Never mind candy – George Hanna prefers to be like a kid in a pizza store.
Growing up, he loved being at his father’s Gabriel Pizza so much that he would hide from his mom behind stacks of pizza boxes when it came time to go home.
Malake would get so frustrated trying to find her eldest son that she’d often leave, letting him return with his dad at closing time on those busy Friday nights, when the entire family came out to lend a hand.
“I did whatever I could to stay,” explained Hanna of a childhood that revolved around the family’s popular east-end pizza place on St. Joseph Boulevard. Whether he was cleaning trays, chopping pepperoni or hand-delivering flyers, he was in his element.
“I always knew that this is what I wanted to do,” said the 47-year-old president of Gabriel Pizza. “I didn’t think of doing anything else except owning my own Gabriel’s, to be honest with you. That was my dream, that was my plan.”
It was Hanna’s hard-working immigrant father, Michael, who started Gabriel Pizza in 1977. He ran his small business with help from his parents and five younger brothers, whom he’d brought over from Lebanon with money he’d saved working in Canada’s hospitality industry.
Over the course of 20 years, the family expanded Gabriel Pizza in the east end, laying the groundwork for Hanna to create the successful franchise that it is today, serving two million-plus pizzas a year. Michael remains the CEO.
"I’m very proud of what we’ve accomplished as a family, as a company."
There are 40 Gabriel Pizza locations in the region. Hanna is also behind Crust & Crate, an artisan fast-fired pizza pub. It has restaurants at Lansdowne, on Ogilvie Road and in the south-end suburb of Findlay Creek. He’s adding a fourth Crust & Crate next year in Kanata Lakes.
“I’m very proud of what we’ve accomplished as a family, as a company. Of course, I can’t do it alone,” Hanna added, while singling out Cory Boast and Ray Skaff from his executive team.
This past summer, Hanna received probably the best news of all. Gabriel Pizza was announced as the new official pizza sponsor for the Ottawa Senators.
It was Steve Chestnut, senior director of corporate sponsorships at Senators Sports and Entertainment, who told Hanna during a Zoom meeting in August. Hanna remembers getting so excited that his leg started to shake involuntarily.
Hanna has since received even more good news with the Ottawa Titans Baseball Club announcing this week it's signed a multi-year partnership with Gabriel Pizza.
On top of all that, Gabriel's has been the official pizza sponsor for OSEG’s Redblacks and 67’s since TD Place reopened in 2014.
It would be misleading to think Hanna’s career has been nothing but grand openings and corporate sports sponsorship deals. His ambitious vision to grow Gabriel Pizza has involved long hours, financial risks, tough decisions and periods of uncertainty and stress.
Hanna was in his late 20s when he started a franchise agreement for Gabriel Pizza. He studied business at Algonquin College and was very involved with the family enterprise, which by this point included the addition of sit-down restaurants and new locations beyond Orléans.
As part of the franchising process, Hanna created a centralized call centre to handle phone orders. This move rocked the boat with some pizza store owners and customers. Moreover, there were initial startup challenges that caused the system to keep crashing.
“Here I was, trying to do something, and it’s not working.”
Hanna was under pressure to fix the problem. His father – who was worried about the toll the troubles were taking on his son’s health – suggested he think about reverting back to the old way of doing things. In the end, Hanna managed to work the kinks out.
“I’m very lucky that I have such great family support,” said Hanna, who considers his father his greatest role model. He’s always carved out time for his wife and five kids, despite his long and irregular work hours. As well, he's also always been there for the community, said the son.
Gabriel Pizza’s contributions include its feeding of thousands of front-line health workers at The Ottawa Hospital every year and its hosting of an annual New Year’s pizza party for the hungry and homeless clients at The Ottawa Mission. The company also delivered meals to seniors during the worst of the pandemic lockdowns.
"It’s an army of stores and people that make it happen."
Philanthropy is Gabriel Pizza’s way of expressing gratitude to customers for their support, Hanna explained. “You can’t go around and thank every single person, but you can thank them by giving back to their community.”
Michael, now 71, can still be found greeting customers and working in the kitchen at the original Gabriel's on St. Joseph.
“My dad came from Lebanon with zero,” Hanna said. “He laid the foundation. I was able to take over from there and help with this growth. Just to see him so proud and so happy is just the best thing.”
Five things to know about George Hanna
- Family is a priority to him. He and his wife, Malake, have three boys: Michael, 15; Joshua, 12; and Jacob, nine. He has weekly family dinners with his siblings at his parents’ home. “Every Sunday, mom still cooks for us.”
- Hanna was honoured with a Forty Under 40 Award in 2014, followed by the Order of Ottawa in 2016.
- He’s very proud of his Lebanese heritage. Volunteer roles include being chair of the Ottawa Lebanese Festival.
- He follows his father’s advice to put his full effort into every part of the business, even if it’s just washing dishes. “Make sure you always do it to the best of your ability,” his father told him a long time ago.
- He’d like to “at least double” his Gabriel Pizza and Crust & Crate presence within the next five years. He’s also interested in adding another restaurant brand under the company's umbrella.