A Pizza Entrepreneur’s Journey from Eastern Turkey to NYC

Hakki Akdeniz in one of his Champion Pizza locations (Photo by Orhan Akkurt for Voices of NY)

Hakki Akdeniz in one of his Champion Pizza locations (Photo by Orhan Akkurt for Voices of NY)

The town of Silvan in the province of Diyarbakir in Eastern Turkey might seem the unlikely birthplace for a New York City pizza entrepreneur. Yet even at the tender age of 13, Hakki Akdeniz, from a poor family, was working with dough – in a pide store, a bakery where the typical Turkish bread is made daily.

Today, far from home, Akdeniz, 36 years old, owns eight restaurants, most of them selling pizza. He opened a Mexican restaurant named Taqueria in SoHo a year and a half ago, and even has a world pizza championship prize to his name.

Getting to this point wasn’t easy, though. After leaving Turkey in 1999 he went to work twirling pizza dough for his stepbrother in Canada, then met and married a woman from El Salvador and had a son. After some time, he left to come to the U.S. without them. (He and his wife later divorced, but he is close to his son.)

In the U.S., he slept on the streets and often wondered where his next meal would come from. He even lived at the Bowery Mission in Manhattan, he says, for three months. “I don’t forget those days, they pass always in front of my eyes like a film strip, those were the most difficult days of my life.”

Eventually Akdeniz came to work for a Turkish pizza maker in Hoboken, New Jersey, and then he worked in an Italian restaurant in Manhattan, finally deciding to open his own pizza parlor.

Today, Akdeniz has 48 employees in his eight locations. Says the pizza maker: “I worked very hard during my life. I had many difficulties so I know money’s value and I can say that if you work, Allah will give you what you want. Allah answered almost all my prayers.”

The young entrepreneur’s first pizza shop was at 170 Rivington St., followed by one at 123 Essex St. Akdeniz impressed many people with his diligence. Then he decided to expand, opening other restaurants on the Lower East Side and in SoHo and increasing his payroll.

Probably the biggest boost to his business came from his 2010 win at the World Pizza Championship in France. Akdeniz had worked very hard for some years, and people had begun to notice him. He entered a contest with talented pizza makers from around the world, including Spain and Italy. He instantly became a big hit, and received a gold medal for his freestyle acrobatics and ability to make a 2.60-meter-wide pizza at the International Restaurant and Foodservice Show held at New York’s Javits Center. That win allowed him to represent the U.S. at the World Pizza Championships in France in 2010.

Hakki Akdeniz (Photo by Orhan Akkurt for Voices of NY)

Hakki Akdeniz (Photo by Orhan Akkurt for Voices of NY)

There, with impressive performances, the young pizza maker became a nightmare for his rivals. He managed to twist and twirl the pizza dough even when his eyes were closed and hands were tied, creating breathtaking moments of excitement for the audience. He ended up being crowned World Pizza Champion in 2010.

The Turkish pizza champion has appeared on the popular national television show “America’s Got Talent” and has received wide coverage in local newspapers and television channels. On display in his SoHo pizza shop, Akdeniz has all the medals and cups he’s won as well as photographs of him with famous people such as the actors Keanu Reeves and Rufus Sewell.

Soon, Akdeniz hopes to franchise the “Champion Pizza” name outside the city. The Turkish-born pizza and restaurant entrepreneur reflects: “I was starving and homeless, I know what poverty means so I want to supply jobs for many people.”

And he offers this advice to new entrepreneurs: “Do the job you know well, be a fighter, never give up! I believe people obeying these rules will be successful.”

Orhan Akkurt is a reporter for Zaman AmerikaThis article was written as part of the Business Reporting Fellowship of the Center for Community and Ethnic Media and funded by a grant from News Corp. 

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