Forty stores in 40 years.
By Jacob Serebrin
That’s the plan for Ottawa-based restaurant chain Gabriel Pizza.
On Feb. 28, 1977, Michael Hanna opened his first pizza restaurant. Exactly 40 years later, the company plans to kick off a year of celebrations and store openings that will bring its store count to 40.
Mr. Hanna is still involved in the business, as are his five brothers.
“After 40 years, you still see them in the stores. It’s quite incredible,” says his son, George Hanna, the company's president.
The younger Mr. Hanna grew up in the business.
“As a child, I spent a lot of time in the original store on St. Joseph (Boulevard),” he says. Weekends were spent in the restaurant as his parents worked. Over the years, he became more involved.
“I loved it, I always had a lot of passion for it and I always believed in the product and I always felt there was something special about it,” Mr. Hanna says.
While new locations, including a full-service restaurant, were added over the years, the chain’s growth was slow until it began to franchise.
“2003, 2004 was when we really started to expand," he says. "Before that, most of the stores were all owned by family."
Many of the initial franchisees were current or former employees who “knew the brand, knew the product and also believed in it, and wanted to invest in the growth of Gabriel’s,” says Mr. Hanna.
That rapid expansion brought new challenges.
“Sometimes we were growing faster at the store level than our infrastructure at head office was able to handle, but you end up learning as you go. You learn the formula,” he says.
Over the years, customer tastes have changed as well. There’s been increased demand for things such as whole wheat crusts and, more recently, gluten-free crusts.
“You’ve got to adjust to what’s trending out there, what the consumer’s looking for, but you keep your core, you keep what has made Gabriel’s the success that it is,” he says.
Mr. Hanna is applying a similar principle to a new sister brand to Gabriel, the Crust & Crate Public House.
“They’re sit-down restaurants that focus on gourmet-style pizza, so the thin crust, al forno, fast-fired pizza, with a lineup of local craft beers, along with some other fun food," he says.
Crust & Crate's first location, at Lansdowne Park, opened in 2015, with a second location scheduled to open in May or June. From there, Mr. Hanna has big plans.
“My vision is to have at least one or two in every major city across the country,” he says.
Mr. Hanna says the company’s anniversary celebrations on Feb. 28 will kick off a year of events and announcements aimed at thanking his loyal customers.
“We’re going to be having fun with this anniversary,” he says.
On Tuesday, the company announced it would be the official pizza supplier for the Ottawa 2017 celebrations marking Canada’s 150th anniversary. Under the agreement, Gabriel Pizza will feed thousands of volunteers at events throughout the year and provide both financial and marketing support to Ottawa 2017 by placing the official logo of the celebrations atop its pizza boxes.
Mr. Hanna says a big part of what has kept his family’s business going for 40 years is believing in what they’re selling.
“It’s important because when you believe in it, and you feel that you are actually selling a product that is so strong, in terms of quality and freshness and quantity, it makes you strive for more, because you know that once you get it into someone’s mouth, just to try it, you know that you’re going to win them as a customer,” he says. “When you believe in it, you can make others believe in it.”