Sometimes, bad things happen to good people. It is how we respond to adversity that shows what we are truly made of. Hakki Akdeniz is testament to that. This is a story of how a man who had seemingly lost it all, rose from the ashes to become World Pizza Champion.
When Hakki Akdeniz was betrayed by a friend who stole four years’ worth of savings, he could have sunk into bitterness and despair. Instead, he quietly decided not to give up, and saved for another five years before being able to open his own restaurant.
That restaurant led to another and another. This remarkable man is now at the helm of a restaurant empire that is about so much more than just pizza and profit. Champion Pizza reflects Akdeniz’s values by being deeply committed to giving back to the community. Twenty years ago, Akdeniz emigrated to New York and found himself homeless on the freezing winter streets. The experience will never leave him. His knowledge of the desperation and humiliation of that condition has informed his mission and changed countless lives.
The determination and optimism of Akdeniz’s character has been shaped by the challenges he faced. Growing up in a low-income area in Turkey, his entrepreneurial spirit was evident from an early age as he experimented with ways to earn. He was shining shoes and selling sandwiches, before moving to Canada without a word of English and training in his brother’s pizza place.
Armed with hope and a couple of hundred dollars, he moved from there to New York, but without support things soon fell apart. Akdeniz was staying in a homeless shelter when he found work as a dishwasher in a New Jersey pizza restaurant. He could not navigate the trains back to New York after night shifts, so he slept on a bench. When he told his boss, Akdeniz expected rejection but instead received a hug and a place to stay. “I was homeless, but he accepted me as a human,” says Akdeniz.
There is a gulf of humanity between those who have a place to call home and those who don’t. The line between the two states can be paper-thin. It can take only one choice, one circumstance, to start the downward spiral. Perhaps that is why we have stereotypes of the homeless being lazy or addicts or somehow, ‘bad’ people. Perhaps we do not want to look too closely, for fear of seeing ourselves reflected back.
Akdeniz has heard hundreds of stories from the homeless community that he supports in New York. He says every human has a story and no one ends up on the streets by choice. Champion Pizza has hired a range of people, from war veterans to ex-TV producers, but they all have something in common: giving 100% effort in the job to avoid being homeless again. Akdeniz is adamant that these are people who want to work; who crave purpose and security and connection. He hopes other business owners will open their doors to the possibility of hiring them.
A pizza competition changed Akdeniz’s life. Having finally opened his first restaurant, the business was struggling. He left his apartment to save on rent, sleeping under the pizza oven. He was on the brink of failure when the 2010 World Pizza Championship came along. Akdeniz came first in all four categories and performed spectacular acrobatics with spinning dough on fire.
This success saved his business and allowed him to flourish, turning Champion Pizza into a franchise and prioritising kindness and respect that is embedded in the brand. The business has diversified, branching into a frozen pizza line and other food brands. Whilst developing his company to the heights of material success, Akdeniz has never lost sight of helping people and giving back to the community.
It started with a weekly programme on West 34th St, where Akdeniz and his restaurant team would hand out warm clothing and hot food. By 2018, he had given away over 200,000 slices of pizza, never forgetting what it felt like to not be able to afford one. The Bowery Mission is close to his heart, having stayed there whilst homeless himself. Champion Pizza has also supported victims of crises such as Hurricanes Sandy and Maria.
Recipient of the 2019 Beacon Award and commendations from the New York City Council, New York House of Representatives and the L.E.S. Hispanic council, among others, Akdeniz maintains perspective on these high-profile accolades. To his 17 million Instagram followers, Akdeniz’s heartfelt message is one of kindness and the importance of remaining humble. Our modern productivity-focused society can sometimes demand fulfilment without caring for others along the way. Akdeniz is a positive force to remind us to be kind for no reason; to give without the thought of getting; above all, to be a good human.
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