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‘Soccer Sam’ scores with his pizza empire

As Salvatore Fantauzzo left work at his uncle’s meat market on East Main Street in 1978, he saw a "for rent" sign on a vacant shoe store across the street.

Fantauzzo had been after his uncle for years to sell pizza at the meat market, but his uncle said it would be too time-consuming.

"He told me I was crazy," Fantauzzo says.

Fantauzzo saw the vacant building as an opportunity. A senior at Eastridge High School in Irondequoit, he skipped school the next day and met the building’s landlady. The rent was $200 monthly. Fantauzzo jumped at the chance.

"I had no idea what I was doing," Fantauzzo says, sitting in one of 19 Salvatore’s Old Fashioned Pizzeria locations.

"I told her I was going to put a pizzeria in. I thought I knew everything because I interviewed these pizza guys and knew where to get the pots and where to get the equipment. Obviously, there’s a lot more to it, but I didn’t know better."

Fantauzzo waited two weeks to tell his parents about the venture.

"They said, ‘You gotta go to college. What are you doing? You’re a young kid. You’re 17 years old.’"

Fantauzzo, now 49, opened that first pizzeria in 1978, and today Fantauzzo Family Brands Inc. oversees 19 locations, with another to open Jan. 12 in the former Donuts Delite building on Culver Road.

The 19th location, on West Main Street in Honeoye Falls, opened last month.

"Every new store we build, like the one in Honeoye Falls, is instantly successful because we’ve branded it for 31 years," Fantauzzo says. "It’s not like we’re a new guy. Our product is really good. It’s consistent. Everything is done through a commissary, so it’s the same at all the stores.

"Our looks aren’t as consistent as some of the chains, but that’s intentional. I don’t want to look like a chain. I want to look like a local, family-grown pizzeria, because that’s who we are."

The holding company was expecting $20 million in sales for 2009. Each store employs as many as 30 people, many of whom are part-time.

"The biggest issue we have, like most small companies today, is the help," Fantauzzo says. "People aren’t going to college to get into the pizza business. Sometimes we get lucky and people start off as 16- or 17-year-old kids and fall in love with the business and stick with you, but it’s not a glamorous field.

"The problem as high-end management is getting the right people. And the full menu is a lot harder than running just a pizzeria. It’s like running a restaurant but on steroids. You have to get people’s orders out and delivered in 30 minutes, and it’s not just pizza. It’s everything."

Family business
The 19 locations are owned by five families, three of which are related to Fantauzzo. His youngest son, Silvio, owns three. His oldest son, Salvatore II, owns one. A cousin and her husband own three.

"I tried everything to convince them not to be in it," Fantauzzo says of his children. "I wanted them to go to college, the whole doctor-lawyer thing, like most parents. But they all loved the pizza business. They all started hanging around it when they were 10 or 11 years old.

"They see the stress part of it, but they also see there’s nothing like it. That adrenaline rush on a Friday and Saturday night, you don’t get that in an office environment."

Fantauzzo’s best friend, company president and chief operating officer John Coraggioso, owns six stores.

"He knows what he wants and goes after it," Coraggioso says of Fantauzzo. "There’s no in between. The secret is in knowing the vision you want and where you want to go, and not letting anyone get in your way by saying it can’t be done."

Fantauzzo would like to see all his owner-operators involved in as many as six locations.

"For years, guys were stuck in (thinking) they had to be at their store 60 hours a week," he says. "Now they realize that if you hire the right managers and train them right, you could open two or three or four stores and oversee them. Our goal now is to see one person oversee up to six stores. That’s how I see us growing."

Fantauzzo, company CEO as well as founder, gets a portion of the revenue from all 19 stores.

"Honestly, probably two years ago was when I realized we were onto something big," he says. "Before that, there were a lot of years of struggle."

Fantauzzo had eight stores just five years ago.

