UPPER WEST SIDE, Manhattan (PIX11) — Among the millions of stories in New York, there is a remarkable and inspiring one about 42-year-old Hakki Akdeniz.
Determined never to give up his dream of making it in America, he turned homelessness into hope and success as the owner of half a dozen pizzerias in New York City. But, all the while, he has never forgotten his past as one of New York’s homeless.
In an interview with PIX11 News, Akdeniz said he came to live the American Dream and to work hard. The Turkish immigrant arrived here during the cold winter of 2001 with $250 in his pocket and nothing else.
“It was very hard for me,” Akdeniz recalled. “I didn’t speak the language. I didn’t know anyone. I slept on the bench in the park.”
Eventually, he found refuge in the Bowery Mission and a job as a dishwasher at a pizzeria, where he learned how to make pies and developed his dream to someday open his own pizzeria.
“Giving up should never be an option to anyone,” Akdeniz declared. “Once you give up, everything is impossible. I don’t do that. Anything, everything is possible.”
Working hard over several years, Akdeniz and a friend managed to save $70,000 to partner in a pizza shop on Manhattan’s Upper West Side — until two days before they were going to sign a contract.
“He was my best friend and he took everything we saved. It was so hard. I cried for hours,” Akdeniz said.
But the tears made him more determined.
“You have to lose to win. You have to fall to get up and that was me,” Akdeniz said.
He pulled himself up from despair and, over some time, saved enough money to place a down payment on his first pizza shop, Hakki’s Pizza, in Lower Manhattan. But times were tough in New York City and the place didn’t make enough money for him to pay rent for his store and his apartment.
“So you know what I did? I gave up my apartment and slept under my oven in the store to keep warm. It was cold,” Akdeniz said.
Within a year, his luck began to turn. He won an international pizza championship for his remarkable spinning of pizza dough. The award gained him widespread publicity and notice in the community.
Fast forward 12 years, the pizza-spinning champ now has eight Champion Pizza stores in New York City and Long Island. Pictures of celebrities and customers adorn the walls, along with an array of honors and awards he’s received. Success, however, hasn’t gone to the pizza mogul’s head.
“Success means to be a good person. It costs you zero to be kind to others,” Akdeniz said.
Akdeniz’s success and his past have driven him to give back. For the past eight years, he has shown up on West 34th Street to offer food to the homeless. They line up in all weather conditions, young and old, women with children, eager to receive handouts of pizza, hot food, clothing and medication.
“When I was homeless, someone helped me to be who I am today, and it’s my time to give it back. You should never forget where you came from,” Akdeniz said.
Akdeniz added, “You never know what these people went through. When you listen to them, especially if you were one of them, you feel their pain.”
Often Mayor Eric Adams shows up to help dish out food and to show his support for the man who has earned the monicker, “New York’s Pizza King.”
Adams told PIX11, “he’s an amazing person. He gives back with not a lot of fanfare, just quietly doing the right thing.”
Akdeniz takes his charity to shelters throughout New York City and dedicates his efforts to the homeless. And he turns to social media to promote his philanthropic endeavors. He has over 250,000 followers on Instagram and more than 380,000 on Facebook.
He never forgets the days he lived on the streets and he’ll never stop helping those still there.
“It’s so easy to help other people,” he said. “You only need to have a good heart.”
Akdeniz’s journey from homeless to pizza mogul is inspiring and most impressive. He believes a “little bit of kindness goes a long way.” And he continues to dream, this time to someday build a homeless shelter in Lower Manhattan.
You can learn more about Akdeniz’s pizzeria here.