After 30 Years, Sammy’s Woodfired Pizza & Grill is Still Going Strong
June 3 was Sami Ladeki Day in San Diego this year, as the city’s Mayor officially celebrated the owner and CEO of Sammy’s Woodfired Pizza & Grill on his restaurant’s 30th anniversary.
The popular pizzeria, based in La Jolla, California, opened its doors in the late 1980s after Sami Ladeki, who was working in hotel operations at the time, saw a need that he could fill. “I always dreamed of opening my own business,” Ladeki says. “After visiting different cities, I knew San Diego was the right fit.”
Ladeki says he stayed in San Diego for six months, studying the market and the restaurants. “I knew San Diego was lacking a good quality pizza restaurant,” Ladeki says. “They needed something different and unique, so I brought in the first wood-fired oven for the pizza.”
Since the beginning, Ladeki says, his vision for the restaurant has always been, and still is, that the product must be consistent and good quality. Today, there are a dozen Sammy’s locations throughout California and Las Vegas, with a growing number of airport outposts.
Consistency is key
While other restaurants may tweak recipes or change ingredients along the way, Ladeki says, the consistency of his product is part of the secret sauce that has kept guests returning. “Consistency of the product has been very important over the last 30 years; the menu is the same in all of our locations,” he says. “Every couple of years we work to refresh the restaurants with design changes and menu enhancements to keep up with the evolving trends.”
Menu enhancements and evolving trends include Sammy’s eclectic menu mix of global flavors. “I have traveled all over and lived in many places,” Ladeki says. “The United States is the best place for foodies, as the food changes here more than anywhere in the world.”
With Americans eating a variety of cuisines throughout the week, Ladeki says that the cross-cultural demand helps inspire the best menus. In addition to its popular salads, wood-fired pizzas, and Messy Sundae, global menu selections on the Sammy’s menu include baba ghanoush, edamame, duck tacos, Hawaiian Mahi tacos and hummus. “The American consumer is more daring to try new things as long as the items are fun and exciting and offer a unique presentation,” Ladeki says.
The wood-fired pizza selection includes staples such as all-natural pepperoni, five cheese and margherita, alongside specialty pies such as organic arugula and pear, LaDou’s barbecue chicken and Thai chicken or shrimp.
Consistency, in this case, does not equal complacency. Sammy’s keeps the attention of today’s health-conscious and tech-driven consumers by providing the healthy options and technology they’re seeking.
Sammy’s menu states that all cuisine is prepared without butter or artificial trans fats, and the kitchen avoids using mayonnaise-based dressings. Additionally, the menu is clearly labeled for those living a vegetarian and/or gluten-intolerant lifestyle.
Catering, third-party delivery and a robust guest loyalty program are also offered to Sammy’s customers. “We have a loyalty program where our guests receive discounts based on how much they dine with us,” Ladeki says. “We are also deeply involved in the community, providing donations to many organizations.” A recent philanthropic effort included a special honey pizza that shared a portion of the proceeds with The Honeybee Conservancy.
Rewarding the team
In addition to his philanthropic efforts, Ladeki is a big believer in giving back to his staff. “After I opened my third restaurant, I realized how difficult it was to operate on your own, so I created a corporate office and made employees part owners through a percentage of the profits,” Ladeki says. “Two of them stayed for 16 years and another for 25 years. All three of them left with over $1 million in bonuses beyond their salaries.”
Ladeki says that the current management group also receives bonuses based on performance. “Within the restaurants, we reward each team member with different bonus amounts based on their tenure beyond 10 years,” he says. “We pay out more than 50 bonuses per year.”
“We are very involved with empowering our employees,” says Ladeki, who takes an interest in his staff’s future, too. “We’ve sent numerous people to higher educational facilities and vocational schools to further their future goals.”
Ladeki says he’s currently enjoying what he calls a “semi-retirement” from the restaurant. “Right now, I’m no longer running the company,” he says. “I’m on the board and my role is in restaurant design and menu development. I have very capable people in my company and trust them to make the day-to-day decisions.”
As for the future of Sammy’s, Ladeki says, he’s ready to keep growing, looking to expand the number of locations Sammy’s has in airports and casinos in Los Angeles and Las Vegas. “While the restaurant business is a struggle, we are very proud to have lasted for 30 years and look forward to the next 30,” he says.