From Africa to America: RIT Alumni Turn Entrepreneurial Spirit Into “Dough”

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Ah, pizza. So easy to make—punch dough into a circle, top it with tomato sauce, pepperoni, sausage, peppers, onions, black olives, mushrooms, cheese—and bake it in the oven until bubbly and crisp.

No, that’s assembly line pizza!

REAL pizza is a cuisine art form perfected by two recent Rochester Institute of Technology alumni from the College of Business. Abraham Fansey ’05, who majored in management information systems, and Samuel Agbor-Tabi ’05, who dual-majored in international business and management, decided they had more in common than their native homeland of Africa.

They knew they wanted to be entrepreneurs—own their own business and do it here on campus where there would be “lots of potential for growth.”

BrickHouse NY Pizza made its Rochester debut in RIT’s Shumway Commons in September—but not before they had “done their homework.”

“I worked for Jim Watters (RIT senior vice president finance and administration) for three years as his student assistant and while he gave me encouragement to open a business, he also stressed learning everything there was to know about the product to set it apart and make it special and unique,” Fansey says.

So Fansey first headed to the pizza mecca of the world—New York City. He visited Grimaldi’s in Brooklyn, Lombardi’s in SoHo’s Little Italy, and Patsy’s in East Harlem. He found one common-trait in NYC’s most-famous pizzerias—coal-fired ovens that reached 800-900 degrees.

“Cooking with coal blackens the crust in places and imparts a smoky flavor and distinct crispness,” Fansey explains.

But as his partner Agbor-Tabi adds, “It is nearly a lost art because coal ovens have been outlawed (except for parts of New York City and New Jersey) because of environmental concerns.”

Knowing RIT had an engineering school, Fansey contacted the senior design group to build a wood-stone, gas-fired oven prototype with 900 degree capacity. Then he worked in the kitchens of RIT’s School of Hospitality and Service Management to develop recipes for homemade pizza dough and sauce. Fansey also contacted Professor Philip Tyler in the College of Business to see if his students would help out with a marketing plan.

“Abe pulled together students from three different RIT colleges to assist him in the furtherance of his business concept,” commends Watters. “He used engineering students to create new intellectual property by designing a unique high temperature oven, business students who performed market research and food industry students who created new products.

“He is a wonderful example of RIT’s experiential approach to extending classroom education into meaningful life experiences,” Watters says. “He illustrates the potential of our entrepreneurial programs at RIT to create real businesses while fulfilling academic credentials.”

Meanwhile Agbor-Tabi filled in the marketing and design gaps for opening BrickHouse NY Pizza. “This is just the beginning for us,” he says. “Pizza is a simple product but when you get into high-tech, it’s different. Plus, we knew we would own the business, but RIT owns the location, so it’s very much like a franchise.”

Agbor-Tabi and Fansey believe their product, although a bit pricier, is exceptional in value. “Our pizza doesn’t look the same as what people are used to because we layer our secret sauce on top of the cheese so the crust never gets soggy,” they say. “Plus, we use pure olive oil, fresh basil and fresh mozzarella cheese instead of packaged shredded. It’s more expensive, but it’s worth it.”