Meet our Chef of the Year
Laura AikenFeatures Profiles
If Tom Stankiewicz were a rock star, Bondi’s Pizza would be his tribute album to gourmet pizza.
But pizza wasn’t always the plan. Stankiewicz found himself working in
someone else’s pizza shop in the mid-’90s, a far cry from his original
pursuit of car design. “I think the kitchen was the last place on my
mind,” he says in retrospect.
But pizza wasn’t always the plan. Stankiewicz found himself working in someone else’s pizza shop in the mid-’90s, a far cry from his original pursuit of car design. “I think the kitchen was the last place on my mind,” he says in retrospect.
For more than five years Stankiewicz stayed under the tutelage of the owners at Eastown pizza, who had won the best pizza award at the Las Vegas competition shortly after he started in 1996.
“My old boss Mark Briand, we have been really good friends for years now…those guys made typical Italian pizza –you’re talking a recipe for the dough, recipe for the pizza sauce, the gourmet toppings, you know, the whole thing. I think that was the major push for my whole interest in it.”
putting the final touches on his non-traditional entry at the
International Pizza Challenge in Las Vegas from March 10 to 12.
Stankiewicz was awarded a spot in the finals for the traditional
category as part of winning our Chef of the Year contest and opted to
compete in the non-traditional division as well.
Stankiewicz had been eyeing the concept of his own pizzeria for a while. Bondi’s Pizza, which experienced its rocking heyday in the 1970s and 1980s when it had six or seven locations, put its last location on the market in London Ont., in 2000. Stankiewicz stepped up to strike out on his own.
“This pizzeria was typical old-Italian grease pizza. It had nothing to do with gourmet food or gourmet pizzas. It took me almost five years to convert it into gourmet, more exotic pizzas yet still keeping some of the recipes that been there for almost 20 years.”
Stankiewicz envisioned Bondi’s evolving into a gourmet pizzeria from the start, and recognized the need to transition slowly lest risk alienating the current clientele.
“You can’t just walk in, throw in a new menu and get rid of the old one, because that way you are going to get rid of your customers that you had before. You need to go step-by-step. You introduce the new product to the customer, give them the chance to still pick up the old one, but try to show what you are all about, that you are changing the concept from the traditional pizza that has been there.”
“They have to be practical. You have to consider how much labour is going to be spent on the pizza. A typical pepperoni, mushroom, bacon, takes about a minute to make. The gourmet pizzas, they take sometimes up to four or five minutes to make, because of the complexity of the pizza itself, and that right away changed the timing for cooking.”
Stankiewicz isn’t alone in his creative recipe process. Tom Havlik, also of his days at Eastown, and Briand are his chief collaborators.
“Mark is kind of like the soul of Bondi’s. He is involved with business in any way possible, either suggesting changing things or working on a new menu. There is not an idea that I have for the business that I’m not going to share with him.”
Stankiewicz says he doesn’t read cook- books, and recipes inspirations vary from watching a show on the Food Network to eating his wife Aleksandra’s cooking.
“She is an excellent cook and I mean it. A lot of guys are going to say that but I mean that seriously. She’s got more cooking books than anybody I’ve seen.”
Stankiewicz’ wife is also involved in the financial care of the business, and his sister Marta Stankiewicz is caretaker of the store when he is away. Family involvement helps Stankiewicz rest easy that the business is left in the right hands, which is a challenge he faces in expanding.
“I run into a problem when I’m debating opening another location with the issue of not having the proper people running it. We have a huge demand of customers asking for expansion, but you need to really have somebody you can trust to do the products right and ensure you’re getting consistency with the pizza from one location to another. The only way I can really see doing this is to franchise.”
Franchise allows you to control your product because the people involved are the owners, he explains. You know they are going to be there and going to check on the quality because they’re invested in the business. Stankiewicz says he sees franchising as a better alternative to the potential disaster of opening five locations on your own only to end up closing four of them in two to three years because the pizzas weren’t consistent.
“The bigger issue out of this is, that you are actually destroying your name. You spend eight years building your name and it can be destroyed within a year.”
The Bondi’s reputation has been an important part of his successful conversion to a gourmet pizzeria, and quality control has been in the details. He has a passion for cheese, especially with a chilled white wine, and says the cheese you choose for your pizza is the substantial thing that gives the flavour and texture to the pie. Stankiewicz sources his ingredients from where they will be found the freshest.
“Ingredients are always best fresh. There is no substitution with any frozen product. If you’re doing gourmet pizza, it’s got to be fresh. If it isn’t, you might as well not do it all. Any markets that they sell fresh product at, vegetables or meat, in your town or wherever you are, is the best way to do it.”
Some of the choices on Bondi’s menu require 24 hour notice on ordering, and while Stankiewicz notes this sounds silly, he points out that if someone is spending $40 on a pizza, they had better be impressed about what they are getting. Second-rate ingredients won’t do, nor will cut corners to save a buck when it comes to the purchase of cheese, meat or fresh vegetables, as he says these are the most significant items that make the difference between a good pizza and a great one.
“The ingredients and the appearance of the pizza – it has to appeal, when you open that box, it has to be “wow.” Second thing is the smell and the third is the taste. If you have those three, you have success in a package.”
And to Stankiewicz, success is a thing to be shared. He says he would ultimately like to win at the Las Vegas International Pizza Challenge three times, and then step back and become a consultant and teacher for other pizzaiolos who would like to continue making traditional pizza.
“Like a boxer, there will always be a challenger; always somebody with better ideas. If you prove you are good at what you do it is the perfect time to step back and share the knowledge and teach others to be more successful.”
In another five years, he says he would ideally like to have another one or two pick-up/delivery stores franchised, and to have opened a small, reservation only restaurant with a really nice selection of wine.
“The only way to do this is to work hard and try to succeed. Everything else should be easy and should follow. The worst thing is to basically be self-centered with thinking that you know better…Always ask your friends, ask people who have done it before and try to guide yourself in the right direction. Don’t make the same mistakes someone else already made.”
Stankiewicz sees true success lying in who you are, not what’s written at the bottom right-hand corner of the spread sheet.
“Try to be the same as you were in the beginning. Care about your customers and care about your staff. You can really lose yourself after having five locations and start thinking you’re better than everybody else but you should always be the same person to the end. Always appreciate things.”
|Relocating Bondi’s Pizza proved good for business|
Three years after taking charge, Stankiewicz found Bondi’s a new home. The pizzeria was in an old building and quickly growing too big for its britches. The large space, next to a Blockbuster video, provided better visibility and parking access for his customers. He finds himself still moving furniture around to find the best setup for a take-out and delivery-only store.
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