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With family recipes, fresh products, Vocelli Pizza holds its own

| Monday, Sept. 28, 2015, 10:24 p.m.
Varol Ablak established Vocelli Pizza in Mt. Lebanon in 1988 under the name Pizza Outlet. The company has 95 East Coast locations, all but two of them franchises.
Sidney Davis | Trib Total Media
Varol Ablak established Vocelli Pizza in Mt. Lebanon in 1988 under the name Pizza Outlet. The company has 95 East Coast locations, all but two of them franchises.
Mike Kuttler builds pizza boxes Thursday, Sep. 24, 2015, at Vocelli Pizza in Mt. Lebanon.
Sidney Davis | Trib Total Media
Mike Kuttler builds pizza boxes Thursday, Sep. 24, 2015, at Vocelli Pizza in Mt. Lebanon.
Chris Cook tosses dough to make a pizza in the Vocelli Pizza shop in Ross on Friday, Sept. 25, 2015.
Heidi Murrin | Trib Total Media
Chris Cook tosses dough to make a pizza in the Vocelli Pizza shop in Ross on Friday, Sept. 25, 2015.
Assistant manager Allison Hartle makes flatbreads Friday, Sept. 25, 2015, in the Vocelli Pizza shop in Ross.
Heidi Murrin | Trib Total Media
Assistant manager Allison Hartle makes flatbreads Friday, Sept. 25, 2015, in the Vocelli Pizza shop in Ross.
Vocelli pizza maker Chris Cook (left), co-owner Chad Toia and assistant manager Susan Iverson prepare pizzas Friday, Sept. 25, 2015, in the Ross location.
Heidi Murrin | Trib Total Media
Vocelli pizza maker Chris Cook (left), co-owner Chad Toia and assistant manager Susan Iverson prepare pizzas Friday, Sept. 25, 2015, in the Ross location.
A sign greets customers to the Vocelli Pizza shop in Ross.
Heidi Murrin | Trib Total Media
A sign greets customers to the Vocelli Pizza shop in Ross.
Nick Skundrich sets out to deliver pizza from the Vocelli Pizza shop in Ross on Friday, Sept. 25, 2015.
Heidi Murrin | Trib Total Media
Nick Skundrich sets out to deliver pizza from the Vocelli Pizza shop in Ross on Friday, Sept. 25, 2015.

Pizza shops are a dime a dozen, especially in Pittsburgh.

The name on the box and the ingredients inside made the difference for Vocelli Pizza as it battled for market share in an area that, according to research firm Infogroup, has the second highest number of pizzerias per capita, after Orlando.

“The competition level is very fierce,” said Varol Ablak, founder of the Vocelli Pizza chain and its holding company, Ablak Holdings. Started in Mt. Lebanon in 1988 under the name Pizza Outlet and now headquartered in Green Tree, Vocelli has 95 East Coast locations, all but two of them franchises.

The company said it recorded $44.6 million in sales in 2014, up from $42.9 million in 2013. There are 2,000 corporate and franchise employees at Vocelli restaurants, including about 800 in the Pittsburgh area.

Vocelli has its challenges, such as constantly hiring employees in a business with a 120 percent staff turnover rate annually, the founder said.

Those who stay on stay long, he said.

“I'm a big believer that that's your family and you've got to make sure that we're together in the trenches every day,” said Ablak, 53, of Collier.

Ablak moved to the United States from Turkey with his family when he was 8. In 1984, he dropped out of the University of Pittsburgh, where he had been an industrial engineering major. “I just wasn't happy with engineering,” he said.

He washed dishes at a pizza restaurant in New Orleans, then owned and sold two sit-down pizza franchises with his father in Louisiana, before opening the first Pizza Outlet.

His Turkish heritage is reflected in the family recipes, made with fresh products.

“Our sauces are not from concentrate,” Ablak said.

Between 1998 and 2002, he and his family opened 20 Pizza Outlets. They started franchising in 1993 but the business stalled in the Washington area, he said. An advertising agency suggested a name change, since the words “outlet” and “gourmet pizza” seemed to clash.

In 2003, Ablak agreed, and inspiration for the Vocelli name came from the last name of famed Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli, which Ablak merged with the V from his first name. Sales increased 40 percent, he said.

Franchise owners must order ingredients through Vocelli's corporate office, said Brian Cook, who with Chad Toia owns a 21-year-old franchise in Ross.

“We have a very good product. We have a very good support staff,” said Cook, whose store is one of the few Vocelli shops with a full dine-in area.

Industry-wide, large chains focus on quick-service — carryout and delivery — and independent operations provide more full-service offerings, according to IBISWorld Inc., a New York-based market research firm. Between 2007 and 2015, the number of pizza restaurant locations increased by 4.2 percent to 73,828.

Pizza “is one of the most frequently consumed items, in line with burgers,” said Darren Tristano, executive vice president at Technomic Inc., a Chicago-based restaurant research firm.

Under Vocelli CEO Dan Wenz, a former vice president of operations at the nation's third-largest pizza chain, Papa John's, Ablak's chain is pushing technology and concepts to attract millennials, whose spending is growing. That includes boosting online ordering features, adding spicier ingredients, and redesigning store layouts so customers can see their food being made, Wenz said.

“About 25 percent (of our business) is online, which lends itself for a significant amount of opportunity for us,” he said. Some large operators, such as Domino's and Pizza Hut, receive more than 40 percent of their sales from the Internet, according to IBISWorld.

Rob Wagner Auto Body in Ross orders food for its employees from Vocelli's at least once a week.

“You can kind of take your time with ordering it. It's kind of slick. We really like it,” said Rob Wagner Jr., general manager.

Ablak gave up running the day-to-day operations of Vocelli in 2009 to start Ablak Holdings and focus on acquiring franchise businesses and diversifying his portfolio. The holdings company on Monday started its fast-casual pizza concept, V3 Pizza, on Fifth Avenue, Downtown. Customers pick crusts, sauces and toppings.

Ablak Holdings' other operations include Rock ‘n' Joe Coffee Bar, a small N.J.-based franchise company it bought 18 months ago that will open its first Pittsburgh location, next to V3 Pizza, on Oct. 28. Ablak will start Zing Basket, a grocery store delivery business, on Oct. 15.

Tory N. Parrish is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-5662 or tparrish@tribweb.com.

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