By: Pete Humes
Inside Business, May 13, 2016
There’s a heat wave coming to Chesapeake.
It’s a never-before-seen phenomenon that will bring temperatures of more than 1,000 degrees to one specific section of the Great Bridge Shopping Center.
You won’t hear about it on the nightly weather report. It won’t appear in any forecast. But according to entrepreneur Jim Samples, it’s definitely coming … and it’s going to be delicious.
The rise in temperature begins this summer when Samples opens the doors of the first 1000 Degrees Neapolitan Pizza location in Hampton Roads.
The New Jersey-based restaurant franchise puts a fast-casual American spin on authentic, hand-tossed Neapolitan pizza. Diners choose their own sauces and toppings and get a piping-hot final product in about two minutes.
“Everybody loves pizza,” Samples said. “The beauty of this concept is pizza done right and done quick.”
“Quick” may be an understatement. The restaurant’s powerhouse oven can cook a fully loaded 10-inch pie in about 120 seconds.
“We don’t use shortcuts like frozen or pressed dough,” Samples said. “It’s all handmade every day and hand-tossed. We use fresh ingredients. We don’t even have freezers.”
Pizza is poised to become the next powerhouse in the growing segment of fast-casual dining, currently dominated by sandwich makers, burger joints and burrito spots.
Quick-service pizza franchises are growing. Restaurants such as MOD and Blaze Pizza have reported triple-digit sales growth. Even the now-struggling Chipotle has been slowly rolling out its own version of the model with Pizzeria Locale. The website shows three stores open, three coming soon.
The 1000 Degrees concept was the brainchild of entrepreneur Brian Petruzzi, who found a way to fuse his Italian heritage with a fast-casual franchise formula. Petruzzi launched the New Jersey-based restaurant chain in 2014. Today there are more than 18 locations in the U.S. and one international location in Malaysia, with another 14 coming soon.
Launching the pizza brand was a natural next step for Petruzzi, who has said that he grew up in his family’s restaurants and has been making pizza since he was old enough to handle dough.
Jim Samples, on the other hand, doesn’t have much of a restaurant resume.
Swapping mortgages for mozzarella
For more than 20 years, people didn’t go to see Jim Samples if they were hungry. They went to see him if they needed a house.
After growing up in Virginia Beach and graduating from First Colonial High School, Samples headed to Virginia Tech to major in finance. His path from college led directly to a career as a mortgage banker. After bouncing around North and South Carolina working for Wachovia and First Union, he landed in Richmond working for SunTrust.
But family issues brought him back home to Hampton Roads in 2015. While he was here, the 46-year-old Samples had a couple of revelations.
The first was that corporate life had run its course.
“I just said, ‘You know what? I’m not really that happy doing this anymore,’” he said. “I want to be closer to my family. I’ve always wanted to do this, so I set my mind that I was not going back to the mortgage industry.
“It would have been much easier to go back to that. But I’d been smart with saving my money, and I decided to start investing in myself.”
Samples knew he wanted to run his own business, but he wasn’t sure what kind of business it would be.
“A franchise made sense to me,” he said. “They are a proven concept and help streamline things for a first-time business owner.”
After some research, he saw opportunity in the fast-casual restaurant trend.
“I could see the industry moving away from traditional restaurants,” Samples said. “I liked the simplicity. I liked that you’re not dealing with waitstaff and the complexities that come with the back kitchen.”
Recipe for success
It’s hard to find people who don’t like pizza.
That “sure bet” aspect appealed to Samples for sure, but he was also drawn to the quality and history of the 1000 Degrees menu. While the business model of the franchise is focused on speed of delivery, personal customization and a palatable price point (10-inch pizzas start at $7.95), the core product is based on Italian tradition.
The city of Naples holds claim as the birthplace of pizza. The Neapolitans consider the crafting of dough, cheese and sauce as supremely serious business.
If you need proof, look no further than the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana (True Neapolitan Pizza Association), an Italian nonprofit established in 1984 to maintain the integrity of the city’s signature pie.
Check out its official website and you’ll find an 11-page PDF that outlines strict guidelines for the kinds of tomatoes, cheeses and crusts that must be used.
While 1000 Degrees follows those guidelines with products designed to satisfy pizza purists, the chain also offers plenty of variations on the Calabrian classic.
For example, in addition to the regulation San Marzano and cherry tomato sauces, diners can opt for spicy sriracha marinara, bleu-cheese buffalo, pesto or smokey bourbon barbecue.
Toppings will run the gamut from traditional (tomatoes, peppers and onions) to trendy (falafel, banana peppers and balsamic onions).
But while anybody with the right ingredients can make a pizza, it’s more complicated building a business.
Samples said that a big part of his process was signing up for Opportunity Inc.’s Launch Hampton Roads Business Start-Up Program.
“It was the best thing I could have done,” Samples said. “It’s amazing how quickly you realize that you don’t know what you don’t know. It really opened my eyes.”
The entrepreneurial training program gave him guidance on everything from accounting and sales to marketing and networking. It taught him three important lessons.
First, starting a business takes a team.
“Having the right attorney, accountant, real estate agent, contractors is key,” he said. “As my team started to fall into place, I got more and more confident.”
Second, patience isn’t optional.
“The biggest hurdle in getting started was finding the right location,” Samples said. “The process took way longer than I thought it would.”
He spent months alone on site selection and landlord negotiations. Samples said he passed up plenty of available space because he wanted to hold out for something with enough activity.
“I knew I needed to get into a high traffic area in order to make this work,” he said.
And third? Make sure you have a passion for your product.
Trading your suit and tie for an apron and a sauce ladle may seem romantic at first, but the true test comes after a few weeks of hectic lunch rushes. Samples seemed ready to commit to a long-term relationship with Naples’ most famous export.
“I can’t wait,” Samples said. “I had a lot of starts and stops. There were times I could have easily gotten frustrated and quit, but I stuck with it. I’m ready to get rolling.”