In the 1976 film “New York, New York,” the lyrics of the title song say, “If you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere.” But now a pizza owner is trying to discover whether his New York-style pizza will resonate outside of the country’s largest metropolis.
Hakki Akdeniz, the owner and founder of Champion Pizza, has been thriving with his pizzerias in New York City. Currently, he owns seven in the city with four in Manhattan—in SoHo, Fifth Avenue, and two on the Lower East Side, and three in Queens, in Flushing, Astoria, and Rego Park, and one more in Nassau Country in Elmont.
Now he’s ready to expand beyond his New York City roots as he has opened a new Champion Pizza in College Station, Texas. Then his plans are expanding with a new pizza shop in Miami, followed by one in Tampa, and then back to New York with two more venues in Jackson Heights and Astoria.
An immigrant owner is taking his New York City-style Champion Pizza to Texas and then Florida, hoping it leads to franchising in the future.
Why does he want to expand beyond his roots in New York City? “I want to grow the name nationwide,” he replies. Eventually he’d like to franchise the brand, which would make it easier to manage his growing portfolio of pizza shops.
Why start in College Station, Texas? Akdeniz replied, “It’s where Texas A&M is located, and it’s one of the largest colleges in the country with 80,000 students.”
He collaborates with partners at Champion Pizza, which made it easier to raise capital. “Our grand goal is to go national,” he said.
But other investments from his partners, he’s never taken out a bank loan, or worked with private equity firms or angel investors, rare these days for a small restaurant chain primed to grow.
Akdeniz is 43-years-old, originally from Turkey, never went beyond third grade, and has a story that sounds like a made-for-TV film. In fact, he told the New York Times in a May 2023 column about entrepreneurs bouncing back from hard times, how he came to the U.S. from Canada in 2001, and was, at first, homeless and making due by sleeping in subway cars.
But at age 21 in 2001, he secured a job as a dishwasher at the Mediterranean Grill Pizza in Hoboken, N.J. He worked his way up to what he calls, pizza man, learning the trade. He worked hard and long and was dedicated to saving money so he could become an entrepreneur.
He started to consider opening a pizza store with a partner who was his friend, who absconded and stole the money, which set Akdeniz back, but didn’t deter him.
He opened his first pizza shop on the Lower East Side in December 2009, under the name Hakki Pizza. Running it, he admitted, was a grind that demanded 12-to 14-hour days to make it work. “I was sleeping under the oven,” he admitted.
With his second pizzeria, he introduced the brand name, Champion Pizza and never looked back. He financed it with $40,000 that he saved and borrowed the remaining $45,000 to open it.
Variety is one of the keys to the success of the menu at Champion Pizza. It offers 35 different styles of pizza, way beyond the number that most shops sell. Akedeniz like to introduce new kinds of pizzas. For example, two of his most popular pizzas are truffle eggplant pizza and truffle creamy mushroom.
He also customizes pizzas based on the neighborhood. In Flushing, where there’s a large Asian population, his shops make four sweet pizzas including pineapple pizza and chicken honey teriyaki, but in Rego Park where there are more observant Jewish people, who don’t eat pepperoni or sausage, he has introduced vegetable pizzas with broccoli, onions and peppers.
And he notes the crust is thin and much lighter than traditional New York City pizza, which more New Yorkers prefer because it’s not as heavy. “Today everyone is concerned about their health,” he said.
Champion Pizza partners with the array of third-party deliverers, which constitute about 30% of its revenue.
How can Champion Pizza compete against the behemoth of pizza chains such as Papa John’s and Domino’s? Akdeniz replied, “On the Lower East Side, there are 29 other pizzerias. I’ve been there for 13 years and don’t pay much attention to the competition. It doesn’t matter how big they are if you make the best pizza,” he added.
He expects to add two more pizzerias by the end of 2023 and then five more in 2024. “Call me in two years and see where we’ll be,” he said, sounded like an immigrant who had overcome many hurdles and thrived.