Sometimes a great business idea is scribbled on the back of a cocktail napkin, sometimes it’s born out of an established think tank, and sometimes it gets relayed from a pay phone in Europe. Famoso cofounder Justin Lussier was vacationing in Naples when he fell in love with the Campania region’s ultra-thin-crust pizza. He phoned Christian Bullock, shared a vision for a Neapolitan pizzeria in Edmonton, and devoted the rest of his vacation to sampling the best fire-roasted pies in all of Italy.
Lussier returned to Canada armed with a new passion for Neapolitan pizza—a combination of hand-tossed dough, Italian wheat flour, and the freshest ingredients all cooked in a 900-degree oven. That was 2007. Today, just six years after being the first to import Neapolitan pizza to Alberta, Famoso is an established franchise with 17 locations across the country, and its careful work to cultivate an old-world atmosphere in North America is drawing big numbers.
It took Lussier, Bullock, and partner Jason Allard 18 months to turn their dream into a reality. The trio started by contacting Associazione Vera Pizza Napoletana (AVPN), an exclusive organization established by the Italian government that trains and certifies makers and suppliers of authentic Neapolitan pizza who must adhere to strict principles. AVPN-certified restaurants must use specific fresh ingredients in a fire oven that cooks the pizza in just 90 seconds.
Famoso’s founders did an intensive training program at the AVPN and became one of the first in Canada to open a Neapolitan pizzeria. These steps, along with careful brand building, helped Famoso emerge as a leader in the growing marketplace. Canadians, accustomed to more traditional offerings from Boston Pizza and Pizza 73, responded well. People kept coming, and the Famoso team continued its expansion and opened 15 locations in five years. In 2012, Famoso stretched outside of Alberta to Toronto, Vancouver, and Victoria.
Bullock says the founders’ unorthodox leadership style has brought success at the franchise level. “We get five applications a week for franchise partners, but we only consider a few people each month,” he says. “We are selective, we train them very well, and then we support them long-term with a large and qualified team.” Although Famoso has 17 locations, the company is staffed for 40 stores. “There is so much heavy lifting for a new brand in new markets that we want to go above and beyond,” Lussier says, adding that establishing the right reputation for excellent products and unmatched customer service is paramount.
The Road Ahead
Famoso is looking forward to calculated growth as it continues to build its brand across Canada and into the United States. Its next steps include:
Establishing brand recognition in British Columbia and Ontario
Improving an already solid guest experience to differentiate Famoso
Continuing to value employees and
keep them long-term
Building a loyal fan base through great pizza, comfortable restaurants, and a friendly staff
Most of all, the partners are looking to build authenticity into every Famoso location. All franchisees are required to make the pilgrimage to Naples and absorb local cuisine, customs, and culture. They meet suppliers, tour the flour factory, visit buffalo mozzarella farms, and stroll through vineyards. “We want people who understand the product and are as passionate about it as we are,” Bullock says.
Famoso offers traditional fare such as pizza Margherita and Capricciosa as well as “new world” pizzas—updated twists on the celebrated standards. The brand’s model is meant to wow its guests with an affordable, comfortable meal in a friendly environment and convince them to return often. Famoso’s service style is a hybrid method in which guests find their own table, order at the counter, and enjoy table service with the option of paying at the counter or starting a tab. “People feel the freedom to come here multiple times a week for a quick lunch or a long Italian-style feast,” Lussier says. “We want them to view it as a regular hangout because a gathering place is in the true spirit of Neapolitan pizza.”
When it comes to domestic and international expansion, the partners are focused on quality over quantity. “We’ll be successful if we find great partners and build good stores at the right rate,” Bullock says, predicting that Famoso will approach 30 locations by the end of the year and another 20 by the end of 2014. Those numbers will include opening new locations in Québec and Saskatchewan while Lussier, Bullock, and Allard develop a strategy to enter the US market.
Famoso is growing because its team has found the perfect blend of Neapolitan and cosmopolitan. Famoso is now known as an inviting pizzeria with good energy and a comfortable atmosphere. It’s brick and wood with colourful fixtures and lively music. It’s a place to go to find not just a piece of pizza but a piece of Italian hospitality.