Champion Pizza Founder Hakki Akdeniz: From the Streets to TED Talk

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Hakki Akdeniz was once a homeless immigrant, without a penny in his pocket and unable to speak a word of English. Now he owns a chain of successful pizza restaurants across New York City, has over 26 million followers on Instagram, donates millions of dollars to charities, and has given a TEDx talk at Rutgers University. He is the epitome of the true American dream, a real success story, and he offers hope to anyone who is facing impossible circumstances.

Hakki is Kurdish, having begun life in the small Turkish village of Silvan. The area was economically depressed, and his family experienced poverty so severe that Hakki himself had to drop out of elementary school at the age of nine to work and help support his family. One of his jobs was working in cafes making lahmacun, a Middle Eastern flatbread topped with meat, vegetables, and a blend of spices. As a young adult, Hakki emigrated to Canada, and then on to New York City in 2001. He spoke no English and had hardly any money. A friend had lured him to the Big Apple with the promise of a job and a place to stay, but instead, Hakki found himself abandoned at the bus depot and forced to spend what little money he had on a few nights at a cheap hotel. After that, he was forced onto the streets. Cold, hungry, dirty, and in despair, Hakki finally found his way to a homeless mission called the Bowery, where he would stay for 96 nights.At last, he found a job in a pizzeria, washing dishes. He was still homeless, but soon found shelter in the corner of an apartment building boiler room, where he was allowed to sleep in exchange for performing maintenance around the building. Within a year, Hakki had saved enough to move into an apartment; and in 2003, he was finally making pizza in a restaurant in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of Manhattan. In 2009, Hakki opened his own pizzeria on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

He struggled financially and his business was in jeopardy until 2010, when he entered and won a pizza-making contest. Hakki performed a jaw-dropped feat of dexterity when he spun a flaming circle of pizza dough, a trick he’d become famous for. He was featured in PMQ Pizza Magazine, and his business began to thrive. He opened a second pizzeria and settled on a name: appropriately, Champion Pizza.

From there, Hakki’s life was a success story, as he opened more and more new locations and expanded the business to include online frozen pizza delivery across the country.

He then adopted a new mission: to give back to others facing homelessness and destitution and to pay forward the kindness he had received during his own struggles. He has since donated millions to places like the Bowery, where he once slept. He hires the homeless in his restaurants, and provides them places to sleep, showers, and haircuts – even medical expenses. In truth, he has paid forward much more than what he received, and he’s glad to do it. “My experience has taught me that even those in the worst of conditions can find a way to success,” he says. “It is all about living through giving. My goal is to help as many homeless people as I can, because I understand how it feels since I used to be homeless as well.”

His TEDxRutgers talk focused on the story of his rise from nothing and all the hardships he faced, and how simple hard work, a strong moral compass, and keeping his dream alive helped him survive. “I was deeply honored to be part of the elite group chosen to give a TEDx talk,” he shares. “I want a platform to inspire millions more. I want to reach the younger generation so they understand that anything is possible if you believe and work for it. If I made it, I promise you, everyone can make it.”

He goes on to say, “I ask that everyone gives those in need a chance. Not everyone goes through life with equal opportunities. Some are born far less fortunate than others. So please, do not judge and instead spread love, peace, positivity, and help as much as you can. This way, we can bring humanity up altogether toward a greater future.”

Hakki Akdeniz is determined to set an example for other business owners, who, in that TEDx talk, he implores to follow his lead in helping others whenever possible. He states that it’s key to not just talk about spreading hope, but to actively make it happen in every community. He gives others that vital hang up – not just a hand out – to turn their lives around and he has seen many success stories from those who have benefited from his generosity. As he goes on to expand the Champion Pizza business, he always keeps his humble origins in his mind. Wherever he goes, Hakki Akdeniz spreads hope and awareness that everyone deserves a second chance.



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