Restaurateur Al Mansur shares inspiration, strategy and problem # 1 | Jax Daily Record | Jacksonville Daily Record
For over 30 years, Al Mansur has opened and operated restaurants in Jacksonville.
It started in 1988 with the first Al’s Pizza at Beach Boulevard and San Pablo Road and now has five branches in Northeast Florida.
He opened the Flying Iguana Taqueria & Tequila Bar in Neptune Beach in 2013 and he built the classic contemporary food and cocktail restaurant Coop 303 in 2018 in a former Al’s Pizza restaurant in Atlantic Beach.
Beside that, he bought the Mezza Luna Ristorante in Neptune Beach and in August he opened Iguana on Park in Avondale, near the city center.
Mansur, 56, his parents and siblings moved to the United States in 1978 from Turkey. They quickly moved from New York to Jacksonville.
He lives in Atlantic Beach with his wife, Suela Lekaj-Mansur, a real estate agent for Watson Realty Corp. who was also Miss Shkodra in 1992, a town and cultural center in northern Albania.
They have three daughters and a son.
Their eldest daughter graduated from Pepperdine University in Malibu, California with an MBA. She plans to stay in Los Angeles to pursue a career in investment banking.
Their second daughter is in second year of medicine.
Their son is graduating from Jacksonville Episcopal School this year and their youngest daughter is in Discovery School.
Mansur would like to interest his son in eventually joining the real estate part of his business.
Mansur was interviewed for the October edition of First Coast Success on First Coast Connect with Melissa Ross on Jacksonville Daily Record and Jacksonville Record & Observer news partner WJCT 89.9.
What inspired you to launch Al’s Pizza 33 years ago?
I was 17 and moved to Jacksonville in 1983 while in high school and decided to open a restaurant. I have been in the restaurant business all my life; I have worked in pizzerias in New York and New Jersey.
When I opened my restaurant, I was 22, in 1988.
I started looking for a location for a small pizzeria and read that a new concept, a big box store, was coming to Jacksonville that was going to be bigger than Sears, which was called Walmart. There was a place that opened onto Beach Boulevard and San Pablo.
I decided to go and that’s it. We took a small space – my mom, my brothers, my sister – and we opened a small restaurant, the American Dream.
What brought you to town?
I came to town from the New York, New Jersey area. I had friends who moved here and I came here just to see them and I really fell in love with it.
Even at 17, I was like, “I could do something here in the future where I can own my own restaurant.” I really thought about it in high school.
I have always been in the restaurant industry with my family and wanted to do so.
Since then, you have embarked on other concepts and brands. How do you develop them?
Mainly trips. In addition, we had a second home in South Florida, in Miami. My wife, I and the children are traveling. We took inspiration from other cities, seeing other great restaurants, and wanted to bring dining concepts to Jacksonville and have a better local dining scene. This is how we started to do other concepts and the first one was Flying Iguana.
Talk about the Flying Iguana extension in Avondale.
We have just opened our doors next to our big neighbors, the Orsay restaurant, and we have taken the space that was previously the southern kitchen. I’m very good. It was well received, what a great neighborhood, and we were fortunate to have such an amazing staff at this location.
What is your strategy in this market? What do you find consumers like here?
The Jacksonville market is growing so fast and we look around, see what is missing in a certain area. We really like being in a neighborhood scene that people can get to, like downtown Atlantic-Neptune Beach. I felt the same about Avondale and that’s why we went to this place. There were a lot of Mexican concepts in the neighborhood, but there was nothing like us with a full service restaurant, so I was very happy to have this space.
What do you think is your biggest challenge in the market?
Number 1 is in the process of recruiting staff right now, especially this time and this age with COVID, not only in the restaurant business, but especially in the restaurant business. All of my coworkers who own local restaurants, we all talk all the time and topic # 1 is how to get more staff. Literally, we spend thousands of dollars a month just to advertise to attract more staff to restaurants.
Do you have any strategies you can share?
We use our social media as well as third party companies like Indeed, Craigslist, and we just give it a try. Getting the staff in and then keeping them was very difficult. I think we’ve lost some of our employees to other industries. Maybe we are competing with Amazon. We are competing with Lyft and Uber and losing people to different industries.
We are looking for new people who want to work in the restaurant and service industries. It will be the younger generation. Until recently we weren’t even hiring under 18, but now we’ve reached out to high school kids and we advertise some positions, hosts and things like that, for the younger generation and hopefully. ‘they will fall in love with the industry and stay there.
At the same time, business is doing well, so you need people.
Business is going well. It’s amazing that people are coming. Our slow months were still very busy months for us and talking to other restaurateurs is the same. People go out, spend money, and love to hang out with friends and family. It’s been a long time.
Have you tried any concepts that didn’t quite work?
I tried a concept. I wanted to bring more of a Neapolitan style pizza to Jacksonville, and I opened a concept called Craft Pizza Company. It was in a place where I closed an Al pizza and it was not very well received. People wanted Al’s Pizza because I had been there for 25 years in Atlantic Beach and I closed it and then I opened a different concept. I got a lot of requests to reopen Al’s pizza. So we changed the concept to Al’s Pizza there.
So you see what’s going on and you change.
Absoutely. We must also change quickly. You have to change over time. You try something, and if that doesn’t work, you have other ideas, put it into place. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t, but you’ll never regret what you try.
Do you spend a lot of time in your properties?
I do. I spend a lot of time there, especially at the beginning. I like to make sure my staff know I’m there for them and like I said employee retention has been the big part of this business. I believe that’s what makes you successful, having great food and having the right people serving it and having the right people in your kitchen.
Have you thought about the franchise?
I have in the past franchised the concept of pizza locally here, and it’s an idea that I still have in mind. If the right group of people approached me and wanted to grow Al’s Pizza, I would be open to that.
I have a lot of things to do. I am also in other companies. With my business partner for 20 years, we have developed commercial properties, which I really love to build and make unique properties. I hope to focus a bit more on this in the future.
What would you do differently?
If only I knew what I know right now, I think Al’s Pizza could have been franchised and I would have done other concepts earlier in my career, but overall I’m very happy with where I am. Jacksonville has been a great city. It has been so good for me. The local restaurants are supported by a lot of people and the population has increased.
Right now, I really enjoy owning the real estate where my restaurants are located. So to do more restaurants, I would love to own real estate. This is what I am looking at. But most of all, I want to focus on developing more properties and (be prepared when) something awesome comes up for a new concept or a duplication of one of my concepts that might be in that area.
What else would you like to share?
I love the idea of Jacksonville supporting all the local restaurants and my friends who have put so much work into their businesses and their savings so I really like telling people to keep going to local businesses.