Starting from scratch
By Karly O’BrienFeatures Profiles
Building his business from nothing, Peter Giannakopoulus learned how to make pizza
Beginning your working life, and finding out what it is you want to do
is a difficult task for anyone. For one Greek native, becoming a
pizzeria owner was just a natural choice.
Beginning your working life, and finding out what it is you want to do is a difficult task for anyone. For one Greek native, becoming a pizzeria owner was just a natural choice.
|The crew at Nitza’s Pizza Sherwood location: Katelyne, Ian, Katelyne, Peter, Paris and Sam.
At just 15 years old, Peter Giannakopoulus moved out of his parents’ house in Montreal to live with his brother in Edmonton. Two days later he was a working boy making pies at a local Boston Pizza. Here, he was taught the ins and outs of how to make pizza and run a business by the chain’s founder, Gus Agioritis.
“The owner took an immediate liking to me,” he says. “He knew I was on my own and took me on like an apprentice, teaching me all the secrets to being successful in the industry.”
In 1976, two years later, the 17-year-old entrepreneur set out to achieve his dream of opening his own restaurant.
“I wanted my own pizza place, so I took a risk and got it,” he laughs. “I had no money, [but] I was a go-getter. I never waited for someone to do it for me, and at the time I never had much of a game plan. I was too young to have a game plan.”
Giannakopoulus credits his immediately successful business to his passion for pizza, his training and hands-on experience from Agioritis, as well as his willingness to learn.
“My gift has always been pizza, and I have always been a student of the game,” he says, smiling. “I look, observe and listen. There was no one that I did not listen to and I never thought I was better than anyone. If I didn’t agree, I would keep my mouth shut and move on. I was right just to get better at every aspect of pizza, especially the restaurant side of it.”
Giannakopoulus named his first pizzeria, Rafina’s Pizza, after a hip suburban area in Greece. He offered specials that weren’t common to the Edmonton area.
He explains that while everyone in Montreal was accustomed to free delivery, no one offered this service in Edmonton at the time. “Free pizza delivery was the first thing that was added to my menu, and with it came plenty of business.”
“I also had Wayne Gretzky do commercials for me when he was in his first year of the NHL,” says Giannakopoulus with a laugh. “Now everyone knows his name.”
In 1980, he sold the business. Afterwards, he moved around, owning several different pizzerias: Peter’s Pizza, YK Pizza and Deli in Yellowknife and then A-1 Pizza. In 1989, he decided to go into business with his brother, who already owned a few A-1 Pizza locations. Their plan was to grow the business.
Giannakopoulus finally found roots in St. Albert, Atla., a location he’s held on to for roughly 23 years.
“I bought Diamond Pizza in St. Albert, and immediately named it after A-1 Pizza,” he explains. “My brother and I kept expanding until we had about six different locations around Edmonton, but the business started taking a turn that I didn’t agree with.”
He decided to cash out of their deal in 1990, and keep the St. Albert location along with the A-1 Pizza name.
When 1993 rolled around, his 10-year-old niece, Nitza, was diagnosed with a brain tumour and about one year to live. She had one request for her favourite uncle.
“One day I joked about having her help out with all the candy I had been buying her to distribute at the [Stollery Children’s Hospital],” he remembers. “She told me that I should name the pizza place after her so she could collect royalties, and give her profits to the hospital.”
Within five days, Giannakopoulus changed the name from A-1 Pizza to Nitza’s Pizza. “The business boosted, for whatever reason, and everyone was asking me why I changed the name [to Nitza’s Pizza].”
Marketing within the community
With about 40 years of industry experience, Giannakopoulus’ goal is to “PR the heck out of the new place!”
In April 2011, he sold Nitza’s Pizza, located in St. Albert, to an acquaintance from whom he collects franchise and royalty fees (with the understanding that the friend uphold the integrity of the business), and retired.
“I felt like my niece was kicking me out of bed,” he laughs. “So I decided to go back to work.”
Heading back into the business at full throttle, Giannakopoulus found a new location at a strip plaza in Sherwood Park, Alta., which he bought, renovated and opened in a matter of months. As of September 2012, he was back in business, but this time with a right-hand man, Ian Fuller, as his assistant manager. Sherwood Park became the second Nitza’s location.
Giannakopoulus and Fuller now needed to brainstorm strategies to boost the business and match the sales at the other location.
Sometimes you need to take risks to make your business more successful than it is, Giannakopoulus says. The worst-case scenario is going back to the drawing boards to try again. “I’m not afraid to step out of my comfort zone and give something away for free or try something new.”
Here are some marketing strategies Fuller and Giannakopoulus came up with:
- all-you-can-eat salad, pizza and wings for teams and large parties at $10/person
- free slushes and fountain pop (no purchase necessary)
- free pizza days for elementary and junior high schools
- printing 30,000 coupons of free pizza and slush/fountain pop for elementary and junior high schools
- free tours and a self-made pizza on weekends from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
- donating money to the Stollery Children’s Hospital
The strategy is part of a one-year commitment to give back to the community for the many years of success he has had in the pizza industry.
Rewarding schools with a free pizza day has been particularly sucessful for the company.
“It’s a win-win situation because I gain a larger customer base and the school gets to help themselves or other people with the raised money, and the kids get to eat a hot lunch.”
He estimates that the sales revenue of Nitza’s Pizza at the Sherwood Park location is about 80 per cent of what Nitza’s Pizza at the St. Albert location is making after 23 years of servicing the community without any marketing, versus eight months of service with marketing. “By this upcoming September, I bet I’ll be surpassing its sales.” Giannakopoulus says he plans to make his business plan more profitable at Nitza’s Pizza (Sherwood Park), and cut down on his charity work. Some of his marketing ideas will be kept in place indefinitely. These promotions include free fountain drinks and slushes, all-you-can-eat for parties and teams, and tours of the restaurant.
“You have to give to receive. Get involved with the community and let them know who you are. That earns you respect and loyalty, and in the end these are factors that keep people coming back. It’s not just about how good your food is . . . it’s that and 100 other things.”
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