With his long-term lease up at the end of June, Tutto recently agreed with new property owner Worldco Company on three-month options to the lease that will continue unless one of the parties opts to terminate them.
For Tutto, that means a respite from the day-to-day, short-term uncertainty of his business, though a long-term commitment from the property owners hasn’t materialized, as they seek to keep their options open while seeking City of Mill Valley approval for their proposed redevelopment of the property at 246-250 East Blithedale Avenue. Tutto is the lone remaining tenant on the property, as Mill Valley Services went out of business in September 2014 and Summerhouse moved its warehouse to the former Cabana Home space.
But while the long-term uncertainty continues for Tutto, he says he’s glad to have some breathing room, and particularly hopeful that his pizza counter will be less of a watercooler about the future of his business and more of a, well, pizza counter.
“The outpouring of support and love from people in this town has been incredible, and I’m so grateful,” Tutto says. “But this whole process has been exhausting, both emotionally and physically. Almost every customer comes in, places their order and wants to know what’s going on with the business and where I’m going to end up. And of course I want to tell them. But it’s been going on like this for more a year!”
“I love my customers, and I greatly appreciate and need their support, but the conversation about what’s going to happen next is nonstop, all day long,” he adds. “‘Did you find a place yet? What are you going to do next?’”
Although the long-term certainty has yet to materialize, considering the journey the always-affable Tutto has been on in his life and in pursuit of his pizza business, he continues to take the turbulence with aplomb.
From Fusion to Taxis to a Sea of Grammys
Growing up the eldest of six kids of an Italian father and a French-Canadian mother in the suburbs of Maryland, Tutto left home in 1971 at the age of 19 after a short stint in junior college.
"There were too many kids at home and I was anxious to see the world," he says.
His mother drove him to the nearest exit of Interstate 95 so he could hitchhike south, and even helped him make a cardboard sign that said, "South," not telling him until years later that she cried the whole drive home.
He ended up in Miami, at a party "full of musicians and DJs and drug dealers and all kinds of the hip underground scene at the time," he says. He hit it off with some musicians who'd formed a jazz-rock fusion band that had big plans. With the job of roadie unfilled, Tutto knew his way around sound gear and instruments and latched on.
The band's drummer was Walden, who would one day become one of the most sought-after record producers in the country, churning out hits for people like Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey. The pair got heavily into meditation over the years, eventually becoming roommates and great friends.
When Walden was picked by John McLaughlin to be the drummer in a revamped lineup of his vaunted Mahavishnu Orchestra, Tutto became the band's roadie. He was hooked on the music business. He became Walden's manager in 1976 when Walden landed a deal with Atlantic Records.
Now in the Bay Area, the pair stayed together for nearly 14 years, through a slew of solo albums and a string of hit songs, including Franklin's “Freeway of Love" and several of Houston's monster hits.
Tutto’s life took a detour in 1990. He and his wife Lynn, whose presence at Tony Tutto Pizza seems to put an immediate smile on the face of every child she interacts with – moved to Hawaii and started working for his father in law's taxicab company in Honolulu. Over a six-year period, Tutto estimates that he drove more than 40,000 people, more than half of whom were handicapped or people on state assistance.
They made their way back to the mainland with a helping hand from Carlos and Deborah Santana. The couples had been close over the years, with Lynn and Deborah's friendship dating back several decades. Carlos wrote letters to a host of potential management clients for Tutto, including the Jimi Hendrix estate and famed jazz artists like Tony Williams, Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter.
Before long, Santana himself asked Tutto to be his management consultant. Santana hadn't had a hit song in 20 years, and was looking for someone who could help him navigate back into the cultural mainstream without sacrificing his ideals. Santana reconnected with music mogul Clive Davis, and Supernatural was born. Tutto helped shepherd Santana through the 15-month recording process of Supernatural with a slew of the young stars that propelled the record into the stratosphere. It was released in June 1999, nabbed nine Grammys and has sold more than 30 million copies worldwide.