"We’re a small company," he says. "We don’t have any investors. We don’t have any banks behind us. We’re just doing it old-school-style. You make a little money and open a second store. You make a little money and open a third store.

"Recently, with the opening of the newer stores, I realized the stores could be instantly successful. But I didn’t have that confidence five years ago."

Fantauzzo augmented Salvatore’s in its early days with a wholesale commissary that generated $3 million in annual sales to most of Monroe County’s school districts and to Salvatore’s. He eventually sold the commissary to Palmer Food Services in Henrietta.

"It got to a point where I had to either get a monster warehouse or monster trucks, or sell it because we were growing," Fantauzzo says. "We had so many stores, and because of the full menu, we do five times the sales of an average pizzeria."

Fantauzzo has set a lofty goal of 32 locations by the end of 2010, one for each of the company’s 32 years in operation.

"I think we can do it," he insists. "I think we can easily open 12 or 13 stores in a year. If not, maybe it’ll take us till the 35th year to catch up."

Donuts Delite
The Donuts Delite location has intrigued Fantauzzo for three years, he says. He negotiated with the building’s real estate agent for months before buying it for $300,000. The company is spending $600,000 to restore it after other

deals that would have led to demolition fell through.

"The reason the other deals fell through was because the neighbors didn’t want the building to be knocked down," Fantauzzo says. "It wasn’t an official landmark, but it kind of is. It should be.

"We went to the city and said we want to keep it intact. We want to keep it as a Donuts Delite building with a Salvatore’s inside it. But it will always be the Donuts Delite building."

Fantauzzo will use the Donuts Delite name and recipe, with doughnuts and coffee to be served from 6 a.m. to 11 a.m. and Salvatore’s food from 11 a.m. to midnight.

Salvatore’s is located in Monroe, Ontario and Wayne counties.

"We may go to Buffalo soon, but there’s a lot more room in Rochester," Fantauzzo says.

The 21st location will be in Walworth, Wayne County, he says. The company also is close to an agreement on a store in Macedon and has made offers on sites in Gates and Spencerport.

Fantauzzo’s interest in pizza came at an early age.

"I remember going to pizza shops as a little kid with my dad and just watching everything, really taking it all in," he says.

His passion resulted in the rental of that former shoe store.

Fantauzzo, whose nickname is Sam, bought used pizza-making equipment. Friends in the pizza business recommended a lawyer who helped him register a name for the pizzeria.

"Sam’s was taken," Fantauzzo recalls. "Sammy’s was taken. The lawyer said, ‘Why don’t you go with Salvatore’s? That’s your real name.’ I said ‘I don’t even know how to spell that. I never use it.’

"But I ended up going with Salvatore’s. I remember calling my mom from City Hall when I was registering the name to double-check on the spelling."

Relatives and friends helped Fantauzzo remodel the building. He opened for business on July 5, 1978, after graduating from high school.

"I went through many years of struggling," Fantauzzo says. "Whenever I speak at schools, I tell kids how important that college education is, because it took me forever to learn what I learned over the years."

Days after opening, Fantauzzo came across a magazine with information on a pizza convention in Florida. He decided to go.

"In the 1970s and 1980s, pizzerias did pizza and subs," he says. "Nobody had wings. Nobody had fried foods. Well, at this convention, they had every wing distributor in the country, every fryer maker, every mozzarella stick company, and nobody was doing any of that kind of stuff.

"I made all these great contacts-the owners of these companies are still lifelong friends-and I brought in all these products: chicken fingers, mozzarella sticks, jalapeno poppers. It was unheard of in this market."

In 1983, Salvatore’s expanded to a full menu with delivery.

"That was a way I could compete with the guys who had been around for a long time and had more to offer. And there were rumors that these national chains were going to come to town, and I was nervous," he says. "They weren’t in town in the early 1980s."

Salvatore’s, Fantauzzo says, was the first in the area to offer chicken wings with pizza, hot submarine sandwiches, and eggplant and chicken Parmesan dinners.

