Dough Boy’s: Resilience is Our Hallmark

A Conversation with George Kotarides, founder, CEO Dough Boy’s Pizza

by Beth Hester

The "secret sauce" behind Dough Boy’s Pizza's success after 35 years and counting in VB

CoVaBIZ: First, congratulations on your 35th anniversary. You opened your first location back in 1989, and now you have multiple locations. To what do you attribute your longevity? Is there a secret sauce that has made Dough Boy›s a regional mainstay over the decades?

George Kotarides: One of the Dough Boy’s restaurants recently sold after operating 25 years at that location. It was simply time to downsize, and the right person came along. I wish them the best in their venture. We now have two Dough Boy’s locations on Atlantic Avenue, which is a premier destination that represents the diversity of Virginia Beach’s culture, art and history.

To answer your longevity question, our secret sauce is simply to persevere through ups and downs and adapt with the times. Every winter we work hard exploring new menu ideas based on industry trends, customer requests and staff suggestions. Even in the best years, we look at how to improve our atmosphere, facilities, technology, operation and overall quality of food and service to capitalize on modern efficiencies and whatever the market offers at the time. A mistake small business owners sometimes make is not investing in their facilities, even if they are tenants and the investments are in someone else’s building. This is part of our secret sauce.

But really, our secret sauce is the sauce, and the dough, which are recipes that date back to the 1970s and my time as a cook at a place called Milton’s Pizza. It was then, in my teens, that I first learned to make pizza the old fashioned way.

Doughboys PIzza interior

Given your entrepreneurial spirit, you could have opened any kind of business in a thriving resort town. Why a restaurant? Why pizza?

I love the restaurant business now more than ever. Don’t get me wrong, there are days when I’m ready to throw in the towel or times like during COVID when it seemed the absolute worst business to be in, but we survived and we’re here and we’re stronger for it. I got in the restaurant business mainly because of my father, but also because it seemed the best way for me to be on my own and make some money. Even after graduating from the business school at the University of Richmond and watching my friends get hired by large companies, I never envisioned working for anyone. Also, I used to love going to Azalea Inn and Shakey’s Pizza on Little Creek Road when I was a kid growing up in Norfolk. Both places had great pizza, and those experiences have stuck with me.

The restaurant business isn’t easy. Over the past decades, the economy has experienced many ups and downs. What is it about Dough Boy’s business model that makes it so flexible and resilient?

Resilience is our hallmark and funny you should use that word. In fact, I just read a book titled Resilient by John Eldridge. To survive, and even thrive, during turbulent and sometimes chaotic times, there is deep well in all of us from which we can draw reserve strength. Mountain climbers and endurance athletes know about this.

In trying times we’ve had to dig deep, have a bit of courage, a dose of discipline and have faith that the bad times will end. I’m most thankful to our staff and management for digging deep during the tough times, and excited for many more years to serve the Virginia Beach community and guests of our fine city the best pizza in Virginia Beach. I would be remiss not to give a lot of credit for our longevity to the city of Virginia Beach and their commitment to small business and tourism. Without their support and help, I’m not sure we’d have made it so long.

From a business perspective, our model is quite adaptable and enables us to be nimble amidst market shifts. Case in point: we adapted to “fast casual” service and reduced our menu during COVID. We did this on the fly and it was sort of a “necessity is the mother of invention” scenario. It wasn’t easy or pretty at times, but we delivered an excellent product, kept loyal staff working and the doors open.

Could you share a story about one of the most challenging periods in your 35-year history, and how Dough Boy’s came out of the experience stronger?

It’s easy to say COVID was our most challenging time, but more daunting and scary was being under-capitalized with a pile of bills during the Savings and Loan Crisis of the late ‘80s and ‘90s when the Prime interest rate shot way up. We had only been open two years and our bank “called in” our loan even though we had made all of our interest payments and missed only one principle payment. I was 32 at the time and thought the only way out was bankruptcy, but by the grace of God we worked our way out of it, survived the next few years and got our legs back under us.

Since then, there have been ups and downs, but never anything that close to that difficulty or degree of fear of losing the business. There’s a lot more to say about this challenging time period, but a lot of small business—and big ones too—failed.

It’s so important for a business to become a part of the fabric of the surrounding community. Could you talk a bit about a few of the community service or charitable initiatives in which you’re involved currently?

Thirty-five years of longevity in the same marketplace serving the public sure helps any business establish itself in a community, and we are fortunate to be able to say that. As Virginia Beach Oceanfront community members, we partnered with and supported many nonprofit groups such as the Virginia Beach Jaycees, Museum of Contemporary Art, Atlantic Wildfowl Museum, Virginia Beach Surf and Rescue Museum, Samaritan House, Volunteers of America, Judeo-Christian Outreach Center and more.

I’m currently involved in the new foundation of the Virginia Beach Surf Museum, and it will feature local surfing memorabilia, board shaping display, and stories about local surf icons such as Bill Frierson, Bob Holland, Pete Smith, Wes Layne and Bob White. These gentlemen literally put surfing on the map in Virginia Beach and ingrained it in the fabric of our beach culture and art expression. They and many more deserve to be immortalized for their contributions, not just to local surf culture, but to our city.

There’s also the Atlantic Avenue Association (AAA), a nonprofit community association a group of resort area stakeholders started seven years ago that has truly brought the Oceanfront community together. We have a conduit to gather and help one another, and also present a unified voice when needed. Meetings are lively, filled with important information, and they’re well attended by our local and statewide political leaders, police, fire department, ABC officials, nonprofit stakeholders, business owners and city staff.

Presently, AAA’s two primary priorities are to advance money that is presently budgeted for needed Atlantic Avenue improvements and to lead an initiative that welcomes the Virginia Beach residents to the resort area with free three hour year-round resort area parking in city parking lots and garages. The Atlantic Avenue Association’s  motto is “Making Community Dreams and Vision Come True.”

Most well-established eateries have a distinct personality. How would you describe yours?

Dough Boy’s is much more than great pizza; when you walk in you know it, you feel it—the music is happy and there’s nostalgic surfing art. We call it “your slice of local.” Last count there were 18 pizza places along Atlantic Avenue and the adjacent side streets, and many more have come and gone over the years. That’s a lot of competition, so we’ve had to distinguish ourselves as more than a typical pizza joint. Some unique features are our bright exteriors, indoor-outdoor full bars and patios, spacious dining rooms, lively music, local surf motif decor and of course life-sized replicas of a vintage red and white Volkswagen Bus.

How would you describe the Dough Boy’s style of pizza?

Another way Dough Boy’s has distinguished itself is how we make our pizzas. It’s a painstaking process that starts in the morning with dough-making, then rising and portioning, all carefully controlled for temperature and time. The recipes for our sauce and dough have lasted for over 35 years and the fundamental recipes originated in the 1970s, but we made some tweaks and improvements along the way, including our spice wash that we brush every crust with. We even have a pizza-making school from which our pizza makers must graduate.

Just this past year, we introduced a new product to our menu, the WAVE. It is made with our pizza dough with half folded ingredients packed inside - it looks like a calzone wave crashing onto a Dough Boy’s pizza. There are various types: Tsunami WAVE, Tidal WAVE, Pipeline WAVE, Classic WAVE, and the latest invention, the OBX Carolina BBQ WAVE. Local surfing legend Pete Smith would say, Cowabunga!”

Knowing what you know now, what advice would you have given your younger self as you were just starting out on your entrepreneurial adventure?

I would tell my younger self just starting out that the restaurant business is like a marriage. It’s a commitment that takes work, money and most of your time. There will be ups and downs, good days and not so good days, but in the end it can be the most rewarding thing you ever do.

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