The pair continued working together for several more years, eventually parting ways amicably in 2003. By that time, with the music industry in turmoil largely due to the record labels' inattention to the technology that was revolutionizing the distribution and marketing of music, Tutto was getting antsy for something new.
A Crazy Debut
"Pizza has been my major passion and hobby for as long as I can remember," he says. "I have always been in search of the perfect pizza, and I got really good at it over the years. But I only cared about pizza. I never cared about the business of pizza."
He looked all over the North Bay for the right place, and had almost given up when he saw a Craigslist ad for 246 East Blithedale Ave., the former longtime home of Perry's Deli. Tony Tutto Pizza – the realization a lifelong passion turning into a business – had found a home.
While Tony Tutto Pizza has long since blossomed into a treasured local business, those fledgling days in 2008 were not without their uninvited drama. The day he opened was the kind of inauspicious debut that more closely resembled a nightmare, albeit one he can laugh about today given the success he's had since.
Tutto was scrambling that first day, waiting for deliveries and getting his inventory set. He'd planned about as soft an opening as possible, with no signs and zero publicity. When the Grateful Dead's Bob Weir walked in, looking for a six-pack, Tutto was put back on his heels.
The two men had met before through fellow music industry friends. They made small talk, and Weir gave Tutto $20 to pay for the beer. Then Tutto had a series of realizations: He didn't have any change. He didn't even know how much the beer cost, as he hadn't set prices yet. And he didn't know how to operate his new cash register.
"It was pretty embarrassing," Tutto says with a laugh.
Tutto says Weir couldn't have been nicer in the whole exchange, and has been back since. Little did he know – little did almost anyone know, for that matter – that Tutto had pretty good reason for not being his sharpest at that moment. Just a few days earlier, in the midst of the frenetic buildup to opening his business, he'd suffered a heart attack.
Doctors put him on a slew of medication that dramatically clipped his energy level, which is why Weir didn't find Tutto at his most focused a few days later. He didn't put a sign up for more than three months.
"I didn't have the energy and I didn't want to disappoint people," he says.
So What’s Next?
Tutto – with help from his many supporters – has been searching for a new long-term location, all the while hoping that Worldco Company decides to include him in the new project, which has been the subject of multiple study sessions before the Planning Commission and a design review hearing in March that concluded without a vote but with direction for its owners to go back to the drawing board.
“You’ve got a building that doesn’t fit that site well nor does it fit the goals of the Mill Valley General Plan,” Planning Commissioner Ricardo Capretta said of the earlier proposal, which called for the creation of an approximately 1,200-square-foot restaurant and a nearly 6,100-square-foot building that would contain three businesses but the demolition of the current Tony Tutto Pizza building. “The building containing Tony Tutto fits those goals. That’s more of what we’re trying to see on East Blithedale. There is too much trying to be done on this site... It just shows how there is a forced solution on this site that is just not the right strategy.”
Worldco Principal Alvin Chan says WorldCo has heard loud and clear from the neighbors and the larger community, particularly that more than one food-serving business is too much for the property. As a result, he says, the firm plans to only propose one food-serving business and thus must wait before committing to Tutto, or any other tenants.
“We want to lock in the large tenant first,” Chan says. “But Tony will be on the short list of whomever is going to go into this project. It’s not just about who is going to pay the most rent.”
WorldCo recently switched to Geiszler Architects, headed by former Planning Commission Chair Steve Geiszler, to redesign the project and shepherd it through the approval process.
“Through that process, we felt that we wanted to reset and bring someone on board who had a better sense of what the neighborhood would want,” Chan says.
Chan says he wants to assure neighbors and residents that Worldco has no plans to flip the property and typically buys land, redevelops it and holds onto them “for a very long time.”
“Because of that, we appreciate mom and pop tenants,” he says.
The 411: Tony Tutto Pizza is at 250 East Blithedale. More info.