Mon, Jun 13, 2016 - Page 12 News List

Pies in Taichung’s sky

Pizza Rock, a restaurant that began in 2011 and today has 12 locations in southern Taiwan, will use its successful business model to branch out into Thailand, China and Malaysia

By John Evans  /  Contributing reporter

Ugo Ortolano salivates over one of his pizzas.

Photo courtesy of Ugo Ortolano

When Ugo Ortolano opened his first Pizza Rock restaurant in Taichung back in 2011 he was hurriedly installing the oven and other puzzle-like kitchen components up until a few hours before the noontime grand opening.

And when the doors opened, his 50 friends, relatives and neighbors who came to taste the food were met with less than perfect pizza.

“We had burnt pizza, undercooked pizza. It was a mess,” Ortolano recalls. “We learned as we were making them.”

Times have certainly changed.

Fast forward five years and Pizza Rock has grown to 12 locations, including one that opened in Kaohsiung on Saturday. Ortolano and his wife, Ruby Lai (賴冠汝), own the five Pizza Rock restaurants in Taichung, while the others operate as franchises.

The challenge now is for the restaurants, some of which churn out up to 200 thin-crust pizzas a day, to remain consistent in quality. In addition to 12-inch pizzas, most in the range of NT$200 to NT$400, paninis, pastas and salads are also available.

RAPID SUCCESS

Part of Pizza Rock’s success is how closely Ortolano is associated with the business, says Doug Habecker, a long-term board member of the American Chamber of Commerce in Taichung.

“He’s marketed himself as the face of that restaurant,” Habecker says. Above some of the restaurants, two-story-tall advertisements feature the face of a grinning Ortolano.

Even the name Pizza Rock is easy to remember, Habecker says, adding that the yellow and white lettering on black is eye-catching.

In a tough economic climate where restaurants routinely open and close, Pizza Rock has expanded. Its success, Habecker says, is a combination of smart business people and talented chefs who know about food.

“He’s done a good job picking locations in the city,” Habecker says.

With Pizza Rock’s success, Ortolano has his eyes set on future expansion. While he doesn’t foresee any more restaurants in Taichung, he envisions upwards of 50 Pizza Rock restaurants in Taiwan, with further reach into Thailand, China and Malaysia.

“I have zero doubt that we are going to do well,” Ortolano says.

HIGH STANDARDS

Ortolano says he tries to maintain a sustainable business approach, with uniform standards for each franchised Pizza Rock. Each franchise has two owners, one for the dining area and one for the kitchen.

Shying away from popular franchise exhibitions is strategic, Ortolano says, calling such environments forced and artificial. Instead, he relies on people interested in buying into Pizza Rock to contact him directly. And even then, a deal isn’t guaranteed. Ortolano estimates he has said no to at least 30 offers.

“It starts with the people. That’s why you should only hire people you like,” he says. “One of the first questions I ask in an interview is, ‘Are you a good person?’”

For 30-year-old Wiki Huang (黃瑋奇), a manager at the Jingcheng Road (精誠路) branch in Taichung, it’s a passion for serving quality food, not just the salary, that’s rewarding.

Huang, who would one day like to open up his own pizzeria, says he views Ortolano as a business role model.

“I love the system here,” says Huang, who as a two-year employee has traveled to Cambodia and Japan on Pizza Rock’s dime. Full-time employees at Ortolano’s restaurants who have worked for one year are entitled to a free airline ticket to anywhere in Asia.

PROFIT SHARING

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