras cost extra.”

So what does it feel like to have twenty-five successful years as a restaurateur under your belt? “Sometimes it feels EXACTLY like it’s been every second of that twenty-five years,” laughs Tina, “but sometimes it doesn’t at all. You start seeing customers that used to be little kids, but now they’re coming in to have a beer, coming in with kids of their own, and you remember them running around in their little cowboy boots – dang, that can age you right up! I love it, though.” Another thing she loves – possibly the most rewarding thing – is when a brand-new customer walks through the door, brought in by good Internet buzz or by a friend – “I always ask them to come back and let me know what they think,” says Tina, “and when they do take the time to come back and tell you everything was fantastic, and let you know they enjoyed their meal and they’ll be back – that feels great.” Something else that feels great? Knowing that we live in a community that has nurtured IVP – and been nurtured by IVP – for the past quarter-century; it’s a Macon institution now, reliable and comforting and charming– and weird and silly and surprising, too, just like its owner. Thanks, Tina, for working so hard to give us all something so cool.

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