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Ones to Watch | By Sabrina Davis

Famous Famiglia Pizzeria
Pizza pie from Famous Famiglia Pizzeria

They begged their landlord for the chance to open a pizza restaurant in his 325-square-foot space where others had failed. Knowledge would make theirs different. The four brothers, ranging in age from 16 to 25, had experience beyond their years. They aptly named their tiny Manhattan pizzeria Famiglia, Italian for family. And when celebrities became regulars, they added “Famous.”

Since that 1986 opening Famous Famiglia has become a New York favorite even far beyond the city. The chain has 63 locations and is expanding internationally.

Big dreams were part of the family culture for Tony, Paul, John, and Giorgio Kolaj, who arrived in the U.S. in 1970 with their mother and sister. The family had fled with their father a year earlier under severe diress from Kosovo to Italy, where their father died after falling from a tree. “This was a mother in a foreign country, with her youngest of five children just 45 days old. Seeing her husband on his deathbed she promised to fulfill his dream of getting us to America,” explains, youngest son Giorgio, cofounder and executive vice president of Famous Famiglia.

A $280 loan from the Catholic Charities of New York, repaid with interest this year after Kolaj found the old paperwork in his father’s wallet, made the trip possible. The family settled in the Bronx and got to work. “I started working at age six and never have been unemployed since then,” Kolaj says. “That’s what my father died for, a chance at the American dream.”

The brothers added a location every two years after 1986 and began laying groundwork to protect their brand and keep the product consistent. With eight stores in New York City, they looked to diversify and planned their first store outside the city in an airport. They opened in New Jersey’s Newark International Airport in October 2001 just weeks after September 11. “It was a brave move in that market,” Kolaj says. “One of the planes came out of Newark.”

Brave, and the start to larger success. After methodical expansion, Famous Famiglia has more than 30 airport locations. “We focused on a diversified grouping of markets and on the top venues in those markets to minimize risk. When we went to a stadium, we went to Yankee Stadium. When we went to a military base, we went to Pearl Harbor. We chose the top shopping centers and the top airports,” Kolaj says.

Selecting leading venues in diverse categories has been key to their success, Kolaj says.

He also credits the vast menu with developing a loyal following. Pizza-by-the-slice is the most popular order. In addition to pizzas, there are traditional pasta favorites, calzones and hero sandwiches, gourmet salads, and branded Caffé Famiglia coffees.

In their effort to maintain consistency, the Kolajs have branded all of their key ingredients: the olive oil, flour, pasta, pizza and marinara sauces, and mozzarella cheese. They also bottle New York City water for making pizza dough. “It may sound a little extreme, but you can use the same ingredients and the only difference is the water and you’ll have a different tasting pizza,” Kolaj says.

The restaurants, from the inline stores with seating to the mall and airport venues, have a consistant look of warm colored walls and large colorful food photos. “The atmosphere is important to us,” Kolaj says. “We’ve learned people buy with their eyes first. Our employees are enthusiastic—sometimes yelling almost—but they keep the atmosphere exciting and fun.”

Famous Famiglia Pizzeria
CEO: Paul Kolaj
HQ: White Plains, New York
Year started: 1986
Annual sales: $42 million
Total units: 63
Franchise units: 34
Why it bears watching: Beyond delicious pizza, customer service, and smart business planning, the Kolaj brothers have passion on their side. Whether they were born with it or developed it through adversity, they’ve discovered how to pass it on to their staff. “Our employees are like extended family. We truly credit them with our success and connection with our customers,” Kolaj says.
That connection sells pizza. The average Famous Famiglia store completes 1,500 transactions each day, with a $5 average check. Then there’s the not so average. The 361-square-foot store in the Jet Blue terminal at JFK Airport is the highest grossing pizzeria per square foot in the U.S., generating $4 million in sales per year.
While the brothers continue methodical stateside expansion, international partners plan to grow the brand throughout Mexico, Europe, Hong Kong, and mainland China. Kolaj sees 150 locations worldwide in five to seven years as a realistic expectation, yet he still finds himself in awe of the success. “We never expected to see our logo in Chinese characters. What an accomplishment.”