Salvatore’s chief competitor, Fantauzzo says, is Wegmans Food Markets Inc.

"They are our idol," he says. "They can service you with all kinds of food products, and it’s convenient. The national (pizza) chains don’t have a full menu. Most of them don’t even have wings.

"We’re not competing with just pizza chains. We’re competing with the sub chains, the taco chains, the burger chains; it all takes a piece of your action. We’re fighting hard to stay in."

Salvatore’s is up to the challenge, Fantauzzo says.

"Most of our stores struggle to handle the business they’re doing," he says. "The owners have to decide whether to open a second store near there, like we did in Fairport when we opened a store in Penfield, two miles away. That’s a good problem to have."

Soccer Sam
Fantauzzo was born and raised in the Rochester area. His family moved from the city to Irondequoit when he was 12.

"I’ve been a passionate soccer fan and a pizza lover for as long as I can remember," he says.

Fantauzzo is perhaps better known for his involvement in soccer than for his pizza. He also spent time as a professional wrestler-his stage name was Dr. Love-until his wife, Linda, became pregnant with the couple’s first child in 1983.

Fantauzzo took charge of the Irondequoit Fall Soccer League for adults in the early 1980s, and that led to the nickname Soccer Sam. Cable television came to the town in the late 1980s, and Fantauzzo ap-proached the local station about promoting the soccer league.

"They said they were looking for pro-gramming, so I created this Soccer Sam character," he says. "It was more like my wrestling character-sunglasses, kind of wacky-and we started doing these TV games on cable access."

He continued that for six years until Rochester was awarded a professional soccer franchise in 1995. The Raging Rhinos began play in 1996, with Fantauzzo doing a weekly radio show focused on the Rhinos, as well as the "Kick This" soccer radio show.

"We were the local soccer fix if you were a soccer nut," he says.

Fantauzzo helped announce Rhinos games on the radio. He also launched Soccer Sam’s restaurant, which he sold after three years and which eventually went out of business.

"It was a dream," he says of the restaurant. "But it was hard work. Like wrestling was a distraction from Salvatore’s and the Rhinos was a distraction from Salvatore’s, so was Soccer Sam’s restaurant. At the time I had seven or eight locations, and I felt I needed to focus on one thing and do it right."

Fantauzzo was hired as vice president of marketing and business development for the Rhinos a week after the team was purchased by Utica banker Robert Clark in March 2008. Fantauzzo resigned from that position in June because of complications from stomach bypass surgery.

Fantauzzo has lost 110 pounds since the surgery and is down from more than 300 pounds.

"I was eating in my car and eating on the go, going from one store to the other store and eating slices of pizza," he says. "I tried every diet known to man and decided to do (the surgery).

"I regretted it at first when the complications happened. But now I’m so happy because I’m able to play soccer again. I can get a little workout. I’m able to chase my grandkids. I just love it. I’m wired now. I have so much more energy, losing that much weight."

The complications from the surgery, plus the added workload with the Rhinos, forced Fantauzzo to step away from day-to-day involvement with the team.

"I realized that life is too short, so I need to focus on my family and my business, which is Salvatore’s," he says.

"I don’t want soccer to be a job. I have a job. I want soccer to be my passion, my relaxation and my hobby. When your only hobby becomes your job, you have no hobbies."

Fantauzzo plans to continue with his radio work for the Rhinos, and with player introductions at the stadium on game days.

"Now, when I announce the players or go on the radio, I’m having fun," he says. "I’m not worried about the attendance. I’m not worried about whether or not a sponsor paid us or if I’ve lost a sponsor. I have enough stress with Salvatore’s. I don’t need any stress from soccer."

Fantauzzo owns 5 percent of the Rhinos franchise and talks to Clark regularly about the state of the team.

"He’s been instrumental in our rebuilding process," Clark says. "He was instrumental back when we purchased the team in 2008. He was instrumental in finding a new concessionaire at the stadium and mending some ties with some sponsors in the past. He’s been a blessing here."

