Last Updated on December 11, 2020
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About Ryan Novak
I am the 32-year-old owner of Chocolate Pizza Company, Central New York’s largest gourmet chocolate maker. I graduated in 2011 from Syracuse University with a degree in entrepreneurship and was also a walk-on place kicker for the SU Orange football team. My wife, Christie, and I love to travel and have grown quite fond of Italy’s food and history. I grew up (and still live) in a small town in the rolling farm hills outside Syracuse, New York. Marcellus is a one-stop-light town right out of a Norman Rockwell painting where neighbors are close, the town turns out for varsity football on Friday nights and a little chocolate shop on Main Street made for a sweet stop. My mom died when I was 9-years-old. She was driving home from work, 7 months pregnant, when a man high on drugs ran a stop sign and killed her. Her death was devastating but the community rallied to my dad and I and helped us get through an unbelievable nightmare. On the day mom died, I made a promise that I would make her proud and every day I wake up and work to keep that promise.
About Chocolate Pizza Company, Inc.
Chocolate Pizza Company started around 1988 as a tiny gift basket store that dabbled in chocolate specialties. It’s breakthrough moment came when they blended Swiss-style chocolate with a local English toffee recipe that dated back to 1919. They poured the mixture into pizza pans, drizzled it with white chocolate and added pecans, almonds, walnuts and served it in a pizza box. Chocolate Pizza was born. The “wings” are rippled potato chips covered in creamy peanut butter and drenched in that same high quality chocolate. Peanut Butter Wings are a salty-sweet taste masterpiece that has become our top seller. When I was a toddler, Chocolate Pizza Company was across the street from my house and my mom would take me there in a stroller. Rumor has it that while my mom chatted with the employees I got very good at reaching up out of the stroller to grab a handful of chocolate from the sample tray. When I turned 15, I walked into Chocolate Pizza Company and asked for a job – they hired me as a dishwasher. I mopped floors, took out trash and washed mountains of dishes but I loved working there. The chocolate operation was pretty basic then, no fancy equipment, just a few workers in a cramped kitchen but the aroma was amazing and the products made people happy. A year or two later, I told the owner that when she wanted to retire, I wanted to own Chocolate Pizza Company. I was certain I could grow the business into something special. In 2010, I was a 21-year-old senior at Syracuse University, when the opportunity came to own the company. Bank after bank turned me down but undeterred I worked a buy-out arrangement with the owner and took over the company. I spent many nights sleeping in the backroom of the store as I juggled finishing school and running a business but my passion to grow Chocolate Pizza into a recognizable brand was insatiable. There was no website, no production equipment, and definitely no money but there was a dream and a will. Today, that small-town chocolate shop is Central New York’s largest chocolate maker. We built our own 10,000 square foot production facility in 2015 just 2 miles from our original Main Street location and this year added another 3,000 square feet to handle the explosive growth we’ve experienced. We’ve expanded the product line from the dozen items we made back in 2010 to over 150 gourmet chocolate specialties now. Our website has received orders from chocolate lovers on 6 continents and we have been featured on Food Network, Hallmark Channel, National Geographic, CNBC, CMT and in Forbes, People and Entrepreneur magazines. We have added specialized production equipment that allows us to handle orders of all sizes. Our largest single order from one customer was 31,000 Chocolate Pizzas and if you laid all the Chocolate Pizzas we make in a year end-to-end they would span the Grand Canyon. We’ve come a long way toward making Chocolate Pizza Company an emerging brand. I like to think my mom would be proud.
How Did You Get Your First Several Customers Or Users? How Many Users Or Customers Do You Have Now?
In the beginning, I took my chocolate specialties everywhere. I loaded up my car and drove to area businesses and dropped off samples. I went to local hospitals and sold during lunchtime in the cafeteria, sharing a percentage of my sales with the hospital’s volunteer organization. I set up tables at craft fairs, school events and anywhere there was a crowd. I even donned a pizza slice costume and stood out front of the store waving at cars driving by on Main Street. On the cheap, I built a website and started showcasing our chocolate online. I advertised in church bulletins, school flyers and occasionally a newspaper. But most important in those early days, was I told my story. I did radio interviews, local TV spots and some print stories. People were fascinated with a twenty-something kid who loved making chocolate. In the past 10 years, we’ve redone our website multiple times, invested in SEO and built a sizable social media following. We have thousands of customers nationwide and even internationally. We have about 65,000 followers on Facebook and 20,000 on Instagram. We are becoming a gift of choice for businesses and personal occasions.
How Does Your Company Grow And Acquire New Customers?
Social media and PR have been the two major drivers of expanding our customer base. Coverage of our story and products on major outlets like Food Network, Hallmark Channel’s Home & Family, National Geographic, CNBC and more have been huge in giving us national exposure. After the appearance on CNBC, so many people visited our website it crashed – which led to some upgrades! Social media is another significant factor in customer outreach. We post nearly every day and have found people stay with us over the years. During the initial months of the COVID-19 crisis when most retail stores in New York were closed, it was the online business that carried us forward. Our social media followers became our primary marketplace so having those strong ties was critical. We have seen online sales explode 300% YOY since March.
What Actionable Tips And Tricks Do You Have For New Founders Who Are Looking To Get Their First Thousand Users Or Dollars?
One productive tip I have found is to upgrade the quality of your product photos. In this scroll-by culture we live in when people browse their iPhones for everything, you have split seconds to grab their attention. High quality images are worth their weight in gold for creating interest and gaining clicks. Of course your website needs to be mobile-user friendly to handle the inquiring potential customer so make that a priority. But images speak volumes so make sure your business’s curb appeal is maximized.
What Is Something You’ve Learned That Would Not Be Obvious To Somebody Who Hasn’t Worked In Your Space Before?
Sell your story – they’ll buy your product. Gourmet chocolate is an affordable luxury that people are willing to spend on even in challenging times. But often their buying decision is linked to connecting with the business in some meaningful way. Tell your story, share your journey, open up about why you do what you do and give people a reason to be loyal to your brand.
What’s The Craziest Thing That’s Happened To You (Good Or Bad) On Your Founder Journey?
My low-water mark will always be the death of my mom. In many ways, it set me on my course. The promise I made to make her proud lives with me, drives me and shapes me. Her death and my journey forward in the wake of that tragedy also helps me now to keep life and business in perspective. No crisis, no problem, no pandemic, no challenge is ever so great that I do not believe I can get through it because I have already survived far worse.
What Are Your Favorite Books?
That’s easy, my dad is an author and his latest book, “Leaders, Lions and the Hunt for Team Excellence” (available on Amazon) is a great professional development read. Also, his first book, “Conquering Adversity: Six Strategies to Move You and Your Team Through Tough Times” is an inspiring insight into how we moved forward after my mom’s tragedy. His website is leadershipauthor.com
Anything You’d Like To Plug?
We make over 150 gourmet chocolate specialties but if I had to recommend just one then it would be our Peanut Butter Wings. I still eat a few every day (for quality check purposes of course!). Universally, people’s first reaction to tasting these is OMG! The quality of the chocolate is what makes the difference. We use the highest grade Swiss-style chocolate so when that hits your tastebuds at the same time as the creamy peanut butter and slightly salted potato chip it is just a symphony of deliciousness.
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