At the beginning, Famous Famiglia had no intentions of expanding outside of New York City, let alone New York, recalls Giorgio Kolaj, cofounder and executive vice president of Global Business Development for the fast-growing, New York-based pizza company.
Kolaj and his three brothers began the business in 1986 when they opened a pizzeria in Manhattan’s Upper Westside. The four co-founders served a New York-style pizza that quickly gained recognition in the local market.
During ensuing years, the emergent business invested the time to carefully develop a number of different systems, relates Kolaj: “One of which was to develop our own line of proprietary products.”
The brothers also worked on their trademark and intellectual property systems. In doing so, the company laid the foundation that would be needed if the owners did decide to expand. “We had invested the time, money, energy, effort and resources to minimize the dilution of the brand and to maximize our potential to succeed,” informs Kolaj.
That legwork paid off. In 2002, Famous Famiglia opened its first pizzeria outside of New York City. This new location marked the beginning of the company’s national and international expansion. However, the ever-growing company (which now has 128 locations) still bases its operations on the systems established during its early years.
BUILDING A BRAND
From the beginning, the co-founders took steps to develop premium ingredients that would result in a distinct end product. The company’s list of proprietary products includes: Famous Famiglia Olive Oil, produced from high quality olives grown in Italy; the Famous Famiglia Pizza Sauce, made from tomatoes grown in California that are processed less than six hours after being removed from the vine; Famous Famiglia Mozzarella Cheese, made of 100-percent pure whole milk; and the Famous Famiglia Pasta, made from 100 percent durum semolina in the Naples region of Italy. The company’s line of coffee products is branded Caffé Famiglia and is produced in Columbia using traditional methods.
The focus on premium products has led to a reputation of quality. “We wanted to make sure that our product had a connotation in the marketplace of very high quality, so in addition to developing our own line of proprietary products from our olive oil to our mozzarella cheese, sauces, flour blends and coffee, we even bottle and ship New York water for the preparation of our products,” notes Kolaj. This attention to detail has allowed the company to expand into new locations without reducing the quality of its products.
In addition to developing a premium product, the company has garnered several strong brand affiliations in recent years – most notably, Famous Famiglia’s signature product became recognized as the “Official Pizza of the New York Yankees.” The American League baseball club approached Famous Famiglia in 2003 and offered the company that official designation. Additionally, Famous Famiglia is the official pizza of Madison Square Garden, the official pizza of Palms Casino, and the official pizza of Hersheypark, among others.
Famous Famiglia founders place a strong emphasis on customer service. “We have a substantial, multi-leveled training program,” Kolaj explains. “This helps us measure the metrics that are important in customer service and to make sure we have systems in place that allow us to respond to any kind of deviations.”
It’s a thorough process: All employees and franchises go through training, retraining, certification and re-certification programs. This focus has resulted in numerous awards based on customer service. In 2009, Famous Famiglia was listed as one of the top 25 franchises in Entrepreneur magazine.
After getting its start in 1986, Famous Famiglia focused on the New York City market, opening a new pizzeria in the area every other year during its developing years. Then in 2002, it opened its first pizzeria outside of New York City, in the Newark Liberty International Airport. The following year, it began its franchising program and opened its first franchise.
In 2004, Famous Famiglia formed a partnership with members of the Edward J. DeBartolo, Jr. family. The company has expanded into various states throughout the country. It also has franchising partners that include some of the world’s largest food service providers, including Compass Group and HMSHost. Famous Famiglia’s global expansion has led to locations set up in places as far away as China.
Famous Famiglia restaurants can be found in airports, shopping centers, casinos, theme parks, military bases, universities, medical facilities, convention centers, sporting stadiums and busy urban centers. It has earned various rewards for its work in these locations. In the airport industry, it has won 12 first-place Airport Revenue News (ARN) awards since it entered the aviation market in 2002.
The company forecasts continued growth in the coming years. “Many of the captive market locations that we’re in, which is 95 percent of our location portfolio, have master plans that now have moved from the backburner to the front,” notes Kolaj. “We’re witnessing an influx of opportunities on the immediate and short-term horizon.”
Kolaj estimates an additional 200 to 250 Famous Famiglia pizzerias will open during the next five years, in both national and international markets.
In addition to expanding the number of Famous Famiglia locations, company officials are working on developing more products. “I see an expansion throughout our product mix and product offerings, allowing us to penetrate the nontraditional channels even more deeply and with a wider breadth and scope,” Kolaj explains.
New product introductions will fall into the mainstream categories of Italian and pizza, he adds. “We’re not going to dilute our identity, but at the same time we’re going to afford ourselves further opportunities and growth,” he says.
While Famous Famiglia is known as “New York’s favorite pizza,” Kolaj is quick to point out that he and his three brothers have not forgotten how they got their start. “It has never been just about the business or the dollar,” he says. “It has also been about the people that work with us and also the communities we serve.”
Kolaj offers a bit of family history that underscores why all of this is important: “My mother came into this country with five children and couldn’t speak a word of English. After we landed in New York’s Kennedy airport, we went straight into welfare in the South Bronx.”
The family’s subsequent success in the pizza industry provided them the means to give back to the community, and they do so freely. For instance, the company delivers pizzas to shelters in New York City on Thanksgiving Day. Also, after the Haiti earthquake, it held a fundraiser to help disaster victims. It also has received the D.A.R.E. American Dream reward. As Kolaj notes, “Our greatest achievement really has nothing to do with business, but in helping other people to realize their American dream, just as we had the opportunity to realize ours.”