When Emir Lopez was ready to open his first Domino's Pizza store, he could have done it anywhere. But after working his way out of the James Weldon Johnson Project in East Harlem, New York, Emir decided the best place to open that store was right in the neighborhood he had come from.
Born in Puerto Rico, Emir came to New York when he was four, brought over by his mother. He was raised in the Weldon Project, a cluster of ten 14-story buildings in the heart of East Harlem, known by most as Spanish Harlem. During his youth, Emir focused on education as the way to get out and make a better life for himself.
"I wanted to be financially independent," Emir says. "I wanted to enjoy life, and I knew I had to work hard to get there." The path he took, however, was not the one he expected.
Emir worked his way through the New York Institute of Technology and graduated with a degree in architecture. He landed a job after graduation and was on his wayâ€¦until he was laid off, a casualty of tough economic times. Disillusioned, Emir gave up architecture and went in search of something else.
"I thought I would go into the food business, because I really love food - I love to eat," he says. "I wanted to get into restaurants with the idea of owning my own one day." He applied to a few culinary schools, but they weren't offering scholarships. Still paying for his architecture degree, he decided not to take on more debt for additional schooling. By happenstance, he saw an ad for a manager-in-training position at Domino's Pizza.
"I applied for the job and went to interview with Jim Denburg," he recalls. "I wore a suit and tie that day. It was the middle of July and it was hot. Everyone else waiting for an interview was in t-shirts. I guess I made an impression, because Jim took me to meet Dave Melton."
Hired as a manager-in-training, Emir plunged himself into the job, often working up to 80 hours in a week. "People at first thought I was crazy to take a job making $4.15 an hour, especially because I was in debt from college. But I decided to bite the bullet and pay my dues. Within six months, I was a general manager."
Emir managed Melton's 89th Street and 3rd Avenue shop for more than three years before deciding he was ready to open his own store. Domino's Pizza was expanding rapidly at the time, and opportunities existed throughout the United States and across the globe. Emir's choice for his first store: East Harlem, where no other delivery business had ventured to this point.
"I could have franchised anywhere. I even considered applying to be the master franchisee for Brazil," he says. "But I grew up in East Harlem. I'm just a kid from the projects. I did what I had to do. I went to college, got myself started, and came back to my old neighborhood to open my own business."
He opened his store on Friday in April of 1996. During his first three days in business over that weekend, sales topped $18,000. The first full week he was in business netted $27,000 in pizza sales. Knowing that East Harlem presented even more opportunity, he opened a second store soon after. "I've been a franchisee for 12 years, and I love being in my store. I love hiring and recruiting. I love the flow of the business. I want to raise sales, serve my customers, and make money for the long run," he says.
Emir has given back to his community in many ways, not the least of which was being a pioneer in providing hot food delivery to a community that felt shunned. "Nobody would deliver to the projects. Nobody," he says. "Then along came Domino's, and now everyone wants to deliver here. Do I feel like a pioneer? Absolutely. A lot of my competitors saw that I was delivering here and they've gotten into delivery, too. I'm okay with that. Competition makes you work harder."
Emir donates pizza to people who volunteer to maintain and repair the gardens in the projects, and he also donates pizza to organizations dedicated to children. He sponsored an event in which he fed an entire school. During the annual East Harlem Puerto Rican Festival, which draws half a million people to the neighborhood during the weekend, Emir gives out pizza slices and branded items to anyone who passes by.
For a businessman who had the opportunity to leave the projects behind but didn't, does Emir have any regrets? "There have been moments that have been rough," he admits. "Safety and security can be a challenge. Winter is tough, because we deliver on bicycles. Delivery guys are not thrilled about going out on bikes when it's negative 10 degrees outside. My brother helps out in the winter. He's got a carâ€¦which I bought for him. But no, I've never regretted it."
"I love Domino's Pizza. I love that I had the opportunity to own my own business. I love that I can give back to my old neighborhood. I still have the passion for this business that I had when I started."
(excerpted from Dave Melton and Tim McIntyre's book Hire the American Dream)
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