Who's Who: Joey Todaro

March 11, 2002

A lot of fathers become frustrated trying to motivate their sons to work.

Joe Todaro, on the other hand, struggled to get his boy to relax.

Eighteen years ago, he and wife, Carol, bought their son, Joey, a brand-new Buick Regal for the boy's 16th birthday. That day saw the high school junior busy at work in the family's Buffalo pizzeria, La Nova. For just an instant, Joey stopped his work, strained to see the new car through the restaurant's window, thanked his parents with a kiss -- and went back to work making pizzas.

Joey Todaro

"That was the most frustrating thing in the world," said Joe Todaro, 57. "I said, 'Why don't you want to go outside and look at the car?' And he said, 'I'll look at it later. We're busy right now. I'll have plenty of time to drive it.' "

The young son lied -- relatively speaking. Joey Todaro spent nearly all his time at either school or work, and the torrid pace rendered his new ride a mere shuttle between the two.

And that was fine with him, he said. Even as early as age 7, Joey followed his dad to work on weekends to watch him run his pizzeria. By the time he was 11, he was working there almost every day.

"When I was 14, a lot of times I'd get out of school at 2, and then work until 2 in the morning," said 34-year-old Joey, whose black hair already is silvered. "It was tough, but my grades were alright and I played hockey also. But pretty much I worked in any spare time I had."

Back then, business at La Nova was exploding, and all available hands were needed. Even Joey's kid sister's, Carla, two years his junior, eventually was recruited for active duty. The Todaros' family time was spent at the business, and two decades later, nothing's changed. Every adult Todaro works together seven days a week, and Joey says he'd have it no other way.

"It's the best. It's an unbelievable experience," he said. "We'll have our arguments, but we never go home mad. We kiss each other goodnight, and we come ready to work in the morning. I wouldn't trade it for anything in the world."

Winging It

Founded in 1957, La Nova is the world's busiest pizzeria, posting annual gross sales of $5 million -- nearly 10 times the per-store average of the U.S. pizza industry.

Only two other single-store U.S. operations break the $3 million barrier, and this year the second La Nova pizzeria, also in Buffalo, will likely pass both of them.

When it opened last June, sales averaged $100,000 a week for its first month in operation. Since then pace has leveled off to a ho-hum $75,000 a week.

There's no magic to such results, Joey insists. Such remarkable sales are born of hard work and commitment to customers.

"If you're watching the place all the time, you can do serious numbers," said Joey, who keeps watch over the restaurants by roaming through the operations and via video monitors in his office. "The more you watch, the better the product is going to come out."

His father said that teaching Joey such a work ethic wasn't difficult -- for Joey anyway. The son willingly cleaned toilets, made pizza, worked the counter ... anything his dad thought necessary.

"The country didn't seem to have them, and people came from all over to get our wings. So I thought, 'Why can't we duplicate ours for the pizza industry?"

Joey Todaro
La Nova Wings, Inc.

"That's hard for a father to do, because you want your kids to have it a little easier than you did," said Joe, a white-haired  57-year-old whom the staff calls "Big Joe." His septuagenarian father, known as "Papa Joe," also works in the business -- seven days a week. "But you know they've got to start from the bottom up, and he never gave me no trouble about that."

Though he never attended college, Joey immersed himself in learning all he could about the pizza business, studying the nuances of dough and reading up on trends covered in restaurant trade magazines.

Over time, the more he read, the more clearly he saw a major difference between pizzerias in Buffalo and those elsewhere: Nobody was serving fried chicken wings with pizza except shops in his hometown.

"The country didn't seem to have them, and people came from all over to get our wings," he said. "So I thought, 'Why can't we duplicate ours for the pizza industry?' "

Carla agreed the idea was a good one, and she and Joey asked their father about it.

The notion wasn't his favorite, however. The man who'd launched a phenomenally successful mom-and-pop shop hadn't conceived of the need for a company beyond La Nova.

"When you start from scratch and you build a business to that magnitude, I figured we were cooperate America," said Joe. "But you know, I've learned you have to let your kids push ahead, 'cause they're the future. They wanted to do it, they had the money, so I said, 'Go do it.' "

With $100,000 between them, Joey and Carla launched La Nova Wings, Inc. in 1994. That same year they bought two booths at the International Pizza Expo and spread their wings before the pizza industry.

John Vajda was then a Buffalo-based Sorrento cheese salesman, and his key account was La Nova. Believing Joey had a sound idea, he helped his ambitious customer with advice on making the wings company fly nationwide.

"When he was getting it off the ground, he didn't have much of an idea of how food brokers and distributors worked, so I kind of showed him what to do," said Vajda, who served 16 years with Sorrento before coming to La Nova Wings late last year as its executive vice president of sales and marketing. "To see it grow from that point to where it is now is amazing."

Today La Nova Wings is a $30 million-a-year company. Though headquartered next door to the family's first restaurant, it has four production plants in the U.S. and one in Dublin, Ireland.

In its product line are five kinds of wings, chicken tenders and four branded sauces, all sold on menus in thousands of pizzerias and restaurants. If the demand for wings -- which Joey said is at an all-time high -- continues, it only appears the company is just beginning to hit its stride.

"Wings sales are so crazy right now that it's hard to get the birds," said Joey. "And you know who's responsible for that? A little pizzeria in Buffalo."

Kids Are the Future

Such mass production and sales of chicken wings is no mean feat, but to the Todaros, it doesn't compare to the challenge of running a pizzeria well. That it took La Nova 44 years to grow from one store to two is no accident, since every Todaro insists on near omnipresence in their pizza stores. Adding another Buffalo store or two is not out of the question, said Joey, but certainly not in the company's present plans. Requests for franchises come non-stop, he added, but the family is basically against extending the concept beyond its bloodlines.

"People from all over the world come in and want to open a La Nova, but I don't think 90 percent them understand what a commitment it is to open a pizzeria and be successful," said Joey.

Great restaurants are run by hands-on operators, he said, and the proof that La Nova has succeeded under that guiding principle is in its profits. "Our big thing has been to watch the guy who cuts the pizzas. He proofs every pizza that goes out, and if one is bad, he won't send it out. That happens with every single one; that's the way it has to be for us."

Joey Todaro

Age: 34
Companies: La Nova (pizzerias), La Nova Wings, Inc.
Position: president
HQ: Buffalo, N.Y.
Residence: Buffalo
Hometown: Buffalo
Wife: Dana
Children: Joseph IV (7), Dante (4), Torianna (2)
Hobby: golf, spending time with family

And what does the future bode for his three children? Will they, too, join the seven-day-a-week squad? Joey said his sons, Joseph IV, 7, and Dante, 4, want to work in the family business, but he says he won't push them to do it. (His 2-year-old daughter, Torianna, has yet to voice her opinion.) His only insistence is that they go to college first before choosing their careers.

"I think you need both job experience and an education for anything you do in life," said Joey. "I'm not insisting on it at all, but I hope they'll want to be involved. That way we could grow something together."

Topics: Independent Operation

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