New York City’s Champion Pizza operates on a larger scale than the rest.
Champion Pizza doesn’t make oversized pies. They make pies the size of mattresses.
Champion Pizza doesn’t get the word out on social media. They break the internet and, occasionally, invade national television.
Owner Hakki Akdeniz doesn’t flip pizza dough to the ceiling – he dances with dough and occasionally lights it on fire as he tosses his way to World Pizza Acrobatics titles.
Champion Pizza’s approach to the restaurant biz borders on the ridiculous and often ventures into the absurd. But there’s a method to, and a purpose for, Akdeniz’s madness.
“I don’t want to be rich, or have a billion dollars. If I wanted to stop today, I could stop. I have enough money,” Akdeniz said. “It’s not about being rich, having the nicest car, or living in a mansion.
“My goals are simple: I want to be a good person, be humble, and support homeless people.
Hand-eye coordination. Fast-twitch digits. More natural dexterity than your average Joe’s Pizza chef. Those are all useful advantages in the world of pizza acrobatics, but it takes practice, and gumption, to do it on national TV and momentarily put a scare into a Hall of Famer.
Akdeniz’s adeptness behind the counter and in front of the camera have earned him and his shop worldwide attention. Today, Akdeniz has 3.5 million followers on Instagram, likely trisected between customers, tourists/Bridge & Tunnelers with Champion on a Google Maps wishlist, and faraway fans who have no intention of coming to NYC but still want to watch a madman toss a flaming slab of dough with bare hands:
“Oh, that trick,” Akdeniz told Slice over the phone, possibly while stretching and yawning. “That’s the ‘Flaming Dough of Death,’ that’s how I won the championship in 2010. I knew I had to do something crazy. One of the judges was screaming, ‘Oh my god! Oh my god!,’ over and over.”
Even though he made it look easy – and still pretends it’s child’s play – Akdeniz paid the price for glory.
“If you watch closely, you’ll see that my left arm was badly burnt, because I’m hairy,” he explained. “You know what? If you don’t take the risk, you won’t win. And, sometimes, you have to lose to win. I love taking new risks and trying new things. I constantly ask myself, ‘What can I do to be the best?’”
Hype aside, Champion does, in fact, make darn good pizza. But, Akdeniz’s food playing-habit-turned-hobby helped score the buzz that got him widely christened as one of New York’s best. When the New York-based chef salsas and strut kicks with dough, then behind-the-back rolls it across his wingspan – a la Jennifer Lopez, The Rockettes, or Kyrie Irving – he creates food theater that virtually packs the house.
For his growing online fanbase, noshing and watching clips like these is the modern equivalent of dinner and a show. Champion’s slices keep folks coming back, but Akdeniz’s viral videos are what bring many of those folks through the door in the first place.
Devotees are often drawn in by the shop’s cartoonishly large pizzas, like the Hamburger Pizza, a seven-layer belly bomb that weighs as much as a toddler. Or, the desk-dwarfing he delivered to GMA. Or, the 1.3-mile meal built on a NASCAR speedway, recognized by Guinness as the longest pizza ever assembled.
“We’re just getting started. Wait ‘til you see what we’re doing next,” Akdeniz said. “The pie from GMA? I will make a pie triple in size.”
A larger pizza seems about as necessary as a Super Mega Triple Gulp or a six million square foot add-on to NYU’s campus, but Akdeniz has no time for naysayers.
“I’m doing this for a purpose. I am going to make sure every homeless person in New York is treated like a king.”
Long before Akdeniz opened his New York pizzeria, he operated as a one-man band of a bodega in Turkey. Starting at sunrise, he shined shoes and peddled from a basket filled with cigarettes, candles, and matches.
Later, he tacked on a counterless deli counter. There were other open air sandwichmongers, but Akdeniz experimented with different spice blends to make his lunch offerings stand out from the rest. As his menu evolved, his customer base grew, and he carved out a small, but loyal following on the streets of Silvan.