From 2003 to 2005, Fantauzzo was a paid employee of the Rhinos’ previous ownership group, and he was interested in buying the team before Clark stepped forward.

"At first we were rivals," Fantauzzo says. "We were fighting to buy the team. When he realized my intentions were just to save soccer, to save a game I love in a city I love, he immediately gave me an amazing offer to join him."

On the mat
Fantauzzo’s wrestling career involved frequent trips to Buffalo, Syracuse and Pennsylvania for performances and tapings.

"I used to tell my wife that my dream was to someday become a wrestler," Fantauzzo says. "She called me up one day-she was working at a hair salon-to say she had a wrestler in her chair.

"They were in town to do a show, and she said, ‘Why don’t you come down and meet him?’ I met the guy, and next thing you know I went to the (wrestling) school and I became a professional wrestler."

Linda’s pregnancy, however, changed his priorities.

"It seemed like a fantasy till I had to show up on Mother’s Day in Pennsylvania at 2 o’clock and you’re sitting there for four hours for a two-minute match," Fantauzzo says. "That’s when I realized that it was becoming a job.

"I decided I had to take this pizza thing seriously. I was getting by. I was paying my bills. But I wasn’t really making any money. When my wife became pregnant, I realized it was time to grow up."

These days, Fantauzzo’s life is focused on his family, his business and soccer.

"I have no hobbies at all," he says. "That’s the sad part about it. I don’t golf. I don’t fish. I don’t hunt. Work is my hobby. Soccer was my hobby. When I’m setting up a Salvatore’s location, it’s kind of like my hobby. I love doing that."

He and his wife go to Florida a couple of times a year, he says.

"My wife loves Florida, but a week is tough for me," Fantauzzo says. "I’m not a vacation kind of guy. I love what I do.

"I have two young grandkids, and I missed out when my kids were little by working so much. I try to spend as much time as I can with them. The phone is off on Sundays because I’m with my family and my grandkids."

Fantauzzo is a long-time fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers, the New York Yankees and the New York Knicks.

"But it’s mainly soccer," he says. "I follow American soccer only, though. I’m all about American sports. I follow our national team. I’m a huge fan of both the men and women, and obviously the Rhinos."

Fantauzzo also was a fan of the Rochester Lancers, a team that played in the American Soccer League from 1967 to 1969 and in the North American Soccer League from 1970 to 1980 before folding. Fantauzzo bought the Lancers’ name and logo.

"When Fantauzzo Family Brands was registering one of the products on our menu, I asked the lawyer if that was available and he said yes," Fantauzzo says.

"Someday when I’m ready to retire, I’d love to do something with that. I collect soccer stuff. Owning the Lancer name and logo is the greatest achievement in my collection. It doesn’t make me any money, but it’s cool to have."

Almost in the same breath, though, Fantauzzo says he hopes to never retire.

"I want to keep this thing going for as long as I can and provide employment for a lot of people that are in Rochester and family members that are looking for a career. I just love what I do.

"I’ve had distractions in my 31 years at Salvatore’s. If I didn’t have those distractions, we’d probably have 100 locations right now. I need to focus on what I know best, and that’s what I plan to do. And I plan to do this till the day I die."

Salvatore Fantauzzo
Title:
Founder and CEO, Fantauzzo Family Brands Inc.
Age: 49
Home: Webster
Education: Eastridge High School, 1978
Family: Wife, Linda; sons Salvatore II, 26, and Silvio, 22; daughter Roxanna, 23
Hobbies: Soccer
Quote: "A lot of it is my feel. But I also study things. If I’m in Florida, I’m studying every restaurant there. I’m going more after the restaurant business to get a feel for how I need to improve Salvatore’s. We’ve exceeded the expectations of a pizzeria. Now I need to employ the next level."

1/1/10 (c) 2010 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or e-mail rbj@rbj.net.

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