March 18, 2018 |

Young Entrepreneur Award: The Future’s So Bright

By Denise Greer

Be in Room S220-221 on Wednesday, March 21 at 3:30 p.m. at the Las Vegas Convention Center during Pizza Expo.

You will be inspired, moved, entertained and proud. Three young pizzeria owner/operators will take the stage to share their stories of success, vision and innovation.

Afterward, you, the pizzeria professional, will select one to be our inaugural Pizza Today Young Entrepreneur of the Year. The award winner will receive a memorial trophy and free tuition to Tony Gemignani’s International School of Pizza. Plus, Pizza Today will travel to the recipient’s location to feature the pizzeria in an upcoming issue of the magazine!

How did we arrive at our three finalists? Let’s go back to the beginning.

The face of the pizzeria industry is changing. We see it at International Pizza Expo, during visits to pizzerias around the country and in our daily conversations with pizzeria owners. The new generation of pizza professionals are change-makers and innovators.

That prompted us to ask the question: How do we recognize and raise awareness of young pizzeria owners who will shape the pizza industry for decades to comes?

After extensive brainstorming, the idea to create an awards program emerged — not just any program, but one that would inspire the entire pizzeria industry.

With the largest gathering of pizza people in the world at Pizza Expo, we have the ideal platform to showcase young operators’ successes. We continued to build on the idea by creating the framework for the award. What would the ideal age range be? We decided 40 years of age was an ideal cutoff for an industry where the average age of a pizzeria owner is over 50. We established a criteria with an open submission process available to any operator in the country. In an online form, we asked candidates to provide the full scope of the business they have built, from overall business concept, sales figures and employee programs to community involvement and marketing initiatives. We also asked for links to their Web sites, menus and social profiles.

What better way to see their vision than video?

We asked operators to send us a four-minute video and answer specific questions: ‘What is your pizzeria’s brand? How do you market your pizzeria? What community outreach initiatives do you organize? How has your company grown during the past 12 months and what are your future growth plans? Why should you be honored as Pizza Today’s Young Entrepreneur of the Year?’

We took to Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Quick Tips E-news, and the Pizza Today and Pizza Expo Web sites and called on to the industry to apply.

Ask and ye shall receive: Scores of owners from across the country (and a few international folks) submitted for the award.

Narrowing the field

The Pizza Today and Pizza Expo staff read every form and watched every video submitted. All of us were inspired by each operator’s story. Watching owner after owner tell of their triumphs with passion and purpose were goose bump moments. It reinvigorated us and made us proud to represent the booming industry.

The most difficult part was selecting the final three. It was a month-long process of watching videos, re-watching videos, reviewing submission materials and making notes. We created a point system for each criteria area. We reviewed each candidate on their overall business concept, employee programs, community involvement and marketing programs. We looked for innovation, business growth, robust year-to-year sales growth and passion. We first narrowed the field to a dozen, then 10 and then six. We did so individually to keep the voting process impartial. Then the team sat in a room with the final six and reviewed everything again, discussing each candidate, casting votes for our final three.

These creative and motivated finalists encapsulate the essence of the award. Without further ado, here are Pizza Today’s Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award finalists (in alphabetical order):


Sammy Mandell

Greenville Avenue Pizza Company — Dallas, TX

Opening his pizzeria at age 23 in 2007. Sammy owns GAPCo with his wife, Molly. The couple has developed a pizza concept that has been ranked on Fortune’s 100 Fastest Growing Inner-City Businesses and Pizza Today’s Hot 100 Independents lists. The business has persevered many obstacles in its first decade. Sammy has shown foresight to push forward in the pizza business, from rebranding in 2014 and developing trademark products to expanding to a second location in 2017. Sammy stands out for the creativity and ingenuity he applies to every aspect of GAPCo, including employee programs and community outreach.

“I would have to say the driving force behind submitting for this award was how much GAPCo has been recognized over the past few years,” he says. “It has surprised, honored and humbled me so much. I have found it very exciting applying for awards that add to the success of our restaurants and the 10 years of hard work.”


Scottie Rivera

Scottie’s Pizza Parlor — Portland, OR

Scottie opened his namesake pizzeria in 2015 at age 26. Scottie has developed what he calls pizza with integrity. The pizzeria has become a fixture in its community through myriad outreach programs, exemplifying pizza with a purpose. A coach to his team, Scottie has created innovative employee programs that seeks to compensate, motivate and advance his team members. In its small 700-square-foot space, sales have doubled in the past year with plans to open a second location in 2018. The pizzeria also holds the Guinness World Record for its 101-Cheese Pizza.

“I was honored to have the support of industry colleagues, including Mark Bello of Pizza a Casa Pizza School in New York, who nominated me for the award,” he says. “I accepted the nomination because it offers a platform for showcasing my business philosophy: creating a workplace where pizzaiolo/as are valued, respected and paid well, cultivating #communitynotcompetition in Portland’s food industry and beyond, and celebrating pizza’s status as an affordable food that fosters conviviality.”


Christal Spata

Valeo’s Pizza — Kenosha, WI

Christal opened Valeo with her husband, Eric, in 2012. Valeo’s is reinventing restaurant culture with visionary employee programs centered on empowerment, transparency and education. The Spatas turned around a half-century old carryout and delivery concept with operational efficiencies. In 2017, Valeo’s built out and opened a full-service location, quadrupling its sales. Valeo’s business philosophy of building community one pizza at a time encompasses multiple outreach initiatives, including partnerships to provide opportunities and childhood experiences for those in foster care.    

“The driving force behind my submission for the Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award was for the opportunity to help improve the lives of other business owners by showing them our proof that by focusing your interview process, investing leadership training into your team members and by creating a written road map for success, it drastically reduces turnover, empowers those around you and allows you the freedom to own a business and not a job,” she says.

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