Pizza is usually made with flour, water, active dry yeast, oil, tomato sauce and cheese, making a timeless and tasty dish. But when you walk into the Chocolate Pizza Company, don’t expect to find anything traditional. The pizzas here are pure indulgence—gourmet chocolate blended with English toffee, topped with an assortment of candies and nuts, and served in a pizza box. “It makes a unique gift,” says owner Ryan Novak ’11.
The business has been owned and operated by Novak since he was 21 years old and a full-time student majoring in entrepreneurship and emerging enterprises at Syracuse University’s Martin J. Whitman School of Management. “My supply chain classes helped tremendously. I received the skills I needed to become a business owner,” Novak says. “My degree from Syracuse has made my business life successful.”
Chocolate Pizza Company has been featured on Food Network, other television channels and in major magazines, and—as of 2021—is one of the dining options on campus at the Schine Student Center.
Seizing an Opportunity
Novak had dreamed of attending Syracuse University since he was a kid growing up in the nearby town of Marcellus, New York. From the academics to the athletics, the University had everything he wanted. Novak was a place kicker on the football team, which he says taught him a lot about hard work and dedication—two things he now brings to his business.
He knew he wanted to study entrepreneurship when he was applying to colleges and says that Syracuse’s program is unique. “At the Whitman School, I really got to focus on entrepreneurship and received a whole degree in it, rather than just taking some classes on it like I saw offered at other schools,” he says.
My supply chain classes helped tremendously. I received the skills I needed to become a business owner. My degree from Syracuse has made my business life successful.—Ryan Novak ’11
Novak started working at Chocolate Pizza Company as a dishwasher when he was 15 years old. His mother, who tragically passed away in a car accident when he was 9 years old, took him there when he was little, and he would grab as many samples as possible. “I guess you could say chocolate has been in my blood since then,” he says. He was working in the retail operation at the front counter and about to start his senior year of college when the owner approached him about buying the business.
“Even though the timing wasn’t right, I couldn’t let his opportunity pass,” Novak says. “I knew it was the perfect chance to take this business from where it was to where I wanted it to go.” He spent his senior year attending classes, working in the store, napping in the back room on a small couch, completing assignments, going back to campus for classes, and then back to the shop to finish work for the day. “That first year was brutal,” he says.
At Syracuse, Novak learned lessons he now utilizes every day by taking classes in subjects such as accounting, finance, marketing and supply chain, which he says gives students the base level of knowledge they need to run a business. “Operating a small business, I have to do a little bit of everything,” he says. “It’s great to have a foundation in these areas.”
Expanding the Business
The Syracuse University community doesn’t have to travel far to enjoy chocolate pizza. They’ve been the main chocolate supplier for the University for years. And for those wanting to travel a few miles to the shop in Marcellus, the trip will not disappoint. Besides the myriad choices of chocolate pizzas, there are tons of gift baskets to choose from, custom message products and other chocolate-coated goodies to try, including their best-selling Peanut Butter Wings®—potato chips coated with peanut butter and dipped in chocolate. This is a far cry from the original milk or dark chocolate pizzas offered when Novak first took over. They now ship thousands of pizzas a year, including their single largest order of 31,000 Chocolate Pizzas®, which filled nine tractor trailer trucks.
I think it's important to give back, because I can help current students the way other alumni and professors helped me pursue my passion. That continues to build the Syracuse University alumni network.—Ryan Novak ’11
Novak says he and his 12 employees now go through about 250,000 pounds of chocolate a year and ship thousands of packages a week with orders from all over the world, including online orders to every continent except for Antarctica. Eventually they moved out of their original location in the village of Marcellus and into a larger facility a few miles away just outside the village, growing the business 800% since the move.
When the COVID-19 pandemic first hit, the retail store closed for three months, but that didn’t stop Novak and his team from working. They focused their efforts on their online sales and driving their search engine optimization. Their efforts paid off. Since the start of the pandemic, their online sales are up about 350%, and they often ship more packages in a day than they did at the same time the year before.
And through it all, Novak’s love for the product never went away. “I eat chocolate every single day,” he says.
Sage Advice to Young Entrepreneurs
Now that he’s experienced his own success, Novak is giving back to the University and the Whitman School by being an active and enthusiastic alumnus. He says he loves coming back to campus to speak with students and be a case study for their business classes. “I think it's important to give back, because I can help current students the way other alumni and professors helped me pursue my passion. That continues to build the Syracuse University alumni network.”
He stresses to students that it will take a lot of time and effort to pursue their entrepreneurial dreams, but that it’ll be worth it in the end. “There are days during the holiday peak weeks where we’re working 14 to 18 hours per day, seven days a week, on just a few hours of sleep. It’s definitely a lot of work to run a small business, but I absolutely love it. There's nothing else I'd rather be doing.”
Coming from a military family, Novak also enjoys speaking with veterans about his experience at the Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans through the Institute for Veterans and Military Families. When he comes back to campus for this event or to speak with current entrepreneurship students, he offers this advice: “Just believe in yourself. There will be good days, and there will be bad days, but if you really believe in what you’re selling and what you’re doing, you can make it work. Anything’s possible.”