Ones to Watch | BY LYNNE MILLER
Moutasem Atiya had a craving for a new career after spending seven years in information technology.
“[Working in IT] you have an intimate relationship with something that doesn’t have a beating heart,” Atiya says. “I had enough of servers and Windows. I’m a people person.”
Atiya made a major career switch in January. With three food-loving friends, he opened Kyro Pizza, a Baltimore pizzeria that focuses on offering friendly service and an eclectic menu that takes inspiration from many different cuisines. Customers can also choose from a variety of pizzas, pastas, salads, and hot sandwiches served on freshly baked pita bread.
In his new role, Atiya focuses on serving potential franchisees rather than dealing with servers. Atiya says the company is close to signing agreements with prospective franchisees from California and New Jersey. Closer to home, mom-and-pop style pizzerias have inquired about converting their stores into Kyro pizza restaurants. In light of the wobbly economy, however, Atiya and his partners are taking a cautious approach to growth. By the end of the year, Atiya says he hopes to have one additional franchise store signed up and one conversion.
In a market that’s crowded with pizza joints, Kyro stands out for its unique offerings and focus on in-store dining. The menu features pizzas with soy cheeses, a falafel pie, a Tandoori Chicken Pizza, General Tso’s Pie, Roasted Eggplant, and even a Sloppy Joe Pizza. Old standards such as pepperoni are available, too. All the dishes are made in the restaurant’s kitchen.
“We’re a little schizo,” Atiya says with a laugh. “I want someone who’s confused about what they want for lunch or dinner.”
In all seriousness, Atiya thinks any pizza restaurant operator must offer something unique to survive in the saturated market.
“I’ve talked to a lot of pizza men struggling with their business,” he says. “You look at what they do and it’s the same old thing. This is not your average pizza store.”
Unlike many pizza places, Kyro makes 60 percent of sales from dine-in orders. The 1,000-square-foot dining room can accommodate up to 45 people. Carryout and delivery service is offered, too.
Night owls from the nearby Maryland Institute of Art can order anything off the full menu since Kyro is open until 11 p.m. every night. Long after the traditional dinner hour, the restaurant sees a steady stream of younger customers come in. Pizza and sandwiches, such as the Pesto Shrimp or Barbecue Chicken, are in demand after hours.
Atiya knows from experience how frustrating it is to be hungry in an area where restaurants close early.
“I live in a town where past 10 p.m., there’s nowhere to eat,” he says. “I have to drive a good 20 minutes if I want to go somewhere. It’s really annoying.”
That’s why Kyro is committed to keeping late hours. Depending on the location, new stores may choose to stay open until midnight, Atiya says.
One of the most unusal features of the restaurant is what Atiya refers to as the “power wall,” a wall covered with sketches of loyal customers. It’s part of a strategy to foster a friendly in-store culture. Employees are trained to greet customers by name and make small talk with them.
“We’re trying to make you feel like one of the owners,” Atiya says. “It’s like the Cheers of the old days.”
The partners try to cultivate a spirit of camaraderie among employees, too. The company has been known to name pizzas after members of the staff.
Atiya briefly operated a nonrestaurant franchise and, from that experience, decided he would never treat franchisees as cavalierly as he was treated. “I realized I was a proxy unit of this bigger company,” he says. “I didn’t like that.
“We try to instill a culture that we’re nice guys,” he says. “We want to ensure success for the franchisor and the franchisee.”
To bring franchisees up to speed on the company, Kyro requires them to take part in an 18-day training session and enroll in a four-week apprenticeship program.
Franchisees pay an initial franchise fee of $25,000, while the fee for each subsequent store is $20,000. Royalty and continuing services fees are 5 percent of gross sales, while advertising fees are 2 percent of gross sales.
As a restaurant operator, Atiya has found his technology background to be helpful. He’s particularly proud of Kyro’s Web site and thinks it can help the chain stand out, especially with potential partners shopping around for a franchise opportunity.
“The first handshake you have with someone is the Web site,” he says. “We want that handshake to grab somebody’s interest. With our online presence it shows people we have our act together.”