There were no doors to close, but the business shuttered when civil unrest prompted Akdeniz’s parents to send their young son to Montreal, Canada to work in his brother’s pizzeria.
For the teenager, moving 5,000 miles away from his parents was excruciating, but Montreal did offer a partial family reunion, and people that could get his name right, even if it was misspelled with an “–ockey”. Also, like many Kurds in the 1990s, the Akdenizes saw relocation as the best way to keep their son alive.
After his 21st birthday, he moved to New York City with a one-way bus ticket, a half-baked concept for a shop of his own, and $240 in cash – perhaps enough to stay in a Manhattan hotel for one night. Maybe two.
He checked into the Bowery Mission – a Lower East Side homeless shelter that provides meals, clothing, showers, and medical care for those in need – where he stayed for three months and six days until he found steady pizzeria work.
Akdeniz worked long hours and squirreled away his money until 2006, when he says his one-time best friend fleeced him and wiped out his coffers. Back in unfortunate and familiar territory, Akdeniz stuck to the only battle plan he knew: Work. Save. Repeat.
In 2009, Akdeniz founded his first pizza shop, blocks away from the Bowery Mission. In 2010, he rolled out his second location. In 2016, he established five more stores, giving Champion Pizza seven stores in total.
Akdeniz sells his outsized pizzas for $1,000-$2,000, with a large cut going to PCNYInTheStreets, a non-profit organization that feeds, clothes, and cares for New York’s homeless.
On Wednesdays, his team brings stacks of pies to the southwest corner of Madison Square Garden and doles out slices to those who cannot afford lunch, let alone a novelty pizza that would require as much clearance space to enter MSG as the Ringling Bros.’ ensemble.
Champion’s paying customers frequently opt for cheat meals: pizzas with garlic knots for crusts, pounds of meat, and mac n’ cheese in lieu of just cheese. Akdeniz shares some of those slices with the homeless, but generally keeps their health and dietary restrictions in mind.
“A lot of the African-American people, they don’t eat pork, so I bring barbecue chicken pizzas. Lots of plain cheese pies, because everyone likes that,” Akdeniz said. “I try to bring them our Margherita pizza, too, but they don’t always like that. They say it’s too healthy. So, I compromise. Sometimes, I put meatballs on top.”
As they dish out Margherita slices that would never fly in Campania, Champion staffers and volunteers also dole out blankets, socks, and other essentials to survive the city’s wind tunnels and increasingly cruel nor’easters.
The elements aren’t the only threat to their survival. On Saturday, October 5, four homeless people were killed and a fifth was left in critical condition after a 24-year-old man attacked them with a metal rod. One of the victims was 83 years old.
It all took place in Chinatown on East Broadway, roughly 12 blocks from Akdeniz’s one-time residence at the Bowery Mission. Some of the victims were Bowery Mission regulars.
At a candlelight vigil, mourners gathered around flowers, mementos, and a sign that read,
Below that sign – a message for the deceased and a communiqué to the bereaved:
Hello, my name is Hakki Akdeniz.
As a human, I feel so heartbroken for what has happened. I have always tried to do my best to support and be there for you guys. Sadly, this time, I was not able to be there.
The news broke my heart the moment I found out. I couldn’t sleep. At the middle of the night, I felt helpless. I wish with all my heart that I could have been there at that very moment to protect all of you guys.
I feel pity that we as humans have gotten to a level that ignores the homeless. We have forgotten a lot about them. I promise you guys that I will do my best at supporting your families.
I commit myself to work as hard I can to build shelters, so no homeless person have to live in the streets. As a former homeless man, I know the struggle that all you guys went through every day. You know me as the pizza guy, because I tried to avoid you guys hunger every time I could.
I love you all from the bottom of my heart, you will always have a space in my heart. May you always rest in peace, my dear brothers.
Family members, if you need any help or support, please feel free to contact me at
PCNYinthestreets and Champion Pizza provide New York City’s homeless with food, clothing, and essentials every Wednesday at 10pm on 34th street between 7th and 8th Ave.