By Ovunc Kutlu
NEW YORK (AA) – Hakki Akdeniz, once homeless but now owner of the famous Champion Pizza chain in New York, has received four proclamations in the U.S. — one from the House of Representatives.
He received proclamation Saturday from the New York City Council that highlighted his "remarkable achievements and outstanding service to the community," and one from the Office of the Manhattan Borough President underlined his "commitment to improve the city and vibrantly enriching the community".
After Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico last year, Akdeniz announced he would give free pizzas to New Yorkers who would bring water, candles, batteries, flashlights, diapers, vitamins, paper towels and other essential supplies to his restaurants as donations.
Partnering with American rapper Jay-Z and his music streaming company, TIDAL, Akdeniz sent two trucks loaded with supplies to Puerto Rico.
When the U.S. began deporting undocumented immigrants from Muslim countries last year, he employed four of them at his restaurants and helped a total of 100 to find jobs in New York.
"He is an example of how refugees can affect positive change in American society," and "a champion of social justice, a leader in his community, and a trailblazer in the business world,” read the House of Representatives proclamation.
The New York State Assembly Citation described him as "an outstanding citizen" and "worthy of esteem."
Akdeniz told Anadolu Agency his personal motto is: “Don't give to get. Give to inspire others to give."
It is a guiding light given to him by his mother when he was a child. She said: “Son, do good in this world. Do good for people."
And he has done good, indeed.
– 'Not everything in life is about money'
During Superstorm Sandy in 2012, as many restaurants began selling a slice of pizza or sandwiches for $20, Akdeniz gave free pizzas and drinks from three of his establishments.
From five of his restaurants in Manhattan, leftovers are not discarded but sent to the Bowery Mansion homeless shelter.
Akdeniz sometimes hides $20 bills inside pizza boxes sent to the Bowery, six days a week, so those in need could find some financial relief. And he finds time to deliver clothes and blankets to the Bowery every month.
"Not everything in life is about money. Not everything is about owning a store," he said, adding "Most of those people [in the Bowery] are there without their choice."
Akdeniz also spent 96 days in the Bowery Mansion when he first came to the U.S. from Canada.
Born in 1980 in Turkey's southeastern city of Diyarbakir, he learned to make at an early age the traditional lahmacun — the thin piece of dough topped with meat, vegetables and herbs, quite similar to pizza.
He went to Canada in 1997 to study but quit school to learn making pizza during his stay there with his brother, and then left for New York in 2001 with only a few dollars in his pocket.
During his stay at the Bowery Mansion, a Turkish woman there introduced him to someone in New Jersey who owned a pizza parlor. Akdeniz worked there until 2005.
But with his wife and child in Canada, he traveled between the two countries countless times to see his family. HIs marriage suffered and the couple divorced in 2006.
After the divorce, Akdeniz began working at another pizza parlor in Times Square where he met someone with whom he would partner. The duo managed to save $45,000 to open their own restaurant but his partner ran away with their savings.
– 'Being honest'
Akdeniz started from scratch and saved enough money to open up his first restaurant on the Lower East Side on Dec. 27, 2009.
"Be honest. Being honest is the best key in the world. It can open any door in life," he said.
"I have worked, grinded, and finally won. Now, I am very happy," he said.
Since his first restaurant, Akdeniz opened 13 venues, owning seven Champion Pizza places through the five boroughs of New York City — five in Manhattan. Formerly known as Hakki Pizza, he renamed the chain after he became world champion in 2010 for the fastest pizza making and freestyle acrobatics.
The walls of his restaurants are today covered with the pictures of Hollywood celebrities from Morgan Freeman and Keanu Reeves to Neil Patrick Harris and Susan Sarandon.
The humble man is personally taking care of customers, who are mostly regulars. You can see him having warm conversations, and taking out the trash unlike most owners.
"Follow life, and enjoy it," he said, and gave some recommendations for young people and entrepreneurs.
"Time should be very valuable to you. There are no 'if's in life. Yesterday is yesterday. Time is important only for tomorrow," he concluded.