History tells us that the first civilization to bake pizza was either the trading Phoenicians, the Greeks or the Romans of the Archaic Age. Even if the pizzas of the time weren't that rich in toppings, according to registries the soldiers of Persian Emperor, Darius the Great (521-486 B.C.), used to bake cheese and dates in dough. (1) The arrival of pizza culture to the United States goes back to 1905 when Italian Gennaro Lombardi opened his restaurant in New York. (2)
It is hard to come across Turks in the history of pizza either before Christ or in the 20th century. But it is inevitable to talk about Vocelli Pizza while conducting research on the position of Turks in the pizza market in America.
Vocelli Pizza owes its fame to family solidarity and ambition. The journey of Hayri Ablak, father of company president Varol Ablak, from his mining engineering days in Zonguldak to Germany, Canada and to the USA is as interesting as Vocelli Pizza's own story.
The fifty-year adventure of the Ablak family in foreign lands started in Zonguldak. Hayri Ablak, who was born in the city of Dimetoka in Greece, graduated from Zonguldak Mining Technical School in 1956. Varol, the first child of Ablak, was born in Zonguldak while his father was working there as a mining engineer. After leaving Zonguldak, their first stop in foreign lands was the city of Essen in Germany. So the second child Seckin was born in Germany. The decision of the head of the family to immigrate to Canada after Germany dragged them to new discoveries. Hayri Ablak received a master's degree from McGill University and moved to the US in 1969. Upon arrival, the family lived in Virginia and Ohio, and then they moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1974. San, the third child of the family, was born there in 1976. The three children of the family, born in the continents of Asia, Europe, and North America, reflect the immigrant spirit of the family.
THEY STARTED IN A PIZZA OUTLET
Ablak, who got into pizza business at the age of 24, opened his first pizza restaurant in New Orleans with a budget of 20 thousand dollars. When Hayri Ablak lost his job at the company where he worked due to a financial crisis, he started his own pizza business with his son Varol. For a while, the father and son managed two restaurants but soon sold them and returned to Pittsburgh without finding what they hoped for in New Orleans.
Varol Ablak, relying on his earlier experience, decided to start his own brand. He focused on home delivery. "Thirty years ago the home delivery system was not a popular marketing strategy,” he says. The family opened its own pizza restaurant, Pizza Outlet, in 1988. With the inclusion of Seckin, one year later they started to grow in the pizza business.
110 BRANCHES 2500 EMPLOYEES
The father and two brothers, in time, succeeded in turning their trademark into a chain of restaurants and created a different kind of taste. New branches came one after another. Vocelli Pizza has 2500 employees and 110 pizza restaurants in Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, Florida and Maryland. Its competitors are brands like Papa John’s and Domino's Pizza. Its employees can only start working after a three-week training period. After changing its name from Pizza Outlet to Vocelli Pizza, the company revitalized itself from head to toe. Varol Ablak, CEO and President of Vocelli Pizza says, ''The change of name accelerated our business remarkably. Our old name had a very different image in our customer's heads."
Ablak wanted to open new Vocelli Pizza branches in Turkey but he says that it is not beneficial for them to start a chain with under 10 restaurants. During the expansion of Vocelli Pizza, it has received several franchising offers from countries like Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates and India. Varol Ablak also met with some of these potential investors in these three countries.
The objective of the completely-family-owned Vocelli Pizza is now to go public and reach 1000 restaurants by the year 2010. The targeted annual growth rate of Vocelli Pizza is 30%.
This growth has also caught the attention of the food sector. In 2003, Vocelli Pizza was selected as one of the fastest growing pizza restaurants and was ranked 4th in the "Hot 100 Companies” list of the Pizza Today, a sector magazine.
10 MILLION PIZZAS A YEAR
Varol Ablak laughs when asked who the best pizza baker in the family is and says, "If you ask my brother it's me," but he doesn't think so. He thinks the same about his father. Vocelli pizza serves around 10 million pizzas a year and the fresh, organic ingredients used in the pizzas draws the line between Vocelli Pizza and its competitors in the market.
The toppings, which are specially produced in California, reach Vocelli Pizza restaurants within 17 hours. Ablak claims that this period is 3 months for some other pizza-makers and adds: “We do not describe ourselves as a fast food restaurant". Pizza orders are taken in special call-centers by 110 operators. A call coming from any of the six states is received by the same call center. The order is then directed to the pizza restaurant according to its region. Vocelli Pizza, which takes its customers' orders through a 1-800 line, receives 35 thousand calls a week. The call center employees are subject to a 5-day training program. Among the 110 restaurants, around 10 are managed by Turkish managers. Varol Ablak, 43 and married with three children, emphasizes that strong family relations is a key factor in their success.
Father Hayri Ablak thinks the adventurous life he has lived after graduating from Zonguldak Mining Technical School has been due to the conditions of the times rather than his adventurous spirit and he thinks of it as his destiny. Hayri Ablak is now 74 years old and he still works 60 hours a week. He says, "In the USA, there's nothing to do once you are retired. I love to work and I don’t have any plans to retire."
The family, who for a long time has spent their summer times in Akcay, Edremit, has nowadays bought a summer house in Bodrum where they live certain days of the year. When we ask, "Did you even think of growing that much in pizza business when you first engaged in it?" he says, "We could have been much bigger. We could have reached 1000 restaurants.”
ELITE (SECKIN) MANAGER
Seckin, who also works in the family business, runs the four Vocelli Pizza restaurants in Pittsburgh. He works as a franchise agent even though he is a shareholder of the company. Seckin Ablak turned to Virginia in 1996 when there was no place left to open more Vocelli Pizza restaurants in Pittsburgh and has turned his opportunity into a chain of 14 restaurants in six years. He says, "We once achieved eliminating Domino's Pizza and Pizza Hut in Virginia".
Then, when their yearning for their family became unbearable, the brothers resorted to selling the pizza restaurants to other managers. Pittsburgh has an unbreakable charm for the family. Seckin Ablak is also an engineer just like his father and elder brother.
Differently from Varol, though, he has one year of engineering experience in the Mexican Gulf. He considers the pizza business as hard but fun work. Ablak, the father of two daughters and a son, says, "It's fun because you are communicating with people; it is hard because you have to deal with them."
His wife also helps him from home. When it comes to which field of work his children will be choosing, he leaves this decision to them. One of the pizza restaurants run by Seckin Ablak ranked third in sales last year among other Vocelli Pizza restaurants. The other three have average positions.
TOP 10 IN PIZZA
Company Name Gross Sales
Pizza Hut, Inc. $ 7,625,000,000
Domino's Pizza $ 3,960,000,000
Papa John’s $ 1,857,598,000
Little Caesars Pizza $ 1,275,000,000
Chuck E. Cheese’s $ 602,201,000
Sbarro Inc. $ 575,000,000
Uno Chicago Grill $ 400,000,000
Round Table Pizza $ 365,000,000
California Pizza Kitchen $ 342,176,000
CiCi's Pizza $ 333,800,000
Source: Pizza Today, August 2003, p. 28
(August 2005, 18th Issue Cover)