“Pizza is bulletproof,” declares Gerry Koutougos, sitting across from me at his first UAE store in the heart of Bur Dubai.
Sales of the single-dish dinner solution have soared so high in the recession that he is opening outlets of Sarpino’s Pizza at the rate of one a week, he tells Emirates 24|7.
“As soon as the recession hit America, our business increased. People stopped going out and started ordering takeaway instead – so we’ve benefitted from that trend,” he says. “And business is just going up and up.”
Koutougos has a franchise agreement with the travel and hotel company Planet Group for between 20 and 25 stores across the UAE, and is in discussion with potential partners in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia in the Middle East, as well as other new markets such as India, Nepal, Russia and the CIS, New Zealand and Australia.
Two stores are already operational in Syria and he expects to open one in Bahrain by the end of the year.
There are 117 Sarpino’s stores around the world, Koutougos says, with several others either planned or under construction.
"We're opening at the rate of one outlet a week right now."
Habib Khan, CEO, Hospitality Division at Planet says the short term plan is to have “two or three” stores in Dubai and “at least one store in each of the Emirates” by the end of next year.
“We wanted to appeal to tourists and residents with a cuisine that is well known, but we wanted to be able to adapt the menu to suit Dubai’s multicultural market,” he says, adding that the prime location opposite Dubai Museum should bring in punters.
“The larger chain of pizzerias are limited in their menu selection, but Sarpino’s gives the franchisee the leverage and freedom to add local flavour.”
The result is a menu that draws inspiration from India, Thailand and China.
“I’d say the benchmark is 60 per cent international and 40 per cent locally inspired flavours,” says Koutougos.
"Our ability to localise means we can reach more customers. We've got three different pizza bases right now - think, medium and thick - but we launch a wholemeal base soon, which will bring in a whole new set of customers."
Pizza pies are enjoying a wave of popularity in the UAE at the moment. American firm Round Table Pizza said last year that it would expand to 17 outlets across the country.
Another American chain, Naked Pizza, which has entered the UAE as NKD Pizza, will open two test outlets in Dubai this year and hopes to have 100 stores across the GCC over the next five years.
And Gourmet Gulf, which holds the franchise for four brands including California Pizza Kitchen, also wants to have 100 units in operation by 2014.
So it’s a crowded marketplace that Sarpino’s is stepping into – but 64-year-old Koutougos is unfazed.
“Sarpino’s is a little bit different from all the others,” he starts off, which is what any of the other brands would probably say, too.
“When I took Sarpino’s into the United States six years ago, I launched in Chicago – which as you know is the pizza capital of the world. A lot of people told me I was an idiot to go to Chicago, but we now have 14 Sarpino’s stores across the city and the same people look at me and say, ‘You must know something’.
“I believe in my product, and think that once people try my food, they’ll come back for more.
And I eat it seven days a week. What works in our favour is that I offer better quality and a product that is more gourmet than others on the market. It is 100 per cent real, with no imitations, no canned food, virgin olive oil and organic ingredients wherever possible.
Others buy their pizza sauce from outside companies, ours is made inhouse,” he says.
Sarpino’s is Koutougos’s third restaurant chain. After years of running two full-service Greek restaurants in Victoria, Canada, Koutougos says a gap in the market prompted him to launch a takeout brand.
Part Greek and part Italian, he turned to pizza, setting up Canadian 2-for-1 Pizza, which was successful enough for him to be able to open 98 outlets within the first nine years and earned him an award for entrepreneurship from Ernst and Young in 1998.
Offered a buyout that year, he took it and decided to retire.
“But I was sitting at home, and I started drinking and gambling and fighting with my wife, so I went back to work,” he says now.
Barred from launching another pizza brand for three years, he established smaller franchise chains for subs and wraps under the name Zestos, but he says pizza was where his heart lay.
“As soon as the three year mark was up, I sold my 21 stores and was back in pizza the next day, with Sarpino’s.
And no, I’m not going to sell this one now, I have no need to,” he says.
But he’s having a hard time getting his three sons involved in the business.
“One’s a teacher, another is a cop, a third is a car dealer – I’ve tried and tried and tried to get them to come and take it over, but it looks like I’ll have to keep the business for my granddaughter now,” he laughs.