He can toss pizza dough with the best of them, make a perfect base, fold a pizza box in seconds – and knows how to make millions from them. Carlo Gonzaga, the CEO of Taste Holdings, is building an empire to rival the Roman one, signing new deals and serving it up with a side of coffee – with two pumps of caramel syrup.
We walk into a Domino’s in Fourways, Johannesburg. The staff greet us with a booming “welcome to Domino’s” in perfect chorus. Gonzaga is transfixed by his phone.
“Can you wait a minute? We’ve just launched our online ordering app so I actually want to order and see if it’s working. We’ve been testing it in this store for about two weeks now,” he says.
As we wait on his order, he tells us how he started out in the pizza game. His dad bought a Debonairs Pizza franchise – the 12th one. Armed with a postgraduate law degree, he started out helping him in the December holidays. It sparked a new passion and he asked his dad to sell him a share in the business. After four years with the brand and four stores, Debonairs sold out to Famous Brands and Gonzaga, pizzaless, plotted his next move.
The idea that hit him was: 39 minutes or your order is free. That’s the promise on which he built his new business – Scooters Pizza – which was founded in 2000. The franchise had 100 stores by 2006. He has since acquired five more restaurants – St Elmo’s, Domino’s Pizza, Maxi’s, The Fish & Chip Co, Zebro’s; Starbucks; and three jewelry stores – Arthur Kaplan, NWJ and World’s Finest Watches. Last year, he began converting his Scooters Pizza and St Elmo’s stores into Domino’s, transplanted from New York.
“It has been an interesting journey. You have all these ideas. We only ever thought we would have at best 90 stores – that was our grand plan back in 2000. We now have 600 across all our businesses. The way that entrepreneurs work is that you have an idea but you grow within things that you think you can add value to and you can do better. Who would have thought that a couple of guys who did pizza and cappuccinos would grow like this,” he says.
He’s always been quick on the draw, he set a record for delivery in South Africa. His next challenge? Delivering a pizza to Las Vegas in 39 hours. He broke a world record but Domino’s soon broke that record. Not one to accept defeat, he aimed for a new record.
“We decided to deliver a pizza by motorbike to London. In 2007, my dad, who retired last year, and two colleagues and I drove through Africa in 39 days on our bikes – we delivered to my 94-year-old grandmother living in Italy and to the Springboks for the [Rugby World Cup] finals in France. The final pizza went to the South African ambassador in London in Trafalgar Square. If we got it to the ambassador in 40 days then she would get it for free.”
“We made it in one of our Scooters shops and put a freezer on my motorbike. We traveled unsupported, just four motorbikes. We went up the east coast of Africa – into Ethiopia, left into Sudan, into Egypt and to Tunisia, through Libya, caught a ferry to Italy, drove all the way up Italy, rode down to France, up through France and to London.”
In exactly 39 days, they just made it. The South African ambassador had to pay.
Gonzaga is up for any new challenge. Taste Holdings has been on a mission to have the world’s best brands for the last four years.
“As we see the future of South Africa, as we become more global, the brand is an important part of how the customer makes up their mind. We would rather own the best brands in the world in the long run. When we started, we said we would happily convert our Scooters into a Domino’s or even a Pizza Hut.”
After going through various fast food options, he decided to stick with what he knows best – pizza. Now with Domino’s under his belt, he’s bringing Starbucks to South Africa.
“I spent two weeks having Starbucks for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I visited 11 countries – from South Korea, Shanghai, Istanbul to London. I wanted to make sure that the brand would work,” he says.
“There’s this idea of the third place, which Starbucks is really about, which is perfect for South Africa. A lot of people live in small houses where home isn’t really a place where people get to do the stuff they want to do. And work? Everyone goes to work. There’s an opportunity for Starbucks to bring a third place to South Africa. An environment of safety – appeals to people, youth, women,” he says.
With the first few stores set to roll out in the province of Gauteng in the next two years, Gonzaga sees room for 200 stores. Starbucks’ baristas are given three month’s training, they’re sent overseas to learn it all. With 87,000 combinations of coffee available – Starbucks’ baristas are like Tom Cruise in the film Cocktail – they can make it shaken or stirred. Every store is designed specifically to the area it is in. And to the naysayers who are worried about prices and independent local coffee shops? Gonzaga says to expect prices translated to the South African market and comradery between Starbucks and independent brands – together they’ll push coffee.
Five restaurant chains; three jewelry chains and now the world’s biggest coffee company – for Gonzaga, it’s just ordering up the retail world in 39 minutes.