Alessandro D'Ubaldo has always dreamt big. Landing in Dubai in 1999 as an Emirates cabin crew member, he quickly saw the opportunity to offer short-term property rentals when nobody else was.
By 2002 he had set up a small agency. The timing was perfect; Dubai was going through a real estate boom and the business took off like a rocket.
Riding the wave
“We were doing so well that we both eventually left Emirates - my wife was flying with me. However, we knew it wasn’t going to last too long.”
Sure enough, by 2008 the real estate market crashed and the agency was shut down. But by then, the pizzeria was already open.
“Luckily, we saw that coming because things were too good to be true. The best move was to rectify the investment. And that’s what we did; we opened a small pizzeria in Al Barsha.”
Already familiar with the market and product, D'Ubaldo financed the business from personal savings using profits from the real estate business. “I have an agreement with my partner to only expand using existing funds from the business.”
Expenses were also kept under control, for example by getting the smallest space for the first branch – a 40sqm shop that cost about half a million dirhams.
“When you’re small-sized you can control everything by getting involved, whether it’s the use of air-conditioning and electricity, or dealing with suppliers and negotiating every bit. The moment you pull out, make sure you delegate to the right people.”
With a shared passion for cooking, D'Ubaldo and his wife put their heart and soul into the new restaurant. Soon they were dealing with all sorts of challenges, from understanding the legalities of getting a licence and sponsor to sourcing raw material.
“I flew in a wood-fired stone oven from Italy. In those days, Dubai only had palm wood which was not suitable, so we had to import wood containers. Nowadays, there’s a lot of wood coming from East Europe and Africa,” D'Ubaldo said.
The one-time investment was worth every penny. While an electric oven would fall apart after a year and a half, stone ovens were made to last a lifetime.
There was a lot to learn and the owner drew on skills he gained from summer jobs. Like many Italian students, he had worked part-time at pizzerias and cooking was part of his family heritage.
Yet he was only familiar with back-of-the-house operations, not front-of-the-house tasks such as wood-fired baking.
“This is something you need to develop a lot of experience in. It’s completely manual and very different from gas or electric baking. You must deal with charcoal and understand stone temperature by looking at it.”
Lacking this knowledge, D'Ubaldo brought in an expert from Italy to stay for three months and train him. But it only took him two weeks to pick up the skills.
“I was doing the baking, cashiering, human resource management, accounting and sometimes even deliveries myself with a motorbike. I was there 12 hours a day initially, which was tremendously exhausting.”
“If you’re involved directly, it’s going to be twice as hard but it will pay twice as much later. When you get that kind of adrenaline you don’t get tired.”
A year later, he was finally able to pull out. And while he had no immediate plans to expand, business picked up fast and orders were coming in from all over Dubai as it was the only wood-fired pizzeria in the emirate.
Demand was especially high in Dubai Marina, but delivering from Al Barsha meant the quality could get compromised.
“Wood-fired pizza is best when you have it straight out of the oven. To cater to those customers faster and maintain quality, we decided to open a branch in Marina. We were among the first to open on Marina Walk.”
In 2010, 800 Pizza joined hands with Emirati company Belhasa Hospitality and three years later, they started franchising.
Today, the pizza chain operates 12 branches in the UAE, including three franchises in Abu Dhabi and one in Ajman. The newest franchise will open in Sharjah soon and five are in the pipeline for Qatar.
The number of employees has multiplied too, growing from about 20 in 2007 to 155 in 2017.
In a market which has become notably crowded and with pizza rivals sprouting across town, D'Ubaldo is on full alert.
“I’m always aware of my surroundings and competition and what could happen. Fear actually motivates me. You have to be scared, because it’s a jungle out there and the market has no mercy.”
“It doesn’t matter if your product is special or if you have a great plan. People come up with great ideas but they’re not able to execute, commit or struggle.”
Several investors have entered the market in recent years to offer products such as gluten-free pizzas or organic ingredients while others are only online. But these approaches have a short lifecycle, according to D'Ubaldo.
“We’re very much old school and that’s what makes us stand apart. We have a menu that mostly hasn’t changed for 10 years. We don’t follow trends.”
“I tend to stick to my traditional product. You can look at it as a strength or a weakness. The fact is, we’re the longest-running pizzeria in the UAE. We’ve seen many pizzerias open and close, but we’re still standing.”
At 41 years old, the father of three admits he probably wouldn’t repeat this journey today. “At a certain point, you won’t be ready to get down and dirty as when you were at 20 or 30. If you’re not willing to do that when you’re young, it’s better you don’t do it at all.”