Justin Lussier (’06 BA, Political Science) isn’t your typical tourist. When he travelled to Italy the summer before his final term of university, he didn’t just bring back memories and souvenirs – he came back with an idea that changed his life.
At the time, Lussier, like most students on the verge of graduation, was grappling with what his next steps would be. He’d thought about pursuing a master’s degree with a focus on international political economy, but the idea of starting a business also appealed to him. All he needed was the perfect idea to throw his energy behind, and it unexpectedly presented itself on his vacation in the form of a fire-roasted Neapolitan pizza.
Lussier made a phone call from a payphone in Naples to two of his friends back home, Jason Allard and Christian Bullock, and the idea to bring the pizza to Canada was officially in motion. Two years later, in 2007, they opened the first Famoso Neapolitan Pizzeria in downtown Edmonton.
“There were definitely wood-fire ovens, thin-crust Italian pizza and Italian toppings here already – it was nothing new when we opened,” Lussier says. “But really doing it how they do it in Naples was new. That’s how our product is different than what people have done before.”
“I worked seven days a week for the first year – that’s what it took to get the business off the ground.”
Creating an authentic Neapolitan pizza is an exact process – to the extent that Italy even has a True Neapolitan Pizza Association (Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana) to certify that pizzerias use the proper artisan traditions.
“It’s such an amazing opportunity when you’re passionate about a product and there’s actually an organization that will teach you exactly how to do it,” Lussier says.
He and his partners spent a week in training to learn the standards they needed to follow: using specific types of flour, tomatoes and cheese; hand kneading and stretching the dough; and baking the pizza in a wood-fired, domed oven at 900°F for no more than 90 seconds.
Aside from perfecting their pizza technique, the Famoso partners were on a steep learning curve as they launched their business in an industry known for its precarious success rates for new ventures.
“I worked seven days a week for the first year – that’s what it took to get the business off the ground,” Lussier says. “It was definitely challenging, but it was fun to control something and create something. The highlight was people’s response. People getting pumped about your pizza and saying it’s the best they ever had, that was the fuel to keep going.”
And keep going they have. After steadily growing over its first five years in business, Famoso caught the eye of Canadian business magnates Michael and Simon Serruya in 2012. Known for their success in building franchises, starting with Yogen Früz in 1986, the Serruya brothers’ investment and expertise is allowing Famoso to shift gears and expand at a faster pace. There are currently 22 locations from Ontario to British Columbia, with 10 more planned to open later this year, and Famoso was recently ranked as one of Canada’s Fastest-Growing Companies by PROFIT magazine.
It’s an exciting time for Lussier, who has relocated to Vancouver, as he once again finds himself on a steep learning curve. “It’s definitely a big challenge when you try to do two things at once – grow aggressively and operate your current business,” he says.
But he’s come a long way from the days when a handful of people shouldered all the work. “It was really exciting to be able to hire people to do things that I was doing before,” he says. “Once you have somebody in charge of marketing and project management and hire some really good operational people like we’ve done, it’s great because you can start focusing more time on strategy.”
That strategy includes taking the Famoso franchise south of the border – they hope to open restaurants in the U.S. by 2015 – and Lussier believes more countries will likely follow. “There’s a pretty big opportunity in what we’re doing around the world.”
Famoso Neapolitan Pizzeria