Getting a slice of the action

Pizza Bella owner Savi Arora serves a pizza in his George St store. Photos by Peter McIntosh.
Pizza Bella owner Savi Arora serves a pizza in his George St store. Photos by Peter McIntosh.

Pizza Bella is a recent addition to Dunedin's food scene. Business reporter Sally Rae talks to Savi Arora, the remarkable young man behind the new brand.

When Savi Arora arrived in Christchurch seven years ago to study business management, there was a lot at stake.

The teenager found himself in a city surrounded by strangers, speaking limited English, and homesick for his family who lived thousands of kilometres away in India.

Yet he knew he had to succeed, as his family's future literally depended on him.

Their home had been handed over to the bank to allow him to pursue his dream.

Mr Arora (24), who now lives in Dunedin where he works in the head office of Night'n Day Foodstore Ltd and runs a pizza business outside his work hours, was drawn to New Zealand as opportunities were much fewer in India.

His parents, Rajinder and Rekha, were supportive of their only son's decision - he has two sisters - but did not have the money to finance his trip.

Still, armed with a work ethic inherited from his hard-working father, Savi had a "gut feeling'' he could make it work.

So after Mr Arora's father pleaded unsuccessfully with various banks to give him a personal loan, he was forced to give the family home to the bank - and Savi got his plane ticket and took his very first flight.

He still remembers the day after his arrival in Christchurch; he woke about 5am and it was raining outside.

He knew no-one in the city.

With no accommodation arranged, he managed to find a room, where there was only enough space to fit a single bed.

There was not even enough space to change his clothes.

A self-confessed "Mum's boy'', he knew that if he phoned his mother and told her he was homesick, she would cry.

Instead, he realised he needed to quickly get a job which would work in with his year-long studies, so he went out door-knocking.

On the second day, he got a call back from a restaurant he had visited offering him a trial in the kitchen.

Despite his language difficulties, his attitude had impressed.

He was looking for other opportunities as well and gained work at a Night'n Day store, as well as in a bar.

At one stage, his work schedule meant he had to nap for several hours on a table in a Christchurch street before heading to his next job.

After a couple of months, Mr Arora was able to send money back to his family.

By the time he finished his studies, his boss at Night'n Day offered him a full-time job as a duty manager.

That job was affected by the Christchurch earthquakes but, when Night'n Day was being rolled out at Gull service stations in the North Island, he helped with the fit-out.

Two years ago, Mr Arora was offered a job at Night'n Day Foodstore Ltd's head office in Dunedin and he jumped at the opportunity.

The family-owned business was established in 1990 to begin converting existing foodstores and to offer a franchise system.

There were now outlets throughout New Zealand.

The Night'n Day team had become his "first family'' in New Zealand, inviting him to all their family occasions and introducing him to the New Zealand culture.

"I owe everything to Night'n Day,'' he said.

Mr Arora, now operations assistant manager, the first point of contact for 49 stores, has a full-time job, working from 8am until 5am, five days a week.

He bought a house, helped teach his workmates how to cook Indian food, turned down job offers from other companies, and relished living in a "beautiful place'' with "beautiful people''.

"Things went so well for me in Dunedin. Every night I felt so proud,'' he said.

But it was always in the back of his mind that he wanted to do something additional to his work at Night'n Day, without leaving his job.

From his father, and from Night'n Day, he had learnt to work hard and an eight-hour working day was not enough.

"I can use my brain somewhere else as well,'' he said.

Mr Arora spied a failed pizza business in George St as a potential business opportunity.

After finishing work, he would park outside the premises for "hours'' each night, noting what the market looked like, what people needed and what they were missing out on.

Still, it was a very risky move.

He had no money but he did have another gut feeling he was going to make it - and he was very fond of making food.

He had the support of his family and his employers.

So he decided to "go for it''.

He leased the building and bought the plant in May last year but he did not tell anyone about his plans.

Then one night he went home, opened a couple of beers in his lounge and phoned his mother to tell her he had bought a business.

