New York City History

A Slice of Heritage

Man holding pizza


In celebration of Immigrant Heritage Month, we want to highlight immigrants in our community to strengthen our connections and understanding between the stories of today and the personal family stories of the past that we tell at the Tenement Museum.

Hakki Akdeniz is a Turkish immigrant and owner of the award-winning Champion Pizza, our neighbor here on the Lower East Side. Before achieving success, however, Akdeniz experienced many of the hardships immigrants face, past and present, and now he is using his experience to champion (pun intended) the people in his neighborhood, particularly those experiencing homelessness.

Akdeniz was born in 1984 in a small village in southeast Turkey and immigrated to Canada as a teenager to work at his brother’s pizzeria in Montreal. There he learned how to make pizza and run a business, and eventually made the decision to move to New York to start his own restaurant. He arrived at the age of 21, speaking very little English, and with only $240 in his pocket. After an opportunity fell through and his money ran out, he ended up sleeping in Grand Central Terminal before moving into the Bowery Mission homeless shelter.

Bowery Mission front of building

Originally founded in 1879, the Bowery Mission has been in its current location at 227 Bowery since 1894. It is one of the oldest nonprofits in New York City, opening, in part, to help the influx of new immigrants to the Lower East Side in the 19th century who needed aid, especially in times of economic crisis. To this day, the Bowery Mission continues to support New Yorkers experiencing homelessness, providing hot meals, overnight shelter, and other needs and services.

Akdeniz stayed at the Bowery Mission for several months working in their kitchens. After finding a job in the early 2000s, he saved enough to buy a small pizza shop in the Lower East Side. He won several pizza-related competitions, establishing him as not only a delicious pizza maker, but as the successful businessman he dreamed of becoming back in Turkey. His experience at Bowery Mission inspired Akdeniz to give back to the community.

Champion Pizza Restaurant

Now the owner of several pizzerias in New York City, he continues to support New York’s unhoused community. He has raised thousands of dollars for different charities, but doesn’t shy away from doing the work himself. He is known to hand out free food to the homeless in Chinatown and the Lower East Side who come into his pizza shops, and at his own expense will help them get haircuts at local barber shops and showers at local gyms. He started a weekly food and clothing handout every Wednesday on the sidewalk on West 34th Street, and has now expanded to include other NYC aid foundations, including the Bowery Mission, as well as a number of celebrities and millions of Instagram followers.

Like many of our Tenement families, Hakki Akdeniz’s story is one of determination and spirit, but also one that speaks to the importance of community, and how success is not only measured by what you achieve, but what you give back – whether it’s to your family, your friends, or your neighborhood.

After your next Tenement Museum tour, we hope you stop by Champion Pizza at 115 Essex Street for a delicious slice of pizza!

Learn more about Hakki’s story and Champion Pizza’s work in the community — through special interviews with The New York Times and PIX 11 and Champion Pizza’s episode on Magnolia Network’s hit documentary anthology series Hi I’m!