Who You Are Is Where You Came From
A Conversation With Sal Lupoli
His iconic pizza restaurants have dotted the Merrimack Valley landscape since the early 1990s, but Sal Lupoli, a Boston native who grew up in Chelmsford, is more than just the “pizza guy” most locals know him to be. While pizza may have been the springboard Lupoli used to launch his career as a restaurateur, real estate mogul and wholesale specialty foods impresario (Sal’s Pizza has its own Wikipedia page, after all), once you get to know him it becomes clear that Lupoli is much greater than the sum of his individual parts.
Today the president and CEO of Lupoli Companies, which oversees Lupoli’s business empire, including the massive and wildly successful Riverwalk Lawrence complex where the company’s offices are located, Lupoli began life in a modest two-bedroom apartment in East Boston as the fourth of what would eventually be six sons born to Italian-American parents. In the early 1970s, his family moved to Chelmsford. He graduated from Chelmsford High School in 1984, earning a football scholarship to Northeastern University in Boston, where, in 1989, he graduated with a degree in business management.
Lupoli, 50, opened the first Sal’s Pizza with his brother Nick in Salem, N.H., in 1990, eventually expanding the chain to more than 40 stores. His current business interests range far and wide, including the aforementioned Riverwalk Lawrence, a once-dilapidated mill complex on the Merrimack River that’s now home to more than 200 retail businesses, nonprofit and corporate offices, medical practices, high-end residences and restaurants.
Lupoli, who lives in Chelmsford with his wife and two children, is currently working to develop mixed-use real estate projects in Lowell and Andover. The company owns FlowFitness, a high-end workout gym in Lawrence, and a wholesale food operation connected to Sal’s Pizza that makes more than 12,000 pizzas a week for school districts throughout New England as well as thousands more served during events at TD Garden in Boston, Agganis Arena at Boston University, Xfinity Center in Mansfield and at UMass Lowell’s event venues and dining halls. The operation also distributes a line of oven-ready pizzas and pizza dough to hundreds of local grocery stores.
We recently spent some time talking with Lupoli about his career, passions and business philosophies.
Tell me a bit about the path you’ve taken to get where you are today.
I believe that who you are is where you came from. My grandfather came here from Italy with the idea of being an entrepreneur. He decided he wanted to import olive oil, repackage it and sell it retail. In order to do that, he needed to raise capital, so he opened a small pizzeria on Revere Beach in 1940. He only had that business for a year, but that’s where my journey begins.
My father was also an entrepreneur. He actually owned a restaurant. I always knew I wanted to go into business for myself, and he had the ability to talk about the food business with me and plant an idea about going into that business.
Who are some of the people who influenced you and made you the person you are today?
My mother raised six boys. She was always working. My dad was a sick man who had his first heart attack in his 30s and passed away at 61 years old. My father gave me my strength, but it was my mother who gave me passion, my ability to be relentless.
I think you can learn how to be good in business in a variety of ways, but who teaches you life lessons? Running a big company can be a challenge, but if you start with the right lessons, the right values, you’re going to go in the right direction.
Riverwalk Lawrence is your largest and most visible success. What made you undertake such a large project in a city few real estate developers want to touch?
Lawrence is the poorest city in Massachusetts. In less than 10 years we invested $250 million, created 5,000 jobs, had 200 companies move their locations here and became the city’s largest taxpayer. I’ve never seen a similar project in any of the other 49 states that was as successful in such a short time. We’ve made real changes in people’s lives.
Our organization has 1,000 employees. Those people send their kids to school; they put food on the table; they pay their mortgages. To me, that’s an honor. It’s the obligation I have to my employees and their families that gives me the energy to run to work.
What are some of your interests outside of business?
Besides my family, one of the biggest influences in my life were my athletic coaches. So when the opportunity came, I started coaching football at Chelmsford High School, where I’ve now been an [assistant] coach for 14 years. I was also involved in the local Pop Warner football organization for eight years. Coaches are able to help shape a child’s mind and teach them things that maybe aren’t registering at home. Sometimes when a coach says something, a child views it through a different lens.
I also sit on my local school board. I ran because I wanted to bring some of the expertise I have to help solve some of [the school’s system’s] problems. I’ve been the chairman of the Merrimack Valley Chamber of Commerce for eight years, sit on various boards and am one of the founders of the Lawrence Partnership.
I also spend as much time as I can with my family. I now get to coach my son in football, and I never miss my daughter’s soccer games at Bentley University [in Waltham].
What advice would you give to younger people who might want to follow a path similar to yours?
People often look at someone successful like Steve Jobs and say, “I could never be like him.” But you’re comparing where you are today to where Steve finished. I always try to compare apples to apples: Where am I today compared to an entrepreneur who’s 50 years old, or 30 or 20?
I believe every entrepreneur needs to find their own road. Don’t copy me; be better than me. The other thing is: listen. It’s a forgotten art. Surround yourself with people you believe in, and listen to some of the challenges they’ve had. Being an entrepreneur also means that every single day you need to be ready to change strategies. Instead of trying to force a square peg into a round hole, sometimes you need to go look for a round peg.