"She said, ‘So you've done it.' [Then] she started crying. She said, ‘Good luck Savi, we are proud of you. We knew you were going to do it.''

He sourced some contractors to help refurbish the pizza shop premises and they were given a three-day deadline in which to do it, while the shop was closed.

Any longer and he would not have been able afford it.

They were also asked to send him photographic updates, between noon and 1pm, when he had his lunch break from Night'n Day.

He had his brand in mind and knew how far he wanted to take it.

That all came about from his experience with Night'n Day, a very brand-orientated company.

The deadline was met and Pizza Bella was born, offering pizza, waffles and shakes.

Now Mr Arora has bought another pizza shop, in Alexandra, rebranding it as Pizza BellaHe is planning to add kebabs to the menu.

All the work for that latest acquisition was done at what he called his "12 to 1 office'' - a bench behind the library in Dunedin.

His work at Night'n Day was his priority and he checked with his employers that it was all right for him to open another store.

If any change in him, or his quality of work was noticed, then he would not have made the move.

"I'd never do anything that would hurt them,'' he said.

Pizza Bella employed six staff in Alexandra and four in Dunedin and he was also hiring more.

"We are small but I'm working as a branded business. It's not like a local takeaway,'' he said.

Mr Arora worked long days; his alarm went off at 6.30am and, after his day at Night'n Day, it was time to turn his attention to Pizza Bella.

He normally went to bed about midnight or 1am.

Sometimes he worked late nights which meant, on a Friday, leaving Night'n Day and heading home at 5pm to change into his Pizza Bella uniform and then working through until about 4am the next day.

People regularly asked him why he continued to work at Night'n Day, when he owned two businesses and could have an easier life.

It was a question he hated.

It was not about the money - his foray into business was a hobby.

He never intended leaving Night'n Day, although he might look at hiring "a couple of helpers'' if he opened some more Pizza Bella stores.

There were plans for more, with possible franchising in the long term.

The George St store would always be the master shop and the same concept would be used in other areas, with improvements being made continuously.

But whether he opened 100 stores, all around New Zealand, he would always be proud to say it was a Dunedin-based business.

"That's my permanent place now forever. I can say now, that's my home town. I want to put a mark somewhere ... I want to see Pizza Bella shining in some more places and it can reflect Dunedin,'' he said.

Only quality products were used at Pizza Bella and customers appeared to be loving it.

"Our food is made with a passion. You can taste the time involved in it,'' he said.

Being on George St did not mean he was solely targeting students.

"Everyone likes pizza - that's why I chose a pizza business. I want to have relationships with all ages,'' he said.

Asked whether he managed to have a life outside his work, Mr Arora said he was not distracting himself at the moment.

There was always a target and he was confident he would reach it.

After that, he had the rest of his life to enjoy himself and celebrate.

He had made compromises; whether with his own meals or his social life.

"Sometimes people say, ‘You're too boring.' I actually sometimes enjoy that word; I take it like a compliment for me.

"I don't want to be a party animal at this stage. I'll be one, one day,'' he laughed.

His family has visited him in Dunedin, wanting to see his business and his home - "they love the people here, they love what I do'' - and he recently returned to India for a holiday, his first holiday in three years.

His cousin Varun, who was previously living in Auckland, moved south to help him out at Pizza Bella.

There was a taste of home on the menu, using the likes of his mother's pizza sauce recipe and his father's butter chicken recipe.

His mother also helped him devise a waffle recipe - not that she initially knew what waffles were - and they had now become "pretty famous'' in Dunedin.

While it was "not all about money'', he was proud he had reclaimed his family's house back from the bank and had also been able to get back his mother's family gold, which had been sold.

Mr Arora credits Dunedin with providing the best opportunities for him.

"It's not too rushed. It's not like Auckland, crowded and ‘I'm one of them'. I don't want to be one of them,'' he said.

Later this month, Mr Arora turns 25.

He might take a day off to celebrate his birthday with his friends, he laughed.

sally.rae@odt.co.nz

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