A Champion Of The Heart Using Pizza and Compassion To Help The Homeless
By Alexander Lee
It’s hard to miss Champion Pizza while walking along Broadway. The pizzeria’s large television, easily visible from the street, often displays videos of its owner, Hakki Akdeniz, twirling discs of flaming pizza dough. But Akdeniz is more than just an entertainer and master pizza artist. He’s also a beacon of hope and warmth, a genuine New Yorker who has made it his goal to spread happiness and cheer to those less fortunate.
Raised in Turkey, Akdeniz moved to New York City in 2001 to pursue his dream of becoming a pizza maker. Nearly broke and with few connections in the city, he slept in a homeless shelter for months before scoring a job as a dishwasher at a Hoboken pizzeria. Slowly but surely, Akdeniz rose through the ranks, eventually purchasing his own pizza shop in 2009. Since then, Champion Pizza has taken off, expanding to a total of seven locations in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens. But Akdeniz has never forgotten the struggle that shaped him during his early years in New York.
“My profession, what I do, is making the best pizza,” Akdeniz said. “But my mission in life is to help the homeless—that’s my main thing.”
Akdeniz is passionate about helping unhoused individuals find jobs- even if their preferred line of work is not in the pizza industry.
“A guy, he said to me, ‘I work in construction,’” Akdeniz recalled. “I take him, I nd construction people, and I say, ‘Hey guys, I have one guy!’. So I dress him up, I take him to the barbershop for a nice haircut, I don’t tell them that he’s homeless—and we nd a job for him in construction.”
Akdeniz currently employs 11 formerly homeless people across several Champion Pizza locations.
Every week, he hands out food to those in need, and he is always looking out for new ways to provide aid. When a formerly homeless employee named Juan found out that an uncle of his, who he hadn’t seen in 15 years opened a bakery in New Jersey; Akdeniz himself drove him there to help reconnect the relatives. Akdeniz didn’t mind losing the employee, when soon after, Juan started working at his uncle’s bakery.
Astoria will soon be seeing more of The Champion. Inspired by the neighborhood’s family-friendly vibe and quality restaurants, Akdeniz plans to move his family to Astoria by next year.
“God blessed me, he gave me another chance,” Akdeniz said. “‘Hakki, I will give you another chance, another blessing. But don’t ever forget where you came from.’”