When best friends Alfred Ajamie and Walter Abood decided to go into the pizza business in 1963, they didn’t worry that they didn’t know the first thing about making pizza.
Immigrants from Lebanon who met in Akron, they had found the perfect space at 1860 Newton St., in a former corner drugstore located right next door to the Fiesta Room bar they operated in Goodyear Heights.
Abood knew a guy in Youngstown who agreed to teach them how to make pizza dough, and they had one more idea that they hoped would set them apart. They intended to sell fried chicken along with the pizza.
Now, 50 years later, their formula is still working. Fiesta Pizza & Chicken celebrates a landmark anniversary this year, with four locations in the area, including the original on Newton Street.
Little inside the shop has changed in the past 50 years. Ajamie’s sons, Rod, 66, and Terry, 64, now operate the business, and some of their children are involved, too.
Alfred Ajamie had worked at his father’s bar, Tom’s Tavern on South Street, while Abood owned Walt’s Inn on Market Street. They decided to go into business together and opened the Fiesta Room on Newton Street in 1960, decorating the inside with a Spanish decor. When the drugstore next door closed, they decided to take a chance on the pizza business and took over the storefront.
“They knew nothing about pizza and chicken. Nothing,” Rod Ajamie recalled. “But Walt had a friend or cousin in Youngstown and they went there to learn how to make dough.”
At the time, selling pizza and fried chicken from one location was a new concept, which helped to set Fiesta apart, they said. Another item they included on the menu was jojo potatoes, something now well known in the Akron area, but at the time unheard of. While they can’t say for certain, the brothers believe Fiesta was the first restaurant in Akron to serve jojos.
“Nobody had ever heard of it before. You take a potato, cut it in quarters, bread it and fry it,” Rod said.
Neither brother is sure where the idea for jojos came from.
Rod was 16 when the shop opened, and he was there on opening day. It was the same day he met his future wife. “She ordered a small mushroom pizza and she forgot her scarf here and had to come back,” Rod Ajamie recalled. He and Evelyn married five years later, and had been married more than 40 years when she died in 2009.
Like his brother, Terry also met his wife of 39 years, Linda, at the pizza shop. She came in with a friend who lived in the neighborhood. She stood in the doorway to the back room where Terry was slicing cheese. He looked up at her and in that instant knew that he would marry her.
At Fiesta, they still slice their cheese by hand, layering circles of provolone on their pies, not the shredded mozzarella that most shops use. They hand-slice all of their pepperoni, too, and while they don’t make their own sauce, they have been buying it from the same Pennsylvania company for their entire 50 years. They said they could cut corners by buying cheaper cheese or vacuum-sealed pouches of pre-sliced pepperoni, but the pizza wouldn’t be the same.
The Ajamies have changed little since opening day in 1963, including the décor, which is nearly untouched. At the Newton Street shop, they have the original oven, a 1955 model that rotates the pizzas on a Ferris wheel type of device. Not long ago, Terry had the entire oven rebuilt with modern parts so he could keep it and be able to get parts to repair it in the future. Aside from wanting to keep the oven, Terry said rebuilding it had another advantage — the work was performed in one night. Installing a new oven would have required them to close for a day and a half.
Abood died not long into the partnership with Al Ajamie, and Abood’s wife took over the Fiesta Room, while Al Ajamie kept the pizza business. Walt’s nephew, Nick Abood, was their dad’s partner for a while, but since he passed away in 1974, the shops have been run by the Ajamies.
Terry, who was 14 when the business opened, said he never intended to stay in the business, but he started working one day a week for his father, then two, and before he knew it, he was running the shop.
Terry stayed on at Newton Street, and Rod worked at other locations, including a shop in Ellet that he still operates. At its peak, there were eight Fiesta locations in the Akron area. Of the four remaining, the shops in Cuyahoga Falls and the Merriman Valley have since been sold as franchises.
Though their father died in 2003, the next generation of Ajamies already is working in the family pizza business. Rod’s son Steve manages the Ellet location, while Terry’s nephew Kevin Ziler and his daughter Melissa Ajamie keep the Newton Street shop running.
The secret to their business success, they said, is just being at their businesses, putting in the hours.
“You have to be here and you have to be on top of things,” Terry said.
Both try to remember their father’s advice to never get too excited when things go wrong and to not stress over things.
“Our dad was the calmest man in the world,” Rod said. “He never got excited over anything.”
And both agreed the advice is easier to follow now that they are getting older.
To celebrate their anniversary, the Ajamies are planning a series of specials throughout the year. They had a T-shirt giveaway in December to kick off their anniversary year. Now, on Wednesdays in February, customers who buy a large pizza can get a second large cheese pizza at the 1963 price of just $1.25.