Sammy’s Woodfired Pizza & Grill, a local culinary institution that had its genesis in downtown La Jolla, turned 30 last week.
Founder Sami Ladeki, who would go on to become an icon in the local culinary scene, opened doors at 701 Pearl St. in 1989.
Monday, June 3, was commemorated as “Sami Ladeki Day” by San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer. On Wednesday, Sammy's celebrated its 30th anniversary at its La Jolla location with complimentary “Messy Sundaes” and Champagne for attendees as well as music and other entertainment.
Over a glass of Champagne, I asked the modest and soft-spoken Ladeki about his secret to success. It wasn’t rocket science, he told me. There was no epiphany or a-ha moment. Opening, sustaining, and growing restaurants, he said, "is what I was trained to do."
His success can be attributed to five simple strategies that have served him well.
Solve a market need
Early on, Ladeki understood the changing needs and expectations of customers. In 1989, Wolfgang Puck’s restaurant Spago and his thin-style pizza were all the rage. So was the California cuisine movement, which emphasized locally grown ingredients.
Ladeki saw an unmet need in the San Diego market and filled it.
Provide a high-quality and consistent product
It all started with Ladeki's innovative idea of cooking pizza in a wood-fired oven at a scorching 800 degrees, which resulted — voila — in its trademark thin, crispy crust.
Also important was his insistence on using fresh and healthy ingredients.
"The chicken was fresh chicken. It wasn't frozen," he said. "We avoided mayonnaise, vinegar, rich salad dressing, and too much seasoning."
Know the business
Sammy's wasn't a fluke. It didn't happen in a vacuum; rather, it was Ladeki's calling. And while he appreciates the artistic and creative side of being a restaurateur, he said he has "always treated Sammy's like a business."
Ladeki started his journey by attending the College of Hotel and Restaurant Management in Germany. Before opening Sammy's, he worked at London’s Westbury Hotel and at A-list resorts and restaurants in New Orleans, Houston, Atlanta, Las Vegas (he was food and beverage manager for Caesars Palace), Bermuda, and Los Angeles.
The man paid his dues.
Treat your people and customers well
For 30 years, Sammy's has attracted loyal customers who, once they enter the restaurant, seem to resemble members of a close, extended family. Longtime customers like Las Patronas, the philanthropy group that hosts the annual Jewel Ball, were among the attendees at last week's celebration.
Ladeki recently presented “Decade of Service" awards and bonuses to 48 employees. One of them is a chef who was there on day one and continues to perform his magic at Sammy's 30 years later.
Repeat and replicate
The simplicity of the Sammy's concept lent itself to replication. Today, the popular chain of restaurants has 12 locations throughout California and Nevada. Add to this the recently opened Toast Gastrobrunch in Carlsbad, which is currently the busiest of all of Ladeki's restaurants.
If you think now is a good time for Ladeki to ease into relaxation and retirement mode, you'd be wrong.
Sitting still is not his style. And besides, there is plenty of work for him to do, people to greet, restaurants to redesign, and new menus to unveil.
For more information about Sammy’s Woodfired Pizza & Grill, visit sammyspizza.com or call 858-456-5222.