Pizza my heart: Business Administration grad builds legacy out of ‘saucy little number’

Gennaro (Jerry) Cianflone is a big cheese in the restaurant business today, but the CEO of Pizza Hotline and his wife Theresa (nee Maione) weren’t exactly rolling in dough when they started out 30 years ago.

The couple met as students in RRC’s Business Administration program, and they were fresh out of college in 1986 when they bought their first eatery, a full-service restaurant called Colombo’s Pizza on St. Anne’s Road.

“Theresa’s family was in the restaurant business and her father said at one point in time … he was interested in selling the business,” Cianflone recalls. “So I said, ‘Well, if you’re interested in selling, I might be interested in buying,’ and Theresa and I ended up buying that business and that was where we started.”

“The first year, of course, was very tough — the first couple of years where Theresa and I were working seven days a week around the clock. It was hard, it was very hard in the beginning but we did it. We persevered and we stuck through it and just kept going.”

From one small slice of the market, the business has grown to include Café 22 and 25 Pizza Hotline locations in Winnipeg, Selkirk, Winkler, Steinbach, Portage la Prairie and Brandon, all easy to reach by calling one “saucy little number”: 222-2222. These days, the notion that you can punch any number seven times and get a pizza is a running gag, but in the early 1990s, it was a new concept in Manitoba.

“Honestly I think we might have been the first company to have a call centre in Winnipeg because that’s how we did that. We had a centralized number and all the telephone calls would come in to one location and at that time it was in the basement of one of our locations,” Cianflone says.

Adopting that unforgettable phone number is just one of many innovative ideas Cianflone, 52, has acted on over the years. The first was to streamline operations to make their original restaurant strictly takeout and delivery.

“At that time, it was the wise move to make. So we operated as a takeout-delivery until 1999 and then we opened up Café 22 on Corydon Avenue. Because of the location, it was conducive to a full-service establishment.”

Today, the recently expanded Café 22 is conducive to leisurely dining, with a lounge, a community table that can accommodate a party of 20, and a menu that includes a stone-fired pizza option. Patrons choose their own toppings and watch as the pizza is prepared and then popped into the ultra-fast oven. It’s cooked to perfection in 122-180 seconds, depending on the number of toppings they pile on.

Stone-fired ovens are also a feature at fast-casual Pizza Hotline Stone Fire’d Pizzeria restaurants in Winnipeg Square and a new location in Selkirk.

“The fast-casual concept is about speed and quality — better quality and very fast,” Cianflone says.

Fun and affordability are chief ingredients in the family business’s success, too. Cianflone enlisted his mom, Giovanna, and his late father, Antonio, to act as Mama and Papa Cianflone in commercials in which they urge him to stop selling pizzas at such ruinously low prices. The couple, who immigrated from Italy and married in Winnipeg in 1960, brought an authenticity that made the commercials a hit.

Cianflone says his own kids — he and Theresa have a 21-year-old daughter and three sons aged 13, 17 and 23 — don’t always appreciate the humor in his commercials, but they do love the pizza.

Over the years, options have changed and grown along with customer tastes, to include thin and gluten-free crusts, and a variety of fresh toppings.

“We try to listen to our customers and if there’s something that seems to resonate out there, we’re always about experimenting. I love just getting into the kitchen and throwing stuff on — I just keep trying to reinvent and change. It’s exciting, it’s fun — not to mention I love eating, so that makes it a lot easier,” Cianflone says.

The kids have also been involved in the business, doing everything from serving and tending bar to taking out the trash.

“I think it’s a good life experience for them,” he says, adding he’s not sure what the future holds for the next generation.

Cianflone’s own path almost took a completely different turn. When he graduated from St. Paul’s High School in 1983, he intended to pursue a career in law.

“I went over to university for I think it was six months — I did not enjoy it. That move helped me formalize that in my mind business was the right thing for me,” he says.

While economics was his favorite subject, he says RRC provided a well-rounded foundation in accounting and key business principles that have served his family well.

“It’s been good — a lot of hard work but we love what we’re doing.”

— Profile by Pat St. Germain (Creative Communications, 1989)