Pizza perfection

Pizza perfection

Justin Lussier’s Neapolitan pie joint was a hit when it first opened, but no one could have anticipated just how much growth was to come.

Justin Lussier was on a postgraduation backpacking trip across Europe when a food craving led to a business idea that would shake up the fast food pizza market in Canada.

It was 2005, and Lussier and his soon-to-be wife noticed a lineup outside Pizzeria Sorbillo, a restaurant in Naples, Italy, home of the authentic Neapolitan pizza. As they got closer, they saw pizza being cooked in less than a few minutes, and customers were gobbling it up. “Gourmet pizza in a minute-and-a-half?” Lussier recalls. “It sounded too good to be true.”

Seconds after Finishing his meal, he found the nearest pay phone and called his friend and co-worker in Edmonton, Christian Bullock. “It was the best pizza I had ever had,” he said, describing the hand-stretched thin crust, mouthwatering fior di latte cheese and fresh tomatoes.

Lussier went back to Edmonton – he worked at a bar Bullock had opened a few years earlier – but the Italian pizza experience left a mark. He thought that something similar could work in Canada.

To get the ball rolling, he, Bullock and childhood friend Jason Allard started meeting to figure out the best way to open a Neapolitan pizza-serving restaurant. He also travelled to Los Angeles to study at a branch of the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana, an international organization that promotes the culinary art and tradition of the Neapolitan pizza.

In May 2007, armed with a small business loan and some of their own investments, Lussier and his partners opened their first Famoso Neapolitan Pizzeria location in downtown Edmonton. Customers were blown away by the pies made with Caputo 00 – the gold standard of pizza flour – and Campania tomatoes, both imported from Italy, and covered with fior di latte wholemilk mozzarella, cooked for 90 seconds in a 480 C (896 F) oven, which was also brought in from Italy.

The restaurant was a much bigger hit than they could have imagined. They now have 26 restaurants in a number of major Canadian cities, while revenues have grown by more than 1,500 per cent between 2008 and 2013. Lussier’s goal is to open 10 new restaurants a year.

They expanded so rapidly thanks to a sizable investment made by Serruya Private Equity, a venture capital group that oversees the investment activities of the Serruya family, the group behind frozen yogurt chain Yogen Früz. The Serruyas heard about the restaurant in 2011 and made their investment a year later. It was the perfect partnership, says Lussier, as they had decades of retail franchise experience behind them.

While Lussier wants to continue opening new locations, he’s knows that if he expands too rapidly, quality could suffer. “We want to make sure that we maintain a great reputation and don’t jeopardize that,” he says. “Sometimes that means you have to grow slower.”

- Brenda Bouw / Photograph by Michael